Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Calling to Protect Wolves and Wildlands

Photo by NPS
Wolves are marvelous animals. Given the right number, solid teamwork, a lot of determination, and a bit of luck, a pack can bring down a bison, an animal that weighs at least ten times as much as a single wolf. Right now we have the opportunity to attempt something as challenging. All it takes is making a phone call or two to your US senator or representative.

Here’s the situation: For the federal government to continue operating, the House, the Senate, and the White House need to approve a funding bill by April 28. Must-pass bills such as this have previously been used to sneak through anti-wildlife legislation that lacks enough support to pass on its own.

This must-pass bill could be used in that way too. According to the Endangered Species Coalition, there are currently more than thirty proposed bills in this congress that could harm endangered species or the Endangered Species Act. Any one of them could be passed by adding them to the funding bill. Some of the most concerning proposals would:

  • Kick wolves in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin off the endangered species list and allow these states to open wolf hunting and trapping seasons immediately. (S. 164)
  • Prevent the US Fish & Wildlife Service from protecting the greater sage grouse—a bird that has lost a substantial portion of its habitat to oil and gas extraction. (S. 273)
  • Put up costly and unnecessary barriers to citizens that petition the government to protect species under the Endangered Species Act. (S. 375)
  • Give states control over when to kick Mexican gray wolves off of the endangered species list—even if scientists and experts deem them in need of protection. (S. 368)

Here’s where you come in: Call your US senator or representative right away and ask him or her to pass a "clean" government funding bill without any amendments—like the ones above—that gut protections for wolves and other endangered species or give away control of America's public lands.

Calling is surprisingly easy and much more effective than sending an email or signing a petition. Most likely you will leave a message or a voice mail. You don’t have to be an expert. You’re a concerned citizen and your senator or representative needs to hear your opinion.

Thank you for taking the time and effort to make the calls. With a big enough team, lots of determination, and a little luck we can help protect wildlife and wildlands. (And I’d love for you to comment on this post as to how your calls went.)

Rick Lamplugh writes to protect wildlife and preserve wildlands. He lives near Yellowstone’s north gate and is finishing a new book about Yellowstone’s grandeur and controversies. He is the author of the Amazon bestseller In the Temple of Wolves. Available as eBook or paperback. Or as a signed copy from Rick.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Public Lands: A Blessing or a Curse?

Photo by Rick Lamplugh
In March, Mary and I left cold, snowy Montana hoping for warmth and sun in southern Utah. We weren’t disappointed. We hiked on lots of public land: a national conservation area, national monument, national parks, and state parks. We were stunned by the beauty of Utah’s deserts and mountains—and  we were thankful the wildlands had been protected from development.

But many Utahans rail against public lands. Some claim that locking away three-quarters of their state’s land stifles entrepreneurship and stunts economic growth. Is that true?

During our three weeks in Utah, we encountered many other visitors. Like us, they were spending on food, lodging, gas, and keepsakes. Obviously, tourism is alive and well. But what about Utah’s economy as a whole?

Once home, I studied the 2017 Economic Report to the Governor that the Utah Economic Council prepared. I found:

  • Utah’s job growth rate was among the highest in the nation. Unemployment was exceptionally low. Wages increased during 2016.
  • Utah’s ski resorts and national parks hosted a record number of visitors last year. Tourism contributed to strong job growth.
  • Utah’s rate of population growth was the highest in the nation. The number of people moving to the state was the highest in a decade. Experts predict the population will keep growing and fueling a construction boom.
  • The Economic Council lists risks to Utah’s economy. Having too much public land is not among them.

In another report, CNBC ranked Utah as the nation’s top state for business. The state’s economy ranked third in the nation. CNBC says the state has developed innovative industries and has a collection of big and small companies that rivals California’s Silicon Valley. The report identifies risks to Utah’s economy. Having too much public land is not among them.

A prospering economy in a state with abundant public lands is not unique to Utah. The Atlas of Yellowstone reports that studies of the economic benefits of public lands found “…counties in the West with wilderness, national parks, national monuments, and other protected public lands…stimulate economic growth.” And what’s more, lands with greater protection have stronger positive effects on growth.

The people who complain the loudest about public lands are those who crave access for ranching, farming, forestry, wood products manufacturing, mining, and fossil fuel development. These industries have been around a long time and have lobbyists and political friends who make sure complaints about public lands are heard. They scream that these industries are staples of the West and the jobs they produce must be protected.

But they don’t admit that these extractive industries contribute fewer and fewer new jobs in the new West. The total number of jobs in these industries accounted for only three percent of all the jobs in the West, according to the Atlas of Yellowstone.

