There is no place on earth, no matter how remote, untouched by humans. We are mighty: we can trawl the deep, explore the South Pole, and fish every single island in the South Pacific. But as every young nerdling knows, with great power comes great responsibility. That is why I’m introducing a new series in the Oyster’s Garter: The Managed World.
If we want to have nice things, like coral reefs and top predators, we’re going to have to actively take care of them. There’s too many people with too much technology for a laissez-faire approach. We need to actively choose the world we want to live in – and I am rooting against the world of Oryx and Crake.
So, for this first Managed World: wolves. The American West isn’t as big as it used to be. There’s no uninhabited lands for unprotected wolves to roam – instead, there’s a patchwork of ranches and towns and farms. So do we want truly wild wolves? Or do we only want to have wolves as exhibits in a park-zoo?
This debate has come to a head since gray wolves were removed from federal protection last month. The week after the ban, 10 wolves were legally shot in Wyoming alone, out of a population of 1,500. The management plan only requires a total population of 450.
So, if wolves aren’t on park land and aren’t protected, they get shot. If wolves exist only park land, they aren’t as wild as we like to think. Right now, even the ostensibly wild land of Denali in Alaska cull their wolf populations. Their mandate is to maximize game hunting of elk and bighorn sheep, which means keeping down the top predators.
But a healthy wolf population performs more than one function. This became apparent when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone. Rewilding.org has a nice summary:
With the extermination of wolves and the near extermination of mountain lions sixty years ago in Yellowstone National Park, elk populations built up. Lacking their predators, elk grew lazy and lackadaisical, loafing in large herds in river meadows. Their behavior changed so much, it was hard to call them elk. Not only did they overgraze the grasslands, their browsing of willow shoots hampered beavers from reestablishing themselves in Yellowstone. However, with the recent reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, elk have become elk again. They’re awake! They’re moving. They’re looking over their shoulders. They aren’t loafing in big herds in open river valleys. Wolves have changed elk behavior for the better—to a more natural set of behaviors—and thereby are bringing integrity back to the ecosystem. For example, willows are again growing along streams, and researchers expect beavers to return. In addition, wolf-killed elk are a smorgasbord for many species, ranging from grizzly bears to insect-eating songbirds. Between 1921 and 1999, there was “no significant recruitment of new stems into the aspen overstory” in Yellowstone. Oregon State researchers William Ripple and Eric Larsen write, “We hypothesize that disturbance to predator/prey relationships, especially between wolves and elk, has been a major factor in [Yellowstone National Park] aspen decline.”
Some people value wolves for their inherent coolness, and some for their ecological services, but these tend to be the same people. In the Managed World, where management plans are set by democratic political forces, this isn’t enough. In order to have a wildish wolf population, other people need to value having lots of wolves around.
So why not wolf hunting? There is clearly a demand for wolf trophies, so why not work out a compromise between protecting wolves part of the year and a limited hunting season? Such a system has worked out reasonably well for bear. Obviously, since wolves do sometimes kill livestock, this would need to go hand in hand with some kind of reimbursement scheme. Perhaps money from wolf-hunting licenses could go for livestock claims
Now, although I am generally in favor of hunting, I find it tacky to hunt something that a) you’re not going to eat; and b) doesn’t have a gun to shoot you back. Wolf wrestling would count as manly, but wolf shooting? Not so much. But I don’t care. I value the ecosystem services wolves perform and I want to see more of them. (And I think they’re really damn cool.)
Welcome to the Managed World. When there’s no more room for wolves to just be wolves, everybody’s got to make some compromises.