The Biology Thing

It’s no secret that the collective imagination has a deep-rooted fear of wolves. Our legends and fairy tales are populated with powerful wolves getting up to all manner of naughtiness, from pretending to be something they aren’t (whether dressed as Grandmother or sheep), to reflecting our animal sides in the form of werewolves, to simply eating things we’d rather they didn’t.

Gray wolf Image: Womaneko/Deviantart

Gray wolf
Image: Womaneko/Deviantart

The gray wolf was hunted to near extinction in the United States, and was then listed as protected under the Endangered Species Act. It’s been making a steady comeback over the years, although by comparison to the real success stories of the ESA, the wolf is nowhere near truly recovered as a species. It’s out of the ICU, but still stuck on life support.

Nonetheless, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) moved to delist the gray wolf on a federal level in 2013 and turn wolf management over to the state level. It has already been allowed to be delisted in several individual states, and the effect on the wolf population through hunting and trapping has been devastating. Years of conservation work has been undone.

The room to make comments on the USFWS proposal, which had been closed, has now been reopened due to an outcry among conservationists that the USFWS had not used the best available science to reach their delisting recommendation. Comments can now be made here until March 27.

Group of gray wolves (Canus lupus)

Group of gray wolves (Canus lupus)

According to Lance Richardson of Slate, the premature delisting of the gray wolf is due to a confluence of a certain complacency about the protected status of the wolf together with “the residual anger towards wolves in the rural West, where influential ranchers have long fought wolves for depredating livestock. Merge that in with the whole Tea Party fervor against [the federal] government, and what you end up with in the state legislatures is this race to the bottom to see who can be more anti-wolf. The biology of the thing gets thrown right out the window.”

Well, the biology. Apex predators play such an important role in ecosystems, above and beyond controlling the population of prey animals. I’m including a concise summary (four minutes long) of just how important wolves have been to the recovery of the Yellowstone Park ecosystem here:

But the ‘biology of the thing’ is also what allows us to keep fearing wolves even if, since we’ve the means to outrun, outgun and outmaneuver them, they’ve had more to fear from us than we’ve had to fear from them. Big predators have been scaring us for millennia, and it appears that all the scientific understanding in the world can’t do away with that in just a couple of generations.

Unfortunately, if the wolf is delisted by the USFWS, the object of our fear may end up truly being only a creature of fairy tales.

Please take a moment to visit Eripe Lupus, a site that is promoting Twitter storm today in support of comments for the USFWS proposal, to learn more.

From: Old French Fairy Tales by  Comtesse de Ségur /

From: Old French Fairy Tales by Comtesse de Ségur /

Wolf Trap

I was sitting in a very inviting pub the other day, The Rusty Bike, enjoying a plate of locally caught fish and a glass of wine, when the conversation at the next table turned to the real differences between wolves and dogs. What was interesting about the conversation wasn’t its conclusions – because there weren’t any – but the manner of the discourse itself.

The point under dispute was this: While dogs and wolves might be almost genetically identical, are they fundamentally different due to thousands of years of domestication? Two people at the table said yes, dogs are different; one man said no, it’s all just a matter of early training (i.e., given a pup at an early age, any canine can be domesticated).

What struck me was that the fellow arguing for no major differences between wolves and dogs wasn’t interested in real answers – he was interested in winning, nothing more. It didn’t matter that others had excellent arguments, a few verifiable facts at their fingertips, and a willingness to discuss. (And, in fact, they were correct. A longish but fun article on the topic here.)

And so to the current U.S. administration moves to delist the gray wolf as an endangered species in the United States.

After three decades of protection under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has decided to turn the management of wolf protection over to state authorities. In areas where wolves have lost some of their federal protection over recent years, there have been drastic reductions in the wolf population due to widespread hunting. In particular, alpha wolves are prized targets, thus putting entire packs at risk.

An apt illustration of a wolf and its ecosystem.
Image: Anna Emilia via Wolfeyebrows

Another aspect of this is the key role top predators play in ecosystems as a whole. Their elimination tends to have wide and negative ripple effects.