Far from making a case for selling off public lands, Utah provides economic and picturesque proof that public lands and a growing economy can exist side by side. Wildlands and the economic vitality they foster should be protected from those who want to privatize them and greedily tear them apart.

To enjoy a slideshow (photos and music) of the incredible Utah public lands we saw.

Rick Lamplugh writes to protect wildlife and preserve wildlands. He lives near Yellowstone’s north gate and is just finishing a new book about Yellowstone’s grandeur and controversy. He is the author of the Amazon bestseller In the Temple of Wolves. Available as eBook or paperback. Or as a signed copy from Rick.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

An Inside Look at Capturing Yellowstone's Bison: A Photo Essay

The Stephens Creek Capture Facility run by the National Park Service is a central cog in a controversial bison management plan. Two concepts sit at the heart of the plan: migration and social tolerance. Bison naturally migrate out of Yellowstone each winter in search of grass not locked away under ice or snow. The state of Montana has limited tolerance for bison outside the park near Gardiner and West Yellowstone. State officials claim this is because some bison are infected with brucellosis that can be transmitted to cattle. But there has never been a documented case of brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle.

This unfounded fear of brucellosis was one factor leading to the creation of the IBMP, the Interagency Bison Management Plan—a court-ordered coalition of federal and state agencies and some tribes. The IBMP calls for the capture of bison at Stephens Creek and for their shipment to slaughter in Montana. It also calls for a hunt just outside the park to further reduce Yellowstone's bison population. 

Along with members of the media and conservation organizations, I toured the Stephens Creek facility in the winter of 2016 and 2017. I represented Gardiner’s all-volunteer Bear Creek Council. Below are fourteen photos I took during the tours. I've added captions that explain how bison are handled at Stephens Creek. Click on a photo to enlarge it.

Processing begins as four NPS employees on horseback ride into the pen that holds captured bison. During the 2016 tour we observed the shipping of 30 bison and the processing for later shipment of 75 more. During the 2017 tour, we saw 41 bison shipped and 65 more processed.

Shouting, whistling, and waving their hands, the horseback riders run the bison toward a second pen.

The bison are hazed from the second pen into a long chute. This chute leads to a device with the brand name “The Silencer.”  NPS employees use long poles to prod the bison out of the chute and into The Silencer, one at a time. 

The Silencer performs a number of functions. Here, in 2016, a park bison biologist waiting to work stands to the left of the machine, while a supervisor on the catwalk makes sure the machine is ready for bison. (As of 2017, NPS painted over The Silencer brand name on the equipment.)

We watched many bison go through The Silencer. They bucked and kicked and grunted, the whites of their frightened eyes obvious. Once a bison is in The Silencer, an operator slides levers that moves the sides of the machine inward, squeezing the animal and holding it in place. Once the bison is still, a bar pushes the animal’s head to the side and holds it there so the biologist can draw a blood sample. The large needle used to draw blood is in the biologist's right hand. 

In addition to a blood draw, each bison is weighed, and its sex, age, and brucellosis status are determined. 

In 2016 an employee showed us the blood samples. An NPS bison biologist analyzes the samples at a small lab at Stephens Creek. A positive test result means that a bison has been exposed to brucellosis, but does not necessarily mean that the bison can transmit the disease now. Test results, says NPS officials, are not used to determine which animals are shipped to slaughter. Instead, they use them to understand the disease status of the population and to identify a few animals that are appropriate for brucellosis research studies.

After release from The Silencer, bison are directed to various holding pens, depending on age and sex. In the photo, are female bison seen through a small hole in one of the sheets of plywood that cover the fence of the holding pens. NPS officials say that if bison can't see past the plywood, can’t see an escape route, they stay calmer. 

These captured calves--born the previous spring--were waiting to be shipped to slaughter in 2016. This view is from a catwalk above the holding pens. An armed law enforcement ranger accompanied each of us when it was our turn to observe from the catwalk. About eight employees work on the catwalks. They handle the opening and closing of gates and keeping bison moving. Four other employees take care of drawing blood and gathering data at The Silencer. Workers often communicate with hand signals.

Once a bison has been processed and assigned a number by a tag placed on its back, it's ready to be shipped. The blood on this bison is from an injury to this animal or from rubbing against another injured bison.

A trailer from a Native American tribe backs up to the loading gate, and the door of the trailer is opened. Bison are released from the holding pen and hazed down a chute. NPS employees prod the animals with long poles from above to make them step from the loading gate through the open door of the trailer. 

