Wolves are not the problem
Wolves have a long and troubled history across the globe, being incorporated into fairy tales and myths since as early as 2100 BC in Ancient Greece (Koosmen, 2018). However, these myths often spread the idea that wolves are terrifying and scary creatures that will blow over houses to get the little piggies inside, or even stalk a child through the forest all the way to grandmother’s house. These stories were made to teach lessons and morals to children but since they often feature a “Big Bad Wolf” the image of wolves has become a bit distorted over the years and I would like to try and set the record straight.
Wolf interactions with humans and rabies
The first myth I would like to address is the idea that wolves hunt and attack humans. They can, and they have, but not in any way, shape, or frequency you are led to believe. Wolves and other canid species live all across the world and have been known to attack people, but the vast majority of attacks are due to rabies. In North America and much of Europe rabies has largely been eradicated with very few cases annually, most of which are attributed to raccoons, bats, and pet or stray dogs. In a review of global wolf attacks from 2002 to 2020 by Linnell et. al (2021), a total of 489 attacks could be confidently counted, with 380 of those being rabid attacks. While rabies has been well managed in North America and Europe, it's important to remember that in other parts of the world rabies is much more prevalent and has to be factored in when we consider animal attacks across the globe.
Rabies aside, let's take a look at the other 109 wolf attacks discussed in Linnell et al. (2021). These attacks were divided into a few categories. A few of the attacks were due to rare situations, such as a desperate and injured wolf attacking a passerby, some were wolves that have been habituated and therefore display “bold” or “fearless” behaviors, and finally, wolves that have too little food in the area and happen live near deprived towns and villages that don’t have good means of deterring these hungry animals. The habituated wolves follow a very similar trend to bears, where they seem to find food and pick that area to keep searching for food, periodically choosing to hunt humans. For the cases involving poorer socio-ecological situations most of the attacks seemed to involve young children, presumably playing, and wolves that had few wild food sources in the area. These two categories of attacks are cases that are constantly and relatively easily managed in North America and Europe so, with hopeful increases in global living conditions, there is a real possibility these categories decline to almost non-existence.
Wolf interaction with livestock and services in place
On a different note, let us look at how wolves interact with livestock as this is another common argument against wolves. We will predominantly look at cases in the United States of America, as globally we run into the issues of wolves not having enough food to feed themselves and that seems like an unfair way to judge an animal. Cattle farms, sheep, and other livestock are a common concern when it comes to wolves and is frequently cited as casualties to wolf packs in the area. To compensate for losses of livestock to wolf attacks in the USA there are programs for many states to pay a fair market rate for loss of livestock to a confirmed wolf attack. In a summary of depredation (attacks on livestock) in Minnesota with data provided by USDA-Wildlife Services, the number of attacks has remained relatively consistent in the past decade or so, even decreasing since the early 2000s with better management programs (International Wolf Center, n.d.). With wolf populations increasing since the 1900s and the proximity they live to livestock remaining relatively unchanged (International Wolf Center, 2014), preliminary analysis being done by Trbojević et al., (2020) suggests that wolves prefer wild-caught food over captive livestock. Knowing they prefer wild prey, it would be reasonable to assume that as long as their populations don’t skyrocket the wolves will generally manage themselves without too much threat to the farming industry.
Some farmers also suggest that the presence of wolves can reduce the amount their cattle grow, making them worthless at the market. There is some validation to this claim, as Ramler et al. (2014) found an average weight loss of about 22 pounds per calf when a cow in their herd had recently been predated on. With the intricacies of cattle farming involved they calculated that there could be a loss of $6,679 for an affected farm, which would have received possibly $900 for the one cow that had been killed. I would argue that the best step forward would be to make sure everything is fairly compensated and a number can be attributed to the losses.
Wolves as keystone species
Wolves are one of the most iconic keystone species in North America with Yellowstone National Park being the perfect case study. Decades ago, wolves were eliminated from the park with the belief that hunters would simply fill in the gap and nothing would change. That simply was not the case. Elk are predated on by black bears, grizzly bears, cougars, and even coyotes to a small extent, but none of these animals are as big a threat to elk as wolves. Because of this change in predator dynamics, the elk altered their habits and expanded their grazing territories, essentially over-grazing their preferred areas so much that young trees couldn’t grow. This impacted beaver populations that were dependant on the rotation of the trees and a general loss of smaller animals as coyotes no longer had a higher predator. These cascading effects changed the landscape of the park until the reintroduction of wolves in the mid-90s when, surprise surprise, the landscape started changing back to its original beauty and diversity, and the overall health of the ecosystem returned (Farquhar, 2021).
