Wolves, or as we like to call them our best friends’ cousins, are absolutely amazing animals. And not just because they share ancestors with our favorite furry companions. They’re pack animals who show love and compassion toward one another, and who will travel Disney-movie-level distances to make their way home again. They are creatures that we humans have always had a fascination with. Their native habitats range from Eurasia to northern Africa to North America, and they’ve worked their way into the mythology and folklore of cultures the world over. In Euro-American literature and culture they became shorthand for our own primal nature. While in many Native cultures they’re considered medicine beings associated with courage, strength, loyalty, and success at hunting.
So why then do we always seem to want to kill them?
We love wolves and find them fascinating, yet we continually threaten their very existence. We love and cherish dogs but we’ve hunted their relatives nearly to extinction. Though, let’s be clear, it’s the Euro-American culture and attitude that has nearly wiped them out. We are the culture that fears them while venerating them. It doesn’t make sense except to say that the wolf has become metaphorical. A symbol of our desire to gain mastery over nature and over ourselves. Perhaps they symbolize the part of ourselves that is wild and uncontrollable; still connected to nature rather than dominant over it. Maybe we don’t like that, and maybe by killing them we’re trying to sever the very things that tie us to, and make us feel responsible towards, our own natural world. It’s an interesting theory and the whys could be debated all day, but that question is less pressing than asking “what now?” To move forward we must first look backward – to understand the history of our attempts to protect wolves and how, along the way, they keep showing us why it’s worth the effort. Then maybe, together, we can figure out how to finally, fully protect these majestic creatures.
There are two breeds of wolf native to North America – the Gray Wolf (what we have here in Michigan) and the Red Wolf. Slightly smaller than its gray cousin, the red wolf was once common in the southeastern US. Yet they were added to the endangered list in 1973 and declared extinct in the wild in 1980, meaning the only red wolves left are ones that were captured and placed in captivity for their own protection. There were 17 wolves captured by biologists. That’s it. Seventeen. Of a species that used to roam the southeast all the way to Texas. Luckily, fourteen of those captured were successfully bred in captivity to begin to bring the species back from oblivion. And come back they did! Briefly. Their population peaked at 130 in 2006. But mismanagement by the Wildlife Service and illegal killing drove the population down again. Now biologists are pretty much back to square one: breeding in captivity and slowly releasing into protected areas, with no wild litters born in the past two years.
Gray wolves on the other hand once traversed a much more vast territory. According to nywolf.org they “were once among the most widely distributed wild mammals” inhabiting most of the available land in the northern hemisphere. But then the Europeans-cum-North Americans entered the picture and “due to the destruction of their habitat and persecution by humans, they now occupy only about…10 percent of their historic range in the continental 48 United States.”
Specifically in Michigan, according to the most recent numbers available, there are 695 wolves, with a handful more on Isle Royale National Park. In Minnesota there are over 2,600 gray wolves, but no other state has a population over 1,000. And the Mexican gray wolf, or lobo, is in even worse shape. Not quite as bad as the red wolf, but it too was hunted to wild extinction requiring captive breeding efforts to survive. In its range of the southwestern US there are only 163 according to a 2019 population survey.
If you’d like to get a sense of their majesty, their personalities and their sense of community, you can watch the web cams of the Wolf Conservation Center. We especially like to watch the videos of them howling, like the one below. The Center routinely posts these videos on their YouTube channel and on Facebook. They do it, in part, to educate, so we’re not just hearing the beauty of their songs but learning that they do this for a variety of reasons, like creating social bonds or even just to make music together much like our own ancestors gathered around a fire.
Beyond their majesty, they also help our environment in truly astounding ways.
Take for example their re-introduction to Yellowstone. In 1995, after a near 70-year absence, wolves were brought back into the park. The hope, aside from bringing their own population back from the brink, was that they would help cull the runaway deer population. Instead the most incredible thing happened. First, overcrowded deer populations did go down. But then unexpected animal populations began to thrive, like rabbits and beavers, some trees saw massive growth spurts, and most notably, the literal shape of Yellowstone’s rivers changed. Fewer animals eating vegetation allowed plants and trees to return to valley floors which kept riverbanks from collapsing.
That’s just an example of the amazing things that can happen when our ecosystems are in balance. And wolves, it turns out, are a vital part of our ecosystem.
Wolves were reintroduced to Isle Royale, in Lake Superior, to help with the moose overpopulation. In the fall of 2018 three female wolves were brought from northern Minnesota to the island between the Upper Peninsula and Canada. That winter a polar vortex froze large parts of the lake, creating an ice bridge. One of those wolves decided to use that bridge to head home. She traversed 22 miles on ice, always turning to remain headed toward land and away from weak areas of ice. She started going due north, then – according to tracks found in the snow as well as GPS data from her tracker – abruptly made a western turn and as she approached shore she turned again, this time slightly south putting her amazingly right at the Minnesota-Canada border.
Wolves were recently brought back from the brink in the Upper Peninsula. And not for the first time. Wolves throughout the upper Midwest were hunted to near extinction in the early part of the last century. In the UP, specifically, the population had dwindled to just three wolves in 1989. Thanks to Endangered Species protections they were able to bounce back, to the point that, in the winter of 2017–18, it was reported the state had 695 wolves spread across 143 packs.
Calls for a wolf hunt ring out every time their populations rebound. Hunters claim it’s a cull to keep nature in balance, just like we do with deer, elk, moose and fish. Because, they say, wolves are decimating the deer population. Yet it seems deer are threatened, mainly, by two predators: wolves and humans. One hunts them for survival, the other, often, for sport. But is the concern really over the health of the deer population?
I think the bigger question to ask is why is it that the very moment wolves are removed from the protected list the calls for a hunt resume?
Since wolves were first added to the endangered list they have been removed and re-added three times. And it’s not because they can’t survive in nature. The reason they can’t truly thrive – why they’re always just beyond the brink – is because of us. Because of trophy hunters. People don’t kill wolves to feed their families (as they might with deer). They kill them for sport. And this problem cycle repeats nationwide, seemingly anywhere wolves exist. For example, check out this timeline detailing the fight for the Northern Rockies gray wolves, and notice the similarities to wolf populations and hunting desires in our own state of Michigan.
Clearly, the problem isn’t that wolves are simply voracious or that farmers are looking out for their livelihoods. Take, for example, an ongoing case in Washington state where conservation groups are challenging the ruling that the Department of Fish and Wildlife can continue killing wolves for hunting livestock. Yet the livestock are grazing on public land where the wolves live. In addition to the flawed logic of that kind of ruling there’s also the contention that it doesn’t work, as livestock grazing on public land continue to be hunted and so wolves continue to be killed.
So what can we do to make a difference and stand up for wolves? It’s a long row to hoe, but it starts with education. Beginning with folks like you and I – people passionate about protecting these creatures. We need to learn about them, so we can educate others. We also need to get the wolves out there in front of people, so to speak, by sharing bios, pictures and videos. “Meeting” these animals and seeing how like our best friends they are makes them harder to harm. And lastly, getting involved with great conservation organizations and working with them to lobby for protections at both the state and federal level.
Luckily there are some great organizations hard at work here in Michigan doing all they can to keep our wolves protected. To keep them from being pushed back to the brink (again) and to help them thrive safely, adjacent to human populations. Check out these groups and see how you can help. After all, we’d drop anything to help our dogs. Wolves are just their wild cousins, equally worthy of our respect, admiration and protection.