In 2016, sixteen bison were put into one of these trailers and fourteen in the other. Once the bison were loaded, the trailer was sealed. The trailers left together, followed by a Montana Department of Livestock law enforcement officer in a DOL truck. The officer was armed and ready to shoot the bison in case there was an accident and a bison escapes or was injured. This procedure is required by the state of Montana since these bison may have brucellosis. 

By the date of our 2017 tour, about 1,000 bison had been captured, sent to slaughter, or killed by shooters outside the park. We were told that as many as 1,300 could be killed this winter. The NPS has submitted an Environmental Impact Statement to replace the original bison management plan that is seventeen years old and requires this capture and slaughter and hunt. In 2016, an NPS spokesperson told us that they have outgrown the old plan. In 2017, a different spokesperson said that it could be up to ten years before a new plan is in place. In the meantime, this capture and slaughter and hunt will continue.

 Since 1952 the image of a bison has appeared on the arrowhead patch—the official emblem—worn by NPS employees. In the days that I spent touring Stephens Creek, I heard numerous NPS employees state that they do not want to be sending these genetically pure bison to slaughter. However, they added that they are required to do so by the IBMP. I was also told that the Montana Department of Livestock wants a quicker return from Yellowstone's current population of around 5,000 bison to the IBMP target of 3,000. To reach this target population, of course, even more bison must be killed. 

As of March 1, 2017:

650 bison have been captured at Stephens Creek.
At least 470 of those bison have been shipped to slaughter houses.
The remaining captured bison will also be shipped to slaughter.

For more info on the IBMP, including a schedule for 2017's meeting. IBMP meetings are open to the public. The next meeting:

April 6, 2017 at the Holiday Inn West, 315 Yellowstone Ave., West Yellowstone, MT

To read my post: "Firing Squad: The Reality of Yellowstone's Bison Hunt

In the Temple of Wolves
by Rick Lamplugh

More than 250 Five-Star Reviews
Amazon Best Seller

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Firing Squad: The Reality of Yellowstone's Bison Hunt

photo by Rick Lamplugh
Mary and I look across the Yellowstone River and the wide, flat snow-covered Gardiner Basin. Beyond the basin rise low foothills, soft in early morning light. Above them looms the snowy flank and top of rugged Electric Peak. 

We take turns scanning with binoculars along the floor of the basin to a creek and a thin line of conifers that marks Yellowstone Park's northern border. Just beyond that border is Beattie Gulch in Gallatin National Forest. There, during the current hunting season, winter-hungry bison that step over the invisible park boundary in search of grass not buried under deep snow are shot by hunters. 

Hunter is the wrong word. Those people we watch through binoculars in Beattie Gulch today—there are at least fifty of them, some in camo, some in bright orange vests—are not hunters. They are shooters—a firing squad, really. They stand in the open, within sight of their pickup trucks, their guns ready, waiting for bison to unwittingly enter their field of fire. 

We count twenty-nine bison, walking in a long line toward the firing squad. The animals seem oblivious to danger. Why shouldn’t they be? They spend most of their lives in Yellowstone protected from hunting. We watch and worry as they close in on the firing squad. Then we hear the first shots, popping sounds at this distance. We are shocked to see a bison fall and amazed that the rest of the herd does not run away. Instead, they circle their fallen member, as if wondering what’s wrong. Pop! Pop! Another bison down. Some of the group moves toward the second bison on the ground. Pop! Pop! Pop! Two more bison fall. Still the rest don’t flee. 

Within minutes, twenty-one bison lay scattered and still in front of the firing squad. We feel some relief as the eight survivors turn from the slaughter and in a much shorter line escape Beattie Gulch and climb up a draw, heading back towards the park. One limps, perhaps wounded. 

Mary and I sit silent, sad, and angry. We know that if today’s survivors make it back into the park they will be safe for a while. But their days could be numbered. Though these eight escaped the firing squad today, the annual capture of bison by the National Park Service (NPS) at the Stephens Creek Capture Facility within Yellowstone is underway. 

This controversial hunt outside the park and capture within the park are required by the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP). That plan was written in 2000 by a court-ordered coalition of federal and state agencies: the NPS, US Forest Service, USDA-Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, Montana Department of Livestock, and Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks. Three Native American groups, the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes, and the Nez Perce Tribe, joined the coalition a few years later. Goals of the IBMP include confining bison within Yellowstone and reducing the park’s population from 5,500 to 3,000 bison. 

photo by Rick Lamplugh
This winter the plan calls for removing up to 1300 bison. Many will be killed outside the park by shooters—like the ones we just saw slaughtered. Many others—which may include those eight survivors—could be captured and interred at Stephens Creek. From that facility, Native American tribal members will haul the imprisoned bison to slaughter houses in Montana.

