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Polarization: to Kill or Safeguard Wolves – Across the Gamut

Jeanne Wetzel Chinn

April 2014

In January, 2012, I attended a California Rangeland Coalition Science Summit. It was great to hear about the many activities being undertaken by rancher, including better grazing management, which protects their lands for future generations and also provides environmental benefits. This is especially good news, because in California in the late 1800s, ranchers sowed non-native grass seed all over the grassland habitat so their livestock would have more forage. It worked; now the vast majority of our grasslands are non-native. (Not to mention, livestock are another non-native species.) When grazing practices are not well managed the result is overgrazing, causing further damage to the land and riparian corridors, which provides a nexus for invasive weeds to take over, so thank you to the many ranchers where there is a turn-around toward protection of grasslands landscape.

At the end of the Summit, a guy stepped up to the podium and asked the audience, “Anybody got a gun out there? I’m from Lassen County, and I hear we have a wolf in our county!” Everyone laughed and clapped. I was shocked and wondered why they were so happy about the idea of putting a gun to a lone wolf that couldn’t even breed, when we had 26,000 bear in our state and 5-7,000 mountain lions. OR7, the infamous single dispersing male from the Imnaha pack in Northeastern Oregon had just set his paws in our state for the first time, a mere 3 weeks prior to the Summit.

Huey Johnson, former U.S. Secretary of Resources (life-long environmental activist and winner of many environmental awards), is also my former employer, mentor and dear friend. Huey taught me to look for gaps in sustainability, and then seek ways to close the gaps. The Summit provided a firsthand view of a very obvious gap. I call it the historical hysterical fear-based mythology of how wolves are viewed. This fear-based belief has plagued wolves since ancient and medieval times when they were associated with evil, or destruction from their predatory nature, making them the symbol of the warrior. This fear and warrior bravado has been juxtaposed in modern times where many sports teams have wolves as their team name, or mascot.

With the entrance of OR7 into California, polarization of how wolves are viewed has come home full circle. The California Farm Bureau knows that wolves are dangerous predators and ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?’ is rightfully illustrated in Disney’s Three Little Pigs story. The Farm Bureau has heard plenty from the Northern Rocky Mountain states about how wolves go after more than little pigs when it comes to livestock. Wolves would be another bane to their already stretched budgets from land management costs and the craziness of drought as well as other unpredictable climate changes.

Meanwhile, the legal process of CESA listing for wolves was set into motion within 2 months of OR7’s first visit to California by environmentalists eager to provide wolves a safe opportunity to disperse and resettle onto available historical territories. This listing is especially important given that continued federal listing is tenuous at best.

The federal delisting process has been fraught with political maneuvers and running slipshod over science, including the dismissal of 16 scientists as review candidates after they wrote a letter of concern regarding the proposal to delist wolves. The second panel of scientists came to many of the same conclusions as the first analysis, unanimously agreeing the delisting rule is not based on current best science, that information contrary to the delisting was discounted, and statements about gray wolves not occurring naturally in the Eastern United States were unfounded.

USFWS Director, Daniel Ashe, called the recovery of wolves, “one of the most successful recoveries in the history of wildlife conservation.” Former USFWS Director Jamie Clark (now DOW Director), said the delisting would be “terribly premature and ill-advised.” Former Director Clark said two issues prevent wolf expansion, the need to increase social tolerance, and that hunting is a side-bar issue. Management shifts from federal to states need to occur well in advance before hunts are allowed long-term for sustainability of wolves on the landscape.

What we really should be focusing on instead of delisting is how to provide more connectivity linkages between core areas to protect genetic variability, dispersal, and to allow seasonal migrations. Listing of species in California is not a quick process, and does not happen often. There are many species in California whose numbers are declining at a frightening rate and need to be considered for listing. Yet this relatively minor biological event of a lone wolf (an extinct state species) dancing between two state borders has evoked newspaper headlines, prompted public meetings, and has taken considerable time and expense for stakeholders to collaboratively develop a wolf management plan, strategies, and potential listing.

OR7s’ presence has brought to the forefront how wolves are viewed elsewhere. Members of a small town in New Mexico built metal cages for their kids while waiting for school busses so 1 or more of the 78 Mexican wolves that roam Arizona and New Mexico don’t kill them. A Facebook photo showed Wyoming vigilantes wearing Klan-like hoods and claiming to be hunters against illegally introduced Canadian Gray Wolves. Another picture was sent to me of a lone hunter in the snow all decked out in white with a rifle complete with a silencer.

Hunters were very upset when elk numbers began to decline in Yellowstone after wolves were reintroduced. Dr. Doug Smith, head of reintroduction in Yellowstone, set the record straight by saying that in 2008, wolf and elk numbers reached equilibrium and Yellowstone has all the ecological benefits of a naturally balanced ecosystem; “The Park was never intended to be an elk farm.”

