It is as predictable as sunrise in the morning. Almost every time federal wolf recovery coordinator Ed Bangs goes to a meeting about wolves in the Northern Rockies, a grizzled rancher walks up, tilts back his battered Stetson, sticks out a callused, work-worn hand and says, “My granddad killed the last wolf in this county, a back in …”
Yet that would hardly ever happen in the western Great Lakes region of Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, where wolves were never fully exterminated and now number close to 4,000 – about four times as many wolves as live in the Northern Rockies states of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
While the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone in 1995 stirred up a political firestorm that is hottest in the Cowboy State of Wyoming, the gradual comeback of Midwestern wolves happened with much less political heat or controversy.
Why is that?
Midwestern wolves are not any different – in behavior, appearance or genetics – from the Canadian wolves that were reintroduced into the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem a decade ago.
“Wolves are wolves and have been studied to death,” said Bangs. “We’ve got a ton of research about them from all over the world.” What’s unique about the Northern Range wolves is that scientists have a front-row seat on rapidly changing ecosystems, as plants and animals alike respond to the presence of a top predator, that was absent for many decades.
While lots of researchers are fascinated with wolves, Bangs is more interested in something else – how people react to wolves.
“Wolves can make people nutty and hysterical,” said Bangs, “at both ends of the spectrum.”
Some people love wolves passionately, attaching all sorts of mystical/ecological significance to an icon of wilderness, of stunning grace and beauty.
Others are equally passionate about hating and fearing wolves, describing them as evil incarnate – wanton killers of livestock, wildlife and family pets.
About the only people left in the middle are the wolf biologists, who get beat up by both sides.
Meanwhile, wolves go about the daily business of raising young, hunting and killing prey, eating, playing, marking territories, driving away rivals or killing strange wolves. They are not Disneyesque heroes or villains. They’re wolves.
Midwest vs. West
So why the regional differences in attitudes?
Part of it appears to be history and culture, how long wolves have been present or absent, as well as the regional ecosystems.
Jim Williams, former program director at the Yellowstone Association Institute and now assistant director for education at the International Wolf Center in Minnesota, has worked with wolves and wolf researchers in both the Northern Rockies and the Great Lakes. Williams cited a number of factors.
In the Great Lakes states, said Williams, precipitation is much higher, creating moist, even lush, vegetation. “That allows for a high density of livestock on private property,” said Williams, “and most farmers can look out their door and see all their livestock.”
The Northern Rockies are, of course, much drier, which means less available forage for wildlife and livestock alike. That means livestock are scattered across bigger landscapes, said Williams, “and that makes it harder to monitor and guard livestock from predation.”
Both the Midwest and the West have national forests and wilderness areas, said Williams, and local citizens tend to resent federal ESA decisions. The intensity of political resentment is higher in the West, said Williams, which gets tied in with how and why wolves have recovered there.
“We never lost the wolf entirely in the Midwest,” said Williams, with enduring populations in northeast Minnesota and on the nearby Isle Royale, Michigan. “We never lived without wolves, they were part of the landscape, a given.”
The gray wolf, canus lupus, was eradicated in the rest of the country during the early 20th century. As a result, Northern Rockies residents sometimes view wolves as alien and strange, a perspective at odds with the historical record. The Lewis %26 Clark journals are filled with references to abundant game and abundant predators such as wolves.
In the Northern Rockies experience, the wolf was imported by federal agents – in cages – and released into Yellowstone a decade ago; it didn’t happen gradually or naturally, noted Williams, and was thus more deeply resented.
Differences in habitat
While there are many more wolves in the Great Lakes states, they’re actually harder to see in the heavily forested landscape, said Williams. The Northern Rockies and Yellowstone have big forests too, said Williams, but the forests are broken up visually by mountains, meadows and old fire sites. The wide-open vistas of the West make wolves more visible, he said, as tourists into Yellowstone‘s Lamar Valley can testify.
In the West, said Williams, the demarcation lines between wildlands and non-wildlands is fairly clear and obvious – the mountains are wild and the ranches and towns are in the valleys below. “In the Midwest, farms are interspersed with defacto wildlands,” said Williams, referring to heavily timbered areas. There are few visual clues that say wolves belong there, but not here.
“I think wolves have occupied most of the good habitat in the Midwest,” said Williams, echoing Bangs’ assessment about wolves in the Northern Rockies.
In both the Great Lakes states and Northern Rockies, the best habitat for wolves is indeed occupied by wolves, which raises questions about where wolves can or cannot expand their territories.
“We’re paying attention to research projecting how the rapid destruction of habitat will decrease wolf populations in 50 years,” said Williams, citing research by Carlos Carroll, of the Klamath Center in Oregon, working with Mike Phillips of the Turner Endangered Species group in Bozeman.
“The era of endangered species recovery is coming to a close,” said Williams. “The new era is state management and habitat going so quickly, that while short-term survival is assured, their long-term survival is uncertain.”
Carroll’s research indicates that 49 percent of the West has sufficient prey right now to support wolves, but that could change for the worse or the better. Carroll and Phillips make the case that good wolf habitat could drop to 23 percent of the West over the next few decades, owing to roads and development, or increase to 61 percent owing to habitat restoration, such as the closure and rehabilitation of one percent of the roads on public lands each year.
There are 382,000 miles of roads in the national forest system alone, a distance equivalent to 15 trips around Earth.
“The biggest enemy is complacency,” said Williams, speaking of wolf advocates. “We’d do well to take a page from grizzly bear conservationists, who recognize the possibility that long-term trends do not bode well.”
Williams warned that current tides of development and road construction would mean that “wolves won’t survive in large areas when our grandchildren come of age. I would hope that even in the Northern Rockies, hunters and conservationists can find common cause in preserving habitat.”
“I think hunters in the Midwest have a different view of wolves,” said Williams. In most areas of the Great Lakes, white-tail deer are plentiful and often badly overpopulated in spite of generous bag limits for hunters.
“Wolves help manage deer populations in this situation, rather than compete with hunters,” said Williams. There are a few places where wolf predation has brought deer populations down (particularly Michigan’s Upper Peninsula), but that’s the exception, he added. Deep, lake-effect snows make for harsh winters, and worn-down deer are easier prey, he said.
Frontier memories are fresher, more current, in the West than the Midwest, said Bangs. Family histories include tales of homesteading and killing the last wolves as markers of settlement and civilization.
“Two generations later, we realize that maybe the eradication of the wolf was a mistake,” said Bangs.