Last week, an alpha female grey wolf known as 832F, perhaps the most widely seen wolf at Yellowstone National Park, was shot and killed after straying just outside the boundaries of the park and into greater Wyoming. Wyoming is a lunatic state that has legalized the mass shooting of an animal that poses basically no threat to anyone and is, in fact, an essential part of the ecosystem as a whole.
The grey wolf (Canis lupus) was historically found throughout the northern reaches of North America and Eurasia. In North America, it's still well-spread in Alaska and Canada, despite the best efforts of Alaskans, who like to shoot them from planes. But in the continental United States, it's had to be reintroduced and protected because state laws have bowed to the ill-informed power of agribusiness and hunters and allowed the wolf to be shot, for no reason, all the time. Yellowstone, just under 3,500 square miles in size, is home to, says the National Park Service, about 98 grey wolves, all protected within the park's boundary. Wyoming, the aforementioned lunatic state, covers nearly 100,000 square miles, and the state's absurd legislators have legalized the shooting of any wolf (even right outside the park's borders, which a wolf wouldn't recognize as borders because it's a wolf) so as to keep the total number of grey wolves in Wyoming to 150. Wyoming residents have shot 87 wolves this year, including the alpha female wolf, which spent 95 percent of its time within Yellowstone and made the mistake last week of venturing out into a state that has legalized its murder for no reason.
Earlier this year, under pressure from hunters and agribusiness, the US Fish and Wildlife Service de-listed the grey wolf from Wyoming's endangered species list--after spending millions of dollars to reintroduce it to its natural habitat after the last time Wyoming residents shot them all. In 1995, wolves were reintroduced into the national parks, and they're still protected in the parks, but it's hard to explain the vagaries of national park borders and state and federal law to a wolf, so they tend to stray into the 80% of the state where they can be shot on sight. And wolf populations are still dangerously low in Wyoming. Yes, dangerous: shooting wolves isn't just useless, it's actively harmful to the environment.
Here are the reasons proponents of wolf hunting give to keep shooting wolves, and why those reasons are stupid and wrong.
Stupid Reason #1. Wolves kill livestock. Well, yeah, sure. In Russia wolves can really damage a watermelon crop (this is true, amazingly) but in North America the grey wolf is so far down on the list of things that can kill livestock as to render this reason completely ridiculous--and, what's worse, incredibly easy to check. You think you can't just look up the numbers and see what kills livestock? This isn't up for debate! This is thoroughly surveyed every year!
In 2010, according to the USDA, wolves killed 8,100 head of cattle, resulting in a total revenue loss of $3,646,000. Whew, lotta money, right? NO IT IS NOT. That's only 3.7 percent of the total of other predators; coyotes, which are everywhere, account for 53.1 percent, or 116,700 head of cattle. Other animals which kill more cattle than wolves include: dogs (21,800 head), big cats like mountain lions, bobcats, and lynx (18,900 head), and vultures (11,900 head).
And just for the record, we shouldn't shoot coyotes, either. Coyotes are not technically an invasive species, but they have shown a remarkable ability to adapt to heavily human environments and are certainly a bigger risk to livestock, people, and pets than wolves. In response the US government kills about 90,000 coyotes a year, so there's no need for you to wander around with a rifle shooting wild animals for fun. And if you live in an area with lots of coyotes, just get a dog. Dogs have been proven to be an extremely effective deterrent for coyotes, which are relatively small canids and are also fairly timid. Get a border collie. That's a good dog.
Now let's get into the real embarrassing stats. The idea that carnivorous predators are a major problem for agribusiness is like saying the cost of maintaining movable type is a real problem for the newspaper industry. That's just not how these things work anymore; if livestock is your business, you've got a lot of problems, but wolves aren't even close to one of them. Remember that wolves killed roughly 8,100 head of cattle in 2010. The USDA's National Agriculture Statistics Service estimates that 1,055,000 head of cattle were felled by respiratory problems in that same year. Over a million. Digestive problems took out another half a million head. And let's not pretend the inhumane manner in which agribusiness raises cattle didn't have something to do with that. Write off another 500,000 each to the weather and various problems with calving. Hell, just flat-out cattle rustling accounted for nearly twice as many lost head of cattle as wolves. Predators are only 5.5 percent of total cattle losses, and wolves are only 0.23 percent of the total. If you're shooting wolves it's because you like to shoot wolves, and I hope "gets enjoyment out of shooting majestic creatures" is listed in the next version of the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders.
