09 December 2012


From the NYTimes article ~ "Yellowstone National Park's best-known wolf, beloved by many tourists and valued by scientists who tracked its movements was shot and killed on Thursday outside the park's boundaries, Wyoming wildlife officials reported.

"The wolf, known as 832F to researchers, was the alpha female of the park's highly visible Lamar Canyon pack and had become so well known that some wildlife watchers referred to her as a 'rock star'.  The animal had been a tourist favorite for most of the past six years.

"This year's hunting season in the northern Rockies has been especially controversial because of the high numbers of popular wolves, and wolves fitted with research collars that have been killed just outside Yellowstone in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.  Wolf hunts, sanctioned by recent federal and state rules applying to the northern Rockies, have been fiercely debated in the region.  The wolf population has rebounded since they were reintroduced in the mid-1990s to counter their extirpation [during the early 20th century].

"Many ranchers and hunters say the wolf hunts are a reasonable way to reduce attacks on lifestock and protect big game populations.

"This fall, the first wolf hunts in decades were authorized in Wyoming.  The wolf killed last week was the eighth collared by researchers that was shot this year after leaving the park's boundary.  The deaths have dismayed scientists who track wolves to study their habits, population spread, and threats to their survival. Still, some found 832F's death to be particularly disheartening.

"She is the most famous wolf in the world", said Jimmy Jones, a wildlife photographer who lives in Los Angeles and whose portrait of 832F appears in the current issue of the magazine American Scientist (see image above, click to enlarge).

Wildlife advocates say that the wolf populations are not large enough to withstand state-sanctioned harvests and that the animals attract tourist money.  Yellowstone's scenic Lamar Valley has been one of the most reliable places to view wolves in the northern Rockies, and it attracts scores of visitors every year."

I've been listening to the debate and studying the issue of wolf reintroduction for over 20 years.  In fact, while a teacher in suburban Philadelphia in the early 1990s, I specifically talked about the Lamar Valley wolves, and the ecological niche which top predators occupy in any habitat.  The protests by ranchers (many of whom run cattle on land leased for pennies on the dollar from the federal government ~ our land, taxpayers' land) and by hunters (whose over-hunting of wolves in the first place led to overpopulation of prey species, especially elk, which led to overgrazing of riparian habitat, loss of young trees, and soil erosion) ~ those protests don't hold much water, in my view.

To ranchers ~ there are a range of ways for coexisting with wolves, as documented in the PBS special Wolves in Paradise.

To hunters ~ if you really want to prove your prowess in field craft and knowledge of your intended prey, leave your rifle and scope at home, and hunt with a camera.  The photographic trophies will be truly earned, and you will have disengaged yourself from the destructive cycle caused by over-hunting.  As George Wuerthner points out in Are Hunters Stupid?  The Unintended Consequences of Wolf Hunting, "We do know that wolves select different animals in the herd from hunters.  Wolves, while opportunistic, still tend to kill the young, old, and injured.  They can keep herds free from disease and can sometimes have significant influence upon other animals and plants.  For example, [wolves] alter habitat use by ungulates by moving elk out of riparian areas.  Even when wolves severely reduce prey numbers, they are performing an important ecological function by providing plant communities respite from heavy browsing pressure.

"Hunters, by contrast, tend to kill the productive age healthy animals [among elk], and have less ecological influence upon prey species and habitat use than natural predators."

In the absence of natural predators like wolves, prey species like elk and deer overpopulate, placing stress on the entire ecosystem.  In the Yellowstone region, elk numbers soared over the years, to the point where, in a surreal twist of events, in wintertime when elk migrated to lower elevations and overate their food resources, wildlife managers actually hauled loads of hay on horse-drawn sleighs to feed the elk .... all so there would be more targets for hunters the following year.  With wolves in the picture, elk numbers began to fall toward their historic levels. But hunters became alarmed at the prospect, and raised their voices for a wolf hunt.

Trouble is, neither ranchers nor hunters are content with a selective hunt ~ in their eyes, the more wolves killed, the better.  They conveniently forget that (a) wolves were here first, and (b) the shifting balance of nature was getting along just fine, thank you very much, before the arrival of European settlers who saw fit to "manage" wilderness and wildlife.  Whenever I see the words "manage" or "develop", I substitute "rape" and "pillage".

It is clear that the state-sanctioned wolf hunts in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming are thinly-veiled permission to once again drive wolves as close to extinction (again) as possible.  The West is a hunting culture, and old habits die hard.  Perhaps, with a return of federal endangered species protection and a healthy dialog, there is hope.

A few hunters have seen the light.  I've read reports ~ a hunter who had a wolf in his sights, but could not bring himself to kill such a beautiful animal.  A hunter who heard the unearthly chorus of wolves howling, and felt he was witness to something sacred.

For now, alpha female 832F, I weep for you.

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