I can’t claim to understand the source and motivation of current anti-wolf sentiment. According to several articles I’ve read, the USFWS intentionally excluded the participation of several wolf specialists – even those who had done most of the federal research on wolf conservation – because none of these scientists agreed that wolves were recovered enough as a species to be de-listed as endangered.

Nonetheless, this plan is moving forward.

Because for whatever reason, this doesn’t seem to be about the facts. It seems to be about winning, and winning only. At least, for those in favor of wolf hunting.

To end this post on a happier note, if you’re ever in Exeter, UK, check out the charming and unpretentious Rusty Bike ‘gastropub’ – a place I’d visit on the regular if I lived anywhere nearby.


Over on Summit County Voice, Bob Berwyn has written a number of excellent articles on the issue of wolf protection and de-listing.

If you want to take action, there will be public hearings held on this issue in three U.S. cities – you can find the dates and locations here.

Any de-listing proposal allows a period of public comment. This has been extended until 11:59 p.m. on 28 October, 2013. Comments can be submitted here. Other comments can be sent here.

Finally, think about taking a minute and signing a petition in support of continuing one of the potential success stories of the Endangered Species Act.

What happened when the natural park crossed the border?

Bouches de Bonifacio

Bouches de Bonifacio

On 12 December 2012, an auspicious date by most reckonings, the French and Italian governments announced the creation of a jointly-run natural marine park that would traverse their respective border with one another at the Bouches de Bonifacio, between the island of Corsica on the northern French side and the Sardinian Maddelena archipelago on the southern Italian side.

There are, of course, many environmental ecosystems that do not correlate in any way with the invisible map lines imposed upon them by humans. The Trans Border Conservation Area in southern Africa comes to mind, a ‘superpark’ that traverses the borders of South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. This superpark is also an example of the difficulties faced when environmental and conservation goals conflict with political, social and economic issues. Zimababwe, in this case, has often stated that the superpark’s requirements may not supercede the nation-state’s needs or goals.

And the borders don’t have to be those of nation-states to cause conflict. Yellowstone National Park, widely held to be the world’s first national park when it was established in 1872 by the United States Congress, sprawls across the borders of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. And therein lies the rub, at least for one particular species.

The Western gray wolf was, for many years, listed as an endangered species. It was reintroduced in Yellowstone, partially to help control the populations of elk and deer that had exploded with the wolf’s demise, and which the top remaining canine predator – the coyote – was too small to bring down. By the early years of the 2000s, however, two things happened: The gray wolf was removed from the federal endangered list, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service transferred wolf management authority to from federal supervision to individual states.

Last fall, the states opened hunting season on the gray wolf, under pressure from ranchers who said the wolves threatened their herds.

The last time the wolf was delisted and hunting was opened, in 2008, the hunt was closed again after a few weeks because so many wolves were killed that the USFWS was concerned about maintaining genetic diversity between wolf packs trying to traverse borders, both in and outside the park.

Under the current arrangement, a well-known female alpha wolf (832F, better known as Rock Star) that had been tagged and tracked for the past six years was shot

832F, sitting on the leftPhoto: Doug McLaughlin

832F, sitting on the left
Photo: Doug McLaughlin

and killed this week. Conservation groups have already stated they will sue for the hunt to be closed again. This will have to happen on a state-by-state basis.

A wolf that wanders to the wrong side of the fence may as well never have been protected in the first place. It seems a poor expenditure of time, conservation effort, money and legislation to reintroduce animals only to have them provide sporting targets.

The challenges of trans-border protection seem as complex as those of trans-border cooperation on almost any level. Still, by acknowledging that environmental regions deserving and requiring protection do not always handily conform to national and political borders, France and Italy are giving the Bouches de Bonifacio ecosystem a greater chance of surviving, which in turn can help manage and maintain the existing tourist economy of the area. One of their key stated goals is to have the area designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which would add a further layer of protection and international interest.