What is a fair hunt? Former Wildlife Services employee and head of Idaho wolf reintroduction, Carter Neimeyer, answered that question for me. “Hunting used to mean putting one foot in front of the other and stalking your quarry in a sportsman-like manner. Sometimes you got your game, sometimes you didn’t. A fair hunt for wolves is you and the wolf, one on one – no dogs.” Wolves can handle a fair hunt that is professionally managed. As one environmental advocate in Wisconsin said, “Let’s take the blood lust out of management hunting regulations.”

Another perspective of wolves comes from State management strategies that look at what the biological carrying capacity is for different species. Management needs include ungulate numbers allowed on the landscape to maintain healthy ecosystems and include additional numbers for hunters to take their share. In 2011. Montana had 22,000 more elk than management needs, Wyoming had 40,000 more elk than management needs, Idaho had 20 of 29 hunt zones at or above management need, and Wisconsin had 40% more deer than management needs. Without going into deep math, it looks like these states have plenty of prey out there for our top predators. At last count, California had about 11,000 elk, and 460,000 deer; according to one wolf expert, California has enough prey and intact habitat to provide a home for 400+ wolves. been juxtaposed in s that have wolves as their team name, or mascot. . Red Riding Hood, which quite literally demonize wolv

Wolf advocates point out that our public lands are part of the public trust and belong to everyone. It’s the land where wolves and other top predators naturally belong. Wolves and other top predators exercise an influence far out of proportion to their numbers by regulating other predators and prey down to the grasses. Environmentalists agree that top predators are integral to healthy ecosystems. However, many livestock leases have been procured on public lands and this provides another point of friction. For example, should ranchers be reimbursed for livestock depredated upon on public wildlife lands? Currently there are various efforts being made to resolve conflicts and protect fragile ecosystems.

It has not been proven that wolves had a huge presence historically in California, although they have lived in our state for a long time. Canis dirus, the Dire wolf, ancestor to Canis lupus, existed in California and Florida during the Pleistocene and became extinct about 16,000 years ago. Until 1924, when the last one was exterminated, gray wolves lived on these lands in dynamic equilibrium without human management for over 600,000 years (Dr. Doug Smith). There is wilderness habitat awaiting their arrival. However, it is unlikely there will be a significant emigration into the state considering human presence, habitat fragmentation relative to historic conditions, and from such a small source population.

California has the advantage of learning from other wolf states’ challenges and successes. Non-lethal measures of protection have been experimented with and some have proven successful. These include range riders, turbo-fladry fencing, night penning, lamb sheds, guard dogs, removal of bone piles and carcasses, moving sick and injured livestock, noise devices, non-lethal hazing, herding cattle tighter in wolf country, delaying calf turnout, avoiding denning/rendezvous areas, and compensation for losses.

Oregon, has developed the newest and most comprehensive wolf management plan to date. Oregon’s stakeholders have learned from earlier states’ plans and created a strategy that encourages ranchers and farmers to use non-lethal measures designed to minimize wolf-livestock conflicts. Within an area of known wolf activity, an incident of depredation qualifies toward lethal control only if the landowner or lawful occupant where the depredation occurred had at least 7 days prior to the incident removed or treated unnatural attractants of potential conflict, and had been using at least one non-lethal measure deemed appropriate for livestock protection. A wolf must have 4 qualifying depredations within a 6 month period to be legally killed.

Dr. Nathan Varley, a wolf biologist in the Yellowstone area has the viewpoint that wolves should be seen as much more than just being considered a negative effect. He said that the economy around Yellowstone Park has “boomed” since wolf recovery, to the tune of $35M/year. In recent years wolf watching began to outweigh geothermal interests for tourists. He believes the Sierra hold a similar potential. First, establish a wolf population, and then provide a nexus for tourism that may become a very prominent stakeholder in future wolf issues.

Project Coyote is an example of a California-based project that is having a positive impact on the landscape and for farmers by providing public education, avoidance measures, and alternatives to protect livestock instead of killing coyotes. How to protect livestock as well as having healthy ecosystems, including wolves and other top predators, takes effort, tolerance, and respect from everyone involved.

Some positive and effective activities for the public would be to financially support educational organizations such as Being With Wolves, become personally engaged in local wolf education (see below), become active in land-use planning, and/or promote development of forest management plans and conservation easements.

In response to her perceived gap in sustainability for wolves, Jeanne created Being With Wolves, a California Wolf Education Project.  BWWs’ goal is to educate the public to have science-based opinions.  If you are interested in BWW providing presentations for a stipend, or educating you to provide presentations in your home county to kids from grade school through high school AP environmental science courses, university students, or public forums,
please contact Jeanne at 415-672-1580 or