Managing Yellowstone’s bison with confinement and death is done in the name of protecting cattle from brucellosis. The disease can be transmitted from elk or bison to cattle and cause infected livestock to abort calves and ranchers to lose money. But there has never been a documented case of brucellosis transfer from bison to cattle. Ironically, the transfer originally went in the other direction: cattle transferred brucellosis to bison in the early days of the park when cattle were kept in Yellowstone to provide milk and meat for visitors.

Elk, on the other hand, have transmitted brucellosis to cattle numerous times. But elk are not confined to the park, are not captured and slaughtered like bison. Elk are not viewed as livestock, are not under the control of the Montana Department of Livestock as bison are once they leave the park. Elk are considered wildlife, as trophies, to be hunted and stuffed. Bison are used as brucellosis scapegoats to be confined and killed.

The IBMP’s bison management evokes protests from locals, Montanans, and people all across the United States. This year’s protest started in early January, after the hunt began and before the capture started. 

Since moving to Gardiner, Mary and I have become drawn physically, emotionally, and intellectually into this life and death struggle. We have joined the Bear Creek Council, a local all-volunteer conservation group where we can work as part of a team to confront the bison controversy. Mary has found news reports and scientific papers detailing the management of bison and elk. I have used that information and our field observations—such as watching the firing squad—to write several articles about the bison slaughter. We have attended meetings where those for or against killing bison speak and sometimes shout opposing views. We have joined about fifty others in a sunset protest march down the main road in Gardiner against the inhumane treatment of bison. The march was organized by Buffalo Field Campaign, a regional activist group that has been fighting for years to end the capture and hunt.

But watching those bison fall this morning is not talking, reading, or writing about senseless killing. This is seeing and hearing it. This is feeling the anger and shock and sadness. This is all too real, and no matter how much we dislike it, the controversial killing will not end anytime soon. Neither will the protest against it. 

As of March 1, 2017, 417 bison have been killed by the firing squad. Another 14 bison were wounded, escaped back into Yellowstone, and then had to be killed by NPS employees. 

This post adapted from a chapter in my forthcoming book, Deep into Yellowstone: A Year's Immersion in Grandeur and Controversy.

In the Temple of Wolves
by Rick Lamplugh

More than 250 Five-Star Reviews
Amazon Best Seller

Sunday, December 4, 2016

A Tribute to 06, the Smart and Strong Alpha Wolf

Photo by Leo Leckie
Across the snow-covered valley floor from the Lamar Buffalo Ranch, 06 and her Lamar Canyon pack encircle a bull elk. He has backed against a large, uprooted stump and has his front hooves in a shallow braid of Rose Creek. He is six-feet tall at the shoulder with 6 X 6 antlers and has several ways to kill a careless wolf. 

From where we wolfwatchers stand, the elk and wolves are less than a half-mile away, visible with the naked eye, and amazingly detailed through the spotting scope. The air buzzes with excited chatter about how this life-or-death drama may unfold; wolves succeed in only one of every five attempts. The Lamar’s last confirmed kill was three days ago. They must be famished; they have been gnawing on bones at old kill sites. Feasting on this elk who could weigh 700 pounds is crucial—but not guaranteed. 

This bull could be a good choice of prey by 06 for two reasons. First, a big elk means more meat for every member of her pack. Second, this bull is probably exhausted after last fall’s rut during which he may have collected a large harem, slept little, expended lots of energy, and not grazed enough to completely recharge. Now, after several months of below-freezing temperatures, deep snow, and poor grazing, he could be even more depleted, more vulnerable. 

The wolves crouch, charge, and nip at the elk’s legs. The elk, head up, charges at them. The wolves retreat. The elk backs into the creek. This give and take repeats several times, until 06 and her pack curl up in the snow in a long, loose line that starts near the elk and stretches eastward. Though the temperature is below freezing, each wolf looks like a dog sleeping on the hearth. All except for 06. Although at the end of the line and farthest from the elk, she never takes her eyes off of him. The elk, head high, still as a statue, glares right back.

When 06 finally stands and stretches, the alpha male, 755M; his larger brother, 754M; and two younger wolves join 06 and move toward the elk. With no hesitation, the elk charges, making the wolves dodge and feint. 06 moves to the elk’s front. She’s famous among wolf watchers for lunging at an elk’s neck, crushing its windpipe, and hanging on until the elk suffocates. Is that what she’s going to do now? 