After everything we have discussed, I hope that we can agree that wolves don’t stand a terrible threat to humans and our livelihoods. That being said, some governing bodies still argue that wolves are a problem and prefer drastic actions rather than monitoring and careful consideration. An example of this occurred in May of 2021 when Idaho signed bill SB 1211 into law, removing restrictions on killing wolves that interact with your property and not requiring a license to kill them as long as it’s related to your property (State Affairs Committee, 2021; Ridler, 2021). This bill didn’t put limitations on the killing of wolves for this purpose, leaving the number of wolves that can be killed open-ended, until the population crashes to 150 wolves which then classifies them as endangered, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service takes control. For context, there are about 1500 wolves in the area, so they could potentially eliminate 90% of the wolves before this threshold would be reached. While the bill doesn’t directly call for a culling, it does allow for private contractors to be involved in the hunting process and does not put limitations on how the hunting is to be done or how many can be eliminated. This freedom to remove wolves that “harass” livestock is proposed on the basis that wolves cost farmers “hundreds of thousands of dollars by killing animals or harassing them” (Ridler, 2021). Unfortunately, I found it a bit difficult to find proper numbers on wolf depredation in Idaho, but articles from Capital Press from 2019 as well as Outside.com suggest somewhere between 150 and 180 wolf depredations occurred in 2019 (Carlson, 2019; Siler 2021). While that feels like a lot, please be aware there are over 2 million cattle over 7 500 farms and 210 000 sheep raised in the state (Idaho State Department of Agriculture, n.d).
Wolves, like many animals, are given a much worse reputation through misinformation and fearmongering than they deserve. While there are real reasons to respect and mitigate our risks around wolves, they really don’t pose much more of a threat than most other wildlife. The damages to humans and livestock are minimal and can be easily mitigated with research, careful population maintenance, and some minor spending. While I may never understand the struggles the ranchers go through as I have never been one, I would argue that the cost to the environment due to a loss of the wolves from poor lawmaking is far greater than the cost of a government to help the ranchers through compensation or helping make better wolf deterrents. For anyone with a passion for wolves or that lives in an area with wolf conflicts, reach out to your representatives and let them know this is not a one-sided discussion and that wildlife management needs to be done carefully, and with science to back the policies.
Jonah Miller & Aaron Evans
Carlson, Brad. (2019). Record number of wolf attacks on livestock reported on Idaho. (Accessed October 2021). https://www.capitalpress.com/ag_sectors/livestock/record-number-of-wolf-attacks-on-livestock-reported-in-idaho/article_efe15c0e-c51d-11e9-ada0-3768ab589935.html
Farquhar, Brodie. (2021). Wolf Reintroduction Changes Ecosystem in Yellowstone. (Accessed October 2021) https://www.yellowstonepark.com/things-to-do/wildlife/wolf-reintroduction-changes-ecosystem/
Idaho State Department of Agriculture. (n.d). (Accessed October 2021) Idaho Livestock. https://agri.idaho.gov/main/idaho-livestock/
International Wolf Center. (n.d.). Summary of Minnesota Wolf Depredation Data. (Accessed October 2021). https://wolf.org/wow/depredation2/
International Wolf Center. (2014). Learn About wolves and Depredation. (Accessed October 2021), https://wolf.org/wolf-info/basic-wolf-info/wolves-and-humans/wolf-depredation/
Koosmen, Tanika. (2018). The Ancient Origins of Werewolves. (Accessed October 2021) https://theconversation.com/the-ancient-origins-of-werewolves-104775
Linnell, J. D. C., Kovtun, E. & Rouart, I. (2021). Wolf attacks on humans: an update for 2002–2020. NINA Report 1944. Norwegian Institute for Nature Research.
Ramler J., Hebblewhite M., Kellenberg D., Sime C. (2014). Crying Wolf? A Spatial Analysis of Wolf Location and Depredations on Calf Weight. Econ. 96(3): 631-656. doi: 10.1093/ajae/aat100
Ridler, Keith. (2021). Bill to kill up to 90% of Idaho wolves heads to governor. (Accessed October 2021) https://apnews.com/article/bills-idaho-wolves-environment-and-nature-lifestyle-7e18d06ccff0705ca4282e2b097040a9
Siler W. (2021). Fact-Checking Idaho’s Wolf Eradication Law. (Accessed October 2021). https://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-adventure/environment/fact-checking-idahos-wolf-eradication-law-sb-121-bill/
State Affairs Committee (2021). Senate Bill 1211. https://legislature.idaho.gov/sessioninfo/2021/legislation/s1211/
Trbojević, I., Penezić, A., Kusak, J. et al. (2020). Wolf diet and livestock depredation in North Bosnia and Herzegovina. Mamm Biol 100, 499–504 https://doi.org/10.1007/s42991-020-00053-7