Crying wolf: why we need to protect the gray wolf

It is said that fear, when left unchecked, is a bad thing; especially of the unknown, especially when felt ubiquitously.
Often we will stop at nothing to eliminate that which we fear. There is no problem when this concerted effort is just and right (which is equally hard to define, but I’ll save this for another column). Which begs the question: when does an overabundance of fear backfire? And in regard to the environment, exactly when does fear become a direct threat to an animal species?
Such is the unfortunate fate of the gray wolf — once a graceful icon of the American West, now caught in the precarious crosshairs (quite literally at times) of policy and emotion. Canis lupus was all but eliminated from the lower 48 by the 1930s, much to the liking of ranchers and livestock managers. Treated as vermin and slaughtered recklessly, the wolf was just another American legend fallen victim to man’s wanton destruction.
So why all the fuss? Clamoring to reach the top of the food chain, the wolf represents a direct competitor to resources such as big game and remains an important threat to livestock. Really, our fear of the wolf began at precisely the moment a cattle carcass was found torn to shreds out at pasture.
Which goes to say that fear isn’t the sole driving factor at play here, as underlying profit margins dissipate with each head of livestock lost. However, when we take a hard look at how many livestock deaths wolves are actually credited for, it stands to reason they are not the only culprits to blame.
According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistic Service, of the 125,000 sheep deaths reported in 2008 by ranchers in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, wolf predation accounted for 1 percent (or 1,300 sheep). In fact, 22.6 percent (or 28,300) of sheep were lost to inclement weather conditions. Man cannot control the weather (yet). He can, on the other hand, control the animal that killed his 1,300 sheep.
Wildlife scientists have noticed how stable wolf populations generally support healthier ecosystems. When gray wolf populations were reintroduced to areas in and around Yellowstone National Park, scientists found overall improvements in the local ecosystem, in everything from aspen stands on down to microbes in the soil.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service summed it up neatly with “the gray wolf, being a keystone predator, is an integral component of the ecosystems to which it typically belongs.” Clearly, we cannot afford to lose another top predator.
It’s promising to know progressive ranchers are overcoming their fear and anger, attempting instead to quell the era of wolf attacks on livestock by installing nonlethal methods such as alarm systems, lighting, and removing dead or dying livestock from pasture. And it seems to be working for them.
What drives our species to such unbridled destruction? Is it our pursuit to control the uncontrollable, to tame the wilds of our imagination? Why would we ever require the intervention of government agencies to prevent the extinction of a wild animal? This should come natural to the man focused on peaceful, symbiotic relationships with his environment. This, I’m afraid, is not always the case.
To have heard the lonesome howl of a distant wolf is to experience everything that is right with this world.

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