Or is she trying to entice him to chase her? If he chases, his unprotected rear becomes a perfect target for the rest of the pack. Those bites would not kill him outright, but if he bleeds, he’ll weaken. That would make delivering the eventual death blow easier, and she and her pack would eat at last. But this elk is experienced; he stands his ground and protects his back. The wolves return to resting, again curling up in the snow. Score round two for the elk.

Photo by Karen Withrow
A while later, I can’t pull my eyes away from the scope as the elk backs up a few steps and then stops. He watches 06 and her pack. They don’t move. He backs away again. Stops. Stares. Three wolves raise their heads. None stand. The elk turns and with no pursuit strides away, a hundred yards, a quarter-mile, a half-mile. He stops. 

Amazing! Is 06 going to just let the bull escape? I notice that Rick McIntyre of the Yellowstone Wolf Project has arrived, and I decide to ask him what he thinks. I walk over and wait until he has finished whispering observations into his digital voice recorder. Then I ask if he thinks the elk has escaped, if the feast has fled. 

He studies the scene and then turns to me. “Oh, this isn’t over,” he says with a smile. “The pack will have no trouble tracking that elk later.”

I feel like smacking my forehead and yelling “Duh!” Of course these noses-on-four-legs can track this animal. Why didn't I think of that? Embarrassed but still curious, I ask, “Do you think the wolves know this elk?”

“Very likely they do. Either by scent or appearance. This is probably not his first encounter with the pack. He’s old enough to have had others. And he’s fit enough to survive this one, too.” 

McIntyre turns back to his scope, grabs the voice recorder, and whispers a few notes. As I turn to leave, somebody yells, “The wolves are up!” 

I snap my head toward the stand-off and see 06 and her pack, noses to the snow, drifting to where the bull stands, a cliff now protecting his rear. I sprint to my scope (as much as you can when wearing heavy, insulated boots) and zoom in. The wolves form a horseshoe around the elk who charges one; it scoots away, but a second leaps at his rear. The bull spins and lowers his head, shakes his thorny rack side to side. A wolf could die if an antler punctures an internal organ. The whole pack backs off and settles down to rest. The elk takes round three.

This match has been on for five hours this morning and who knows for how long last night. Though the elk seems to be standing his ground, I wonder if he is in fact losing ground. His body must be firing adrenaline and burning energy at a high rate, but we have yet to see him eat, drink, or rest. And 06 has her pack resting again; they may be winning this battle of energy attrition.

An hour or so later, the elk finally lies down. Instantly, 06 is on her feet, charging and nipping. The elk jumps up. Other pack members join in until there are eight of them, circling and snapping. 

“This might be it!” a woman shouts. 

The elk lashes out with a front hoof. A hoof to a wolf’s head can mean instant death, and one to a wolf’s side can mean slow death from internal bleeding. The wolves give ground. The elk takes round four.

At 6 p.m., eleven hours since we set up our scopes, 06 stands and saunters past the elk and down the valley. It’s a determined walk, one that tells her pack that this hunt is over. Perhaps—as McIntyre said—she knows this bull and has decided that bringing him down right now isn’t worth the energy or risk. Whatever her motive, her family falls in line and follows. The elk, defiant to the last, charges a couple of youngsters who come too close as they pass. 

The wolves’ stomachs must be growling as they climb a slope and leave the valley floor after another day without food. But at the ridge top, 06 and her pack join in a rough-and-tumble reunion.

The elk stands and watches them before he meanders a short distance to graze where dried grass pokes through snow. I’m surprised that he makes no attempt to leave this dangerous area. Does he figure that the danger has left him? Or is he just too drained?

Early the next morning, my wife Mary and I slip and slide up the muddy, snowy, and rocky flank of Ranger Hill, beside the Lamar Buffalo Ranch. Last night through our cabin window--we live at the ranch all winter while volunteering there--we heard a lot of wolf howling. At breakfast we learned that a conspiracy of ravens and an eagle were circling in the area of yesterday’s stand-off. Was it a victory chorus by 06 and her pack? We’re climbing for a view, to see if there’s a carcass and some meat-drunk wolves. 

Halfway up the hill, Mary stops and searches with binoculars. A moment later, she whispers that she sees lots of wolves on a kill. 

Photo by Leo Leckie
I follow her directions and zoom the spotting scope in on 06, pulling a strip of meat from a carcass that’s halfway submerged in Rose Creek. A raven perches on the antlers. I count twelve points. This must be the big guy from yesterday, the one who shook that rack defiantly at the pack.

Though it had appeared the battle was over when 06 led her pack away from the valiant elk, she was just preparing her next move. She and her pack had drawn blood, and none of her family were injured. Though they hadn’t feasted, she knew there was another day; she could find the bull later by the scent from his bloody wounds. And time would give