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News and Opinion

WHAT GOOD ARE WOLVES?

by NORMAN A. BISHOP, January 4, 2011 -  New West
A growing body of scientific research shows wolves are key to the ecosystems of the Northern Rockies.  Here's a condensed version compiled by a long-time wolf advocate.

In 1869, General Phil Sheridan said, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” Others said, “The only good wolf is a dead wolf.”

Barry Lopez wrote of an American Pogrom, not only of Native Americans and wolves, but of the bison on which both depended. Between 1850 and 1890, 75 million bison were killed, mostly for their hides; perhaps 1 million or 2 million wolves.

“Before about 1878, cattlemen were more worried about Indians killing their cattle than they were about wolves. As the land filled up with other ranchers, as water rights became an issue, and as the Indians were removed to reservations, however, the wolf became, as related in Barry Lopez’s book, “Of Wolves and Men,” ‘an object of pathological hatred.’” Lopez continues: “The motive for wiping out wolves (as opposed to controlling them) proceeded from misunderstanding, from illusions of what constituted sport, from strident attachment to private property, from ignorance and irrational hatred.”

In 1884, Montana set a bounty on wolves; in the next three years, 10,261 wolves were bountied. “In 1887, the bounty was repealed by a legislature dominated by mining interests. ... By 1893 … desperate stockmen were reporting losses that were mathematical impossibilities. The effect of this exaggeration was contagious. The Montana sheep industry, which up to this time had lost more animals to bears and mountain lions than to wolves, began to blame its every downward economic trend on the wolf. … Men in a speculative business like cattle ranching singled out one scapegoat for their financial losses.”

Not until wolves were functionally extinct from much of the West did anyone begin to ask “What good are wolves?” to study wolves, and to report their beneficial effects on their prey species and on the ecosystems where they lived.

Adolph Murie realized that wolves selected weaker Dall sheep, “which may be of great importance to the sheep as a
species.” His brother, Olaus J. Murie, thought predators may have an important influence during severe winters in reducing elk herds too large for their winter range. Douglas H. Pimlott pointed out that wolves control their own densities.

Yellowstone National Park wolf project leader Douglas W. Smith says that restoration of wolves there has added exponentially to our knowledge of how natural ecosystems work. It has also reminded us that predation is one of the dominant forces in all of nature, present in ecosystems worldwide over millions of years.


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