when i was teaching environmental studies to high school kids in the early 90s, there were only four states where one could reliably find wolves -- southeastern arizona, north carolina, upstate michigan, and alaska. of those, sightings in arizona were few -- fleeting glimpses of mexican wolves straying from the northern edge of their range. sightings in north carolina were also few -- resident red wolves were elusive and few in number. sightings in michigan were a bit easier, since gray wolves had been reintroduced to the northern woods, with the cooperation of local farmers and environmental groups. sightings in alaska were most numerous of all, because gray wolves there hadn't been systematically hunted to extinction as they had been in the lower forty-eight. (don't tell sarah palin that, she might get ideas.)
since then, gray wolves have been re-introduced to portions of their former range in the western states, arousing heated, sometimes violent controversy. horror stories were spread about the prospect of voracious attacks on livestock and humans. these myths have not materialized, and gray wolves in a few of these states are on the verge of being de-listed as endangered species. dozens of family packs now roam the back country of wyoming's yellowstone park, and the mountains of montana and idaho. there is occasional predation of livestock, but surprisingly little, considering the potential.
the value of predators like wolves, mountain lions, grizzley bears, coyotes, bobcats, and others is this: imagine the continent as it was before the arrival of european settlers, say, five hundred years ago. every habitat was teeming with biodiversity, and a dynamic balance existed between predator and prey species. predators tended to cull out the injured, the sick, the old and infirm ( because these are the easiest to catch, which conserves the hunter's energy reserves), thus improving the overall health of the prey herd. and the populations of predators were inherently limited by the number of prey. a neat system.
along came euro-man, replete with his mythology of conquering the wilderness. predators were seen as morally evil, as competitors for venison, and as targets for "sport" hunting. so we declared war on predators (and quite a few other plant and animal species as well) without a second thought. the wolves never had a chance.
it wasn't until the latter half of the twentieth century that environmentalists, naturalists and even some hunters and ranchers began to realize the harm we've inflicted on the natural world, and began to seek ways to return things to a more natural balance. but by then, our own human population had spread like cancer across the continent (not to mention the globe), and untouched natural habitats were shrunk and scattered. the loss of habitat is every bit as troublesome as is the loss of the species. efforts to reintroduce and protect eradicated predators, a necessary part of the food web, have collided with the spread of human cities, with ranching/farming, and with outdoor recreation. alas, animal predators and humans (the ultimate predator) don't mix well.
there are a number of possible stop-gap solutions. mine is elemental. i view the problem not as having too many predators, but having too many people. the planet could, in my opinion, sustain roughly one-tenth of its current six billion human inhabitants, leaving large and viable tracts of landscape to revert to its wild state, where the resident critters would be free to do their thing. think of it. six hundred million people is still a lot, but represents only twice the population of the u.s. that many people, scattered across the globe, would give us a chance to realize our true place in the scheme of things -- ethically and pragmatically, we are a part of nature, not nature's conqueror.
so how to reduce the number of people? clearly, intentionally killing each other off is out, even though we've shown we have quite a talent for it. depletion by attrition is a partial solution, and unavoidable -- the loss of human lives to war, plague and famine is a constant. ultimately, however, we need to make a conscious, dedicated decision to have fewer children. whatever else one may say in criticizing the chinese government, its policy allowing a couple to have no more than two children makes ecological sense, but it doesn't go far enough.
i propose that, not from any governmental edict but rather from our own sense of responsiblity for life on this planet, both now and in the future, no couple should have more than one child. i myself made that decision over three decades ago. it was hard, because both my parents came from large families, and i grew up happily with many uncles and aunts and cousins. but change begins with the individual, and i knew i had to set aside that large family tradition and choose a different path.
even this approach has its limitations, because we've already passed the threshold of runaway consequences arising from our own excesses -- global warming, species and habitat extinctions, deforestation, and a score of other issues all are the product of our fecundity. none of them will be reversed or healed overnight, not even over a period of years, decades. but we have to take the first steps now. with that in mind, i propose that we stop having children entirely, for a period of ten to twenty years. yes, it is a radical step, and yes, our genetically hardwired imperative to procreate is a tough one to overcome. but it can be done. i'm living proof. and the alternative is a world of unimaginable peril, with no good choices.
which brings us back to wolves. a quarter century ago, i thought of a way (laced with black humor, but not entirely preposterous) to nibble back the sheer numbers of people. the notion is simplicity itself. why not reintroduce packs of wolves to locations of greatest effect -- large urban green areas like central park in new york city, for instance. they could serve the same surgical purpose among humans that they do in the wild -- culling thieves and muggers and other miscreants, as well as anyone stupid enough to be out in the park after dark. just a thought.
and after all, the wolves would be doing nothing that we haven't been doing to them for centuries.