Thursday, January 11, 2018

Vicious: Wolves and Men in America

Despite a lot of talk and unfounded rumor, there is only one record of a non-rabid wolf killing a human in North America since the arrival of Europeans.

Yet humans have killed wolves wholesale, using poison, traps, clubs, rifles, and even laying out mackerel hooks inside lumps of meat and fat. Nothing was too brutal in the quest to exterminate the wolf, and by 1880 a large part of America was wolf-free.

The wolf hung on into the 20th Century, however, in large part because the bounty system did not pay enough for people to spend months tracking down the last western wolves which were smarter and more trap-shy than most. When the Government began paying a professional cadre of wolfers to exterminate the last of their kind, however, the fate of the wolf was sealed.

Ironically, one of the last Government wolfers was Aldo Leopold, whose birthday it is today.  Aldo was a wolfer when he was a young man working for the U.S. Forest Service in New Mexico. Leopold went on to write the first book on Game Management in the U.S., and became, posthumously, an icon of the modern environmental movement with his memoir, A Sand County Almanac.

Buried in that little book is an essay called "Thinking Like a Mountain," and within it a section in which Leopold observes the dying of a "fierce green fire" within a wolf as it bleeds out on on rock after being shot.

Up until that hunt, Leopold had thought what he had been doing was good for deer and the mountain, but after seeing the wolf die he suspected neither the deer nor the mountain agreed with that view.

In time, as deer overgrazed sections of the West and East, Leopold began to fully understand the importance of keeping top predators in the eco-system. "A thing is right," he wrote "when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of a biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

But Leopold came to this conclusion many decades after shooting out the last wolves of New Mexico, and in his youth he was among the cadres of Government wolfers who told stories about wolf hunts in order to help raise cash to support the public extermination effort.

Government-sponsored wolfers created traveling displays of wolf pelts and wolf skulls. These displays and stories memorialized the last of the western wolves and gave them names: The Custer Wolf, Old Three Toes, Old Lefty, and Old Rags the Digger, among them.

By giving individual wolves names and personalities, Government trappers helped break down the wall between wolf myth and wolf reality. The wolf, which had once seemed threatening, dangerous and mysterious, now became the outlaw hero of the story, and an emblem of the last days of the romantic (and dying) American frontier.

This is the essential plot structure of Jon T. Coleman's book "Vicious: Wolves and Men in America."

The book is not a text on wolf biology, but a history book that analyzes the gaps and nexus between wolf myth and wolf reality. Though well-written, it is more than a little burdened by the weight of being overly-academic and spending perhaps too much time on folklore and not enough on basic wolf biology. No matter -- if you have ever wondered how the wolf went from pariah to paragon in the space of 50 years, this book tells the tale.

Coleman suggests that the wolf reintroduction efforts of the 1990s (which have been quite successful) occurred because America is now mostly urban and has little contact with farm animals which now come from protected feed lots rather than the free-range forests and fields where wolf, ranchers, farmers and livestock once battled.

"Human predation has become so technical and abstract [in the lat 20th Century] that the consumers of animal protein no longer feel emotionally connected to the beasts they ingest...
Reintroduced wolves have thrived in a cultural environment that accepts the scientific extermination of millions of domestic animals but rejects violence towards a handful of wild creatures."

Would the wolf have been reintroduced if Americans still lived on grass-fed beef?

Perhaps not.

Did cows have to fatten in feed lots in order for America to returns its large predators to their spot on the ecological ladder?


It is an uncomfortable kind of tradeoff.


plenkj said...

The first book along these lines must have been "Of wolves and men" by Barry Lopez, that I bought when traveling in the USA about 25 years ago. I am Austrian and we see a comeback of the wolf here. If it is to stay i think a pragmatic view is to be taken. Top-predators stay shy of humans as long as they are hunted, and areas where they have never been exterminated are those where they have allways been hunted: to say healthy wolves will never kill humans is not correct, at least for Eurasia. But where a pastoral culture using livestock protection dogs exists and hunting is preventing the formation of big packs, coexistence seems to work since millenia.The english pioneers had long forgotten these methods when they moved to the Americas, so they overreacted and exterminated the wolf and other big carnivores even in totally unpopulated areas.Regards,Johann Plenk

PBurns said...

Well said!

Jennifer said...

Imagine how this would have played out has Smilodon, the American lion, the dire wolf, etc., not gone extinct.
In a way, the wolf isn't a top predator, just the biggest survivor after the top was knocked off.