MYTH vs. REALITY: Wolf Recovery
MYTH: Enough wolves live in the U.S. now to consider them recovered.
REALITY: Wolves today occupy less than 15% of their historic habitat in the continental United States, so they aren’t recovered and still need protection. Although wolves’ protections under the Endangered Species Act enabled much progress toward recovery over the past 40 years, the federal government focused only on three areas: the western Great Lakes states, the northern Rocky Mountain states and in the Southwest. Areas like the northeastern U.S., the southern Rockies, and the West Coast still lack recovered wolf populations.
MYTH: Wolf persecution is a thing of the past.
REALITY: Sadly, many of the same attitudes that drove wolves to the brink of extinction more than a century ago still exist. Too often, fear and misinformation fuel wolf killing and state management policies. For example, as soon after wolves lost federal protection in Wisconsin, hunters killed more than 200 wolves in just 72 hours. Idaho is implementing a plan to wipe out about 90% of its wolves. Legislation in Montana could lead to the killing of about 80% of its wolves.
MYTH: Without federal protections, we can rely on states to recover wolves.
REALITY: Time and again, most states have shown little to no interest in managing wolves in a way that ensures their populations remain protected and able to thrive and grow. In several states where federal protections have been lifted, aggressive state-sanctioned hunting and trapping seasons have been instituted to reduce wolf populations to the bare minimum. The federal Endangered Species Act provides the strongest protections possible and is critical to the survival and recovery of wolves.
MYTH: There isn’t room for more wolves in the lower 48.
REALITY: A 2014 analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity found that there are at least 530,000 square miles of excellent wolf habitat in the lower 48 but wolves currently occupy only a third of it. Stripping wolves of federal protections means that wolves dispersing to those places could be shot or trapped before they can even establish populations there.
MYTH: Wolves aren’t that important and there’s no reason to allow them to expand and fully recover.
REALITY: Scientific studies show that wolves greatly benefit their ecosystems. For example, wolves keep elk moving thereby limiting browsing along streams and allowing saplings to mature into trees. This provides nesting and roosting habitat for migrating birds and building materials for beavers, whose dams then create cool deep ponds that juvenile fish and frogs need to thrive.
Wolves provide carrion for scavenging animals such as eagles, wolverines and weasels. Wolves even benefit pronghorn through killing coyotes, which unlike wolves, inordinately focus their hunting on pronghorn fawns. Wolves also have the potential to limit the spread of wildlife pandemics by preying on diseased animals, just as, over the long run, wolves boost the genetic health of their prey species by ensuring the most-fit among them survive and pass on their genes.
MYTH: We need to kill wolves to protect livestock.
REALITY: Despite what headlines in wolf country might portray, wolf-caused losses to livestock amount to around 0.02 percent of all losses. This data is self-reported by livestock owners to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, which issues public reports every few years. Those reports show that around 95 percent of livestock losses are due to causes that have nothing to do with any predator of any kind. Instead, most losses are due to disease, dehydration, starvation, respiratory infections, birthing complications, bad weather and ingestion of poisonous weeds. Of the small percentage of losses caused by predators, wolves are toward the bottom of the list. In fact, domestic dogs cause far more losses than do wolves.
MYTH: Nonlethal deterrence doesn’t work when it comes to reducing cattle losses.
REALITY: Actually, the current, best available science concludes that proactively using nonlethal conflict-prevention methods and strategies (like guard dogs, fencing and good animal husbandry) can keep losses to a minimum and are far more effective than simply killing wolves. In fact, the science shows that killing wolves to prevent conflicts can have the opposite effect – it can result in more conflicts, can simply shift the problem to the neighboring ranch, and it also results in decreased social tolerance by people to coexist with wolves.
MYTH: More wolves will decimate deer and elk herds.
REALITY: Despite the presence of around 4,000 wolves in the western Great Lakes states, deer populations are booming there. So much so that an overpopulation of deer places these wild ungulates at risk of chronic wasting disease (CWD), a contagious disease that affects brain tissue and makes it dangerous for humans to eat the meat of infected animals. Wolves will be a crucial factor in helping to stem the spread of the disease.
In the northern Rocky Mountain states, 26 years after the reintroduction of wolves and even with a wolf population of around 2,800 animals, most elk and deer populations are at – or exceed – objectives set by wildlife managers. Here, too, wolves will be critical arbiters of whether CWD gets a toehold in the Rockies and spreads, or whether it can be contained with the help of these apex predators.
MYTH: Wolves are dangerous to people.
REALITY: Wolves are extremely shy animals and generally want nothing to do with people. If they see, smell or hear you in the woods, wolves are likely to move away long before you even see them. If a wolf is curious and watching you, it’s most likely to be a young wolf that doesn’t yet know to fear humans.
In the last 120 years, in all of North America – including Canada and Alaska where there are tens of thousands of wolves – there have only been two instances of wolves killing a human and in one of the cases, experts disagreed on whether the culprit was wolves or bears.