Richard Steiner, professor and conservation biologist
The current federal plan to remove Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection for gray wolves across the lower 48 states is one of the most ill conceived proposals yet from the Obama administration. If enacted, the plan would reverse three decades of wolf recovery across the American west.
More than any other animal, wolves are an iconic symbol of wilderness, and their mere presence indicates a somewhat intact, healthy ecosystem. Wolves occupy a special place in the heart of the American psyche. Yet, there is no other animal that has suffered from such fear, viciousness, and hatred by some ignorant elements of our society.
For over a century, wolves were demonized, tortured, poisoned, shot, trapped, and snared, all attempting to exterminate them from the landscape. And indeed, wolves disappeared from most of their former range.
After three decades of federal protection, and painstaking efforts by federal biologists, gray wolves are just beginning to reestablish stable populations in some of their former range. This is a testament to the effectiveness of the ESA, and much to the delight of most Americans.
But this success is about to be undone by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to remove ESA protection for gray wolves, unleashing the same ruthless wolf-killing policies that originally drove lower 48 populations to near extinction. The proposal to delist gray wolves is flawed for many reasons — ethics, ecosystems, science, and economics, to name a few. But more fundamentally, the proposal is based on a lack of basic understanding of these extraordinary, iconic animals.
As people tend to fear and hate that which they don’t understand, it isn’t too surprising (although disappointing) that this irrational hatred and mismanagement of wolves (and their habitat) continues today in much of the American west. Many people, including some wildlife managers, still do not understand wolves.
But legendary wolf biologist Dr. Gordon Haber, who studied wolves for 43 years in Alaska, knew wolves. Prior to his death in a 2009 plane crash in Denali National Park while tracking wolves, Haber spent more time with wolves in the wild than any other biologist in history. His remarkable story is chronicled in a new book written by Alaska author Marybeth Holleman and (posthumously) Haber himself.
After Haber’s death, Holleman sifted through truckloads of his research papers, reports, field notes, stories from friends, and photographs, and compiled the lot into Among Wolves – Gordon Haber’s insights into Alaska’s most misunderstood animal. The book peels back the layers of misunderstanding of the wolf, revealing a fascinating, complex, socially evolved animal that deserves our admiration and protection, not our fear and hatred.
Haber was the old-school type of field biologist that is now virtually a thing of the past. He was tough, determined, methodical, and relentless in his quest to understand the real lives of wolves in the wild. He spent four decades studying Alaska’s wolves, with boots-on-the-ground even at 50 below zero in the bitter Alaska winter. Few modern biologists have such authentic experiential authority regarding their research subjects. And this hard-won, close-up and personal understanding of wolves led him to dedicate his life to their protection.
Haber’s conclusions in Among Wolves expose the current flawed thinking behind the current proposal to delist wolves across the lower 48. Most notably, he concluded that we can’t just count the number of wolves in an area and conclude that it’s a “healthy” or “sustainable” population, because the functional unit of wolves is the family. That x number of wolves inhabit y square miles of territory is irrelevant. Haber writes:
“Wolves are perhaps the most social of all nonhuman vertebrates. A ‘pack’ of wolves is not a snarling aggregation of fighting beasts, each bent on fending only for itself, but a highly organized, well-disciplined group of related individuals or family units, all working together in a remarkably amiable, efficient manner.”
Haber devoted his career to studying these family groups, including the Toklat wolves in Denali. First made famous by Adolph Murie’s 1944 The Wolves of Mount McKinley, the Toklat wolves rank with Jane Goodall’s chimpanzees in Tanzania as the longest-studied mammal lineages in the world.
As described in Among Wolves, wolves go to great lengths to stay with family; and when important members are lost, families can disintegrate and remaining individuals often disperse and die. Haber witnessed this countless times. He also found that wolves are mostly monogamous; cooperatively raise pups; express emotions; play often; and develop elaborate den sites, honeycombed with connecting tunnels, sometimes covering 50 acres. Some ancient wolf den sites in Denali were also used by early humans, raising interesting speculations about the co-evolution of wolves and humans.
And Among Wolves dispels some of the age-old myths about indiscriminate killing and waste by wolves. They actually consume virtually all that they kill, and waste little. Much of their winter diet is obtained not by killing live ungulates, but from scavenging winter-killed carcasses.
Left unexploited — that is, not killed — by humans, wolves develop societies that are intricate, complex and beautifully adapted to their environment. Unexploited family groups develop unique and cooperative pup rearing and hunting techniques, amounting in essence to cultural traditions. These take generations to develop, and can be lost forever if the family disintegrates.
But unfortunately today there are few, if any, unexploited wolf family groups left anywhere in the U.S. Even those in our national parks are hunted and trapped when they cross invisible boundaries, leading to the disintegration of family groups. And ignorant wildlife policies of western state governments continue to sanction the indiscriminate wolf killing that symbolized the wild west of the 19th century.
Haber found that hunting and trapping tend to take older, experienced wolves which sustain the family group through their knowledge of territory, prey movements, hunting techniques, den sites, and raising pups. These are the reproductive members of the group, and their loss from hunting or trapping can be catastrophic to the family group. If the federal delisting proposal is enacted, many more family groups will be torn apart by such indiscriminate killing.
He also witnessed the continued horror of wolves he knew being caught in traps and snares, trying to chew off their own legs in futile attempt to escape, and family members trying to help only to be caught in nearby traps themselves. And near death, them looking passively, directly into the eyes of the trapper who would then shoot and kill them, for a $200 pelt, and another story to tell. Such cruelty brings shame to us all, and deserves our collective condemnation.
If we leave wolves and their wild habitats alone, their populations will continue to recover, ecosystems will rebuild, and we will all benefit. As Haber writes: “Wolves enliven the northern mountains, forests and tundra like no other creature, helping to enrich our own stay on the planet simply by their presence as other highly advanced societies in our midst.”
In the end, Holleman and Haber express the conviction that by careful observation and protection of intact wolf family groups across wild landscapes, we can learn a lot about ourselves, and our evolutionary history.
Toward that end, it is critical that federal ESA protection be continued for these remarkable animals. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is accepting comments on its delisting proposal until this coming Monday, October 28.