Stupid reason #2: Wolves kill elk, caribou, and other ungulates. There are groups, like Friends of the Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd, who maintain that wolves should not be protected because they kill too many elk. Here's how friendly the Friends of the Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd is: they are such good friends with the elk that they want to eliminate the elk's major natural predator...so there are more elk for the Friends to shoot, with their guns. This is a hunting organization that is annoyed that a natural ecosystem is making it difficult for them to shoot the animals they want to shoot. In many of the Big Sky states, this is how hunting legislation gets written: with input and political pressure from hunters. Stop listening to hunters. Listen to scientists.
Furthermore, there is a great deal of evidence that wolves are actually good for the long-term health of the Yellowstone ecosystem, which is something you certainly can't say about hunters. Wolves prey on the weak and enfeebled; by culling the elk herd in this way, the remaining elk tend to be stronger and healthier, with less competition for resources. Wolves certainly do not pose any kind of long-term threat to the Yellowstone elk, unlike hunters, who prefer to shoot the strongest and most glorious elk they can find, because this is how you measure your worth if you are the type to measure your worth by your skill at shooting things with guns. Subsistence hunters, by the way, should be thankful for wolves, because subsistence hunters rely on strong and healthy herds, which wolves help maintain. This is how the damn planet works.
Oh, and without wolves, elk (and caribou and moose, if you go further north) experience crazy overpopulation, which is awful for the biological ecosystem, and further leads to a lack of resources which leads to a crash in population far worse than if there were wolves (and mountain lions, and bears) around to naturally cull the population. Wolves--even an unnaturally small population like that in Wyoming--are good for the environment, not bad.
Hunting to maintain natural order is sometimes required; in my home state of Pennsylvania, for example, there is a dangerous overpopulation of white-tailed deer. They have few natural predators, because we've shot them all (see: wolves, mountain lions), and there are more than the local ecosystem can handle. They damage forests by eating and trampling young plants, they wander into roads and get hit by cars because they encroach on human areas. They are dangerous, and there is a state program to cull them, in concert with scientific findings, to make sure there is a safe number of deer. Pennsylvania certainly isn't perfect, but that's the way this should be done.
Stupid reason #3: Wolves are dangerous to humans. Jesus Christ, no they are not. The grey wolf is a timid animal, much more likely to run from an approaching human than to make any kind of aggressive gesture. To be fair, wolves can occasionally contract rabies from other animals--they're not natural carriers themselves--and nearly all reported cases of wolf attack have been by rabid wolves. But that doesn't even matter!
There have been between 20 and 30 wolf attacks, three being fatal, in North America in the entire 20th century. Since wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone in 1995, there have been zero attacks. In that same 100-year period, there were 71 fatal attacks from brown bears (including the grizzly subspecies). Oh, and about 17 people die every year from dog attacks. Wolves run when they see humans. They are not dangerous. You are not "protecting your property" when you shoot a wolf in your backyard; you are murdering an animal that's scared as hell of you.
There is no valid reason to make it legal to hunt wolves. The only honest argument you could make is "I like to shoot wolves for fun," which is kind of psychotic, so shut the hell up about livestock or elk herds or danger to humans. And don't get angry when us sensible folks listen to scientists and make your insane compulsion illegal. Shooting wolves is bad for wolves, meaningless for livestock, bad for the environment, and bad for people. Conservation of individual species is incredibly difficult; we have done damage to our ecosystems, and they don't work as well as they should, and, yes, we need to find a way to keep it as healthy as possible given our own needs. And that's why we need to listen to scientists, not ranchers or hunters. We need to get the best data possible, run it through the best minds we can find, and make our laws in accordance with what will do the most good. We sure as hell shouldn't listen to a group that wants to shoot wolves on Tuesday so they can shoot elk on Wednesday.
Yellowstone estimates that a million people saw 832F in its short, six-year life. I don't even need to get into the whole "it was a protective mother, a fierce hunter, a noble leader of its pack" stuff, because this isn't about anthropomorphizing a wolf. 832F was almost certainly the most visible element of an important effort by the National Park Service to restore Yellowstone's ecosystem to its natural order, an effort that's vital to the survival of this park and even this country. People came from all over the world and saw this wolf, this rare creature, in one of the country's most beautiful places, the way it's supposed to be. That is an amazing thing. And now nobody will see it again, because it was shot, perfectly legally. And now it's dead.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.