I was troubled by Matthew Brown’s characterization of wolves in a recent Missoulian article (“Gray wolves killed 1 stock animal per day in 2009, depleting compensation program,” Jan. 15). Stating that “wolves attract particular disdain because of their viciousness,” the article cites the fact that wolves don’t always eat every animal they kill as evidence of this vicious nature.
To start with, viciousness is an exclusively human quality and term, and certainly not appropriate in this context. Wolves are predators. They kill to eat – and as stated by Dr. Nathan Varley, a wildlife biologist, in order to survive, “They best be darn good at it.”
The truth is that animals brought down by wolves are generally well-consumed; however, wolves, like many other predators, sometimes kill more than they can eat in one sitting, if it is easy to do so. This adaptive behavior, called “surplus killing,” accomplishes two things: it hones predator skills and it leaves food for the wolf to return to, sometimes repeatedly, thereby providing a buffer against starvation and death.
Biologists like Varley, who studies wolves in the Yellowstone ecosystem, have seen wolves return to an elk carcass three weeks after the kill. But wolves have honed another instinct in order to survive in the wild: fear of humans. Wolves may kill surplus animals, intending to return to feed again, but when livestock are involved (or elk, especially during hunting season) we humans often enter the picture, and without even realizing wolves are present, scare them away. When a wolf doesn’t return to consume surplus kills, people are quick to declare that the wolf killed for fun or sport. If allowed to do so in peace (i.e., no humans in the vicinity), predators would surely come back and eat livestock kills.
Anyone who has observed a wolf take down an elk or a bison knows that the task is both energy-depleting and dangerous – anything but “fun.” The majority of hunts are unsuccessful, and more often than not, the wolves, too, take a beating, frequently ending up kicked in the head, or with broken ribs or legs. There have been instances in Yellowstone in which wolves have been killed trying to take down prey. “Having fun” has nothing to do with it. Again, wolves kill to survive, and unfortunately for everyone, their survival instincts don’t differentiate between livestock and wildlife.
Why are these misperceptions important? Because public support is critical to the survival of the gray wolf, and as scientists have documented, the gray wolf is critical to a healthy ecosystem. Some of us cherish the wolf for its beauty and wildness, for what it symbolizes in today’s world. All of us should appreciate its contribution to a healthy ecosystem. Misconceptions and misinformation surrounding wolves have long distorted people’s perceptions and demonized this animal, often leading to poor management decisions – such as the decision to systematically eradicate the wolf from Yellowstone back in the 1920s.
Discrediting this misinformation is crucial if we are to insure the future of the gray wolf. Avoiding inaccurate and inflammatory statements is also important in establishing and maintaining an atmosphere in which all interests can work together to resolve this volatile, hotly debated issue.
April Christofferson of Lolo is an attorney and author of several novels set in the West. She writes natural history pieces for the Yellowstone Association.