Over the course of a century, American society will have publicly (and privately) bountied, extirpated, protected, reintroduced, and then hunted one of the great mammals of the world. The Gray Wolf was once the most widespread mammal species in the world, covering enormous portions of all three continents encompassing the northern hemisphere. In North America, the wolf struggles to regain a foothold in portions of its historical range, and in the United States there is an ongoing legal battle over the status of the gray wolf going forward.

While the wolf population is stable and relatively healthy in Alaska and various eastern states (Michigan, Wisconsin, etc), the wolf’s future is decidedly unknown across the Rocky Mountain west. In Idaho and Wyoming, the wolves are considered experimental and nonessential, and can therefore be killed by private citizens without legal ramifications. In 2008, the federal government attempted to relax the protections for the wolf populations, as the government had decided that the populations, as a whole, had recovered to the point that a blanketed national protective law was no longer necessary. Various environmental groups filed for an injunction in federal court and have proceeded with a lawsuit to re-instate full federal protection for the species.

The biggest point, which is often overlooked, is that the wolf is not a solitary, singular animal in the vein of bears, big cats, and most other predatory mammals. Gray wolves live and die as a team of hunters, with a specific and legendary social hierarchy. If the balance of this hierarchy is altered, the pack itself can falter. Killing a single, seemingly lone wolf can destroy a pack of up to 20 animals. Biologically, the wolves have shown again and again that they are the “personal trainer” of the ecological world they exist in. After wolves were re-introduced to Yellowstone National Park, the elk, bison, and deer populations became healthier, leaner, and less diseased. The same effects have been seen throughout the west. Losing the efficient predatory machine of the wolf pack because of the intentional killing of 1-2 animals will prove a tragic effect over the course of time.

Unfortunately, politics always plays a role in ecological issues of the modern day, and the gray wolf has certainly not escaped this reality. The state governments of the Rocky Mountain region have come down consistently on the side of the private citizens, including the ranchers and other livestock owners. The wolves have been deemed a threat to the safety and profitability of a large industry. These industries do have legitimate concerns as packs of roving predators cross their ranch lands, but there is a balance to the financial impact versus the biological necessity of top predators.

In time, it is hoped that all facets of society could understand and appreciate the importance of a healthier ecosystem. The gray wolf is a top predator who not only keeps prey populations in check, but also makes the forests, grasslands, and alpine regions healthier. The human intervention on behalf of the wolves is certainly not over, but it must said that future decisions must be made based on sound science instead of political whims from government officials at the local, state, and federal levels. All of us will be impacted by decisions like these as our ecological world continues to degrade from society’s encroachment, both intentional and unintentional. We all need to educate ourselves, make educated opinions, and openly support whichever side with which we find agreement.

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Gabe’s monthly articles in The Soap Boxers focus on science and Nature (Travels and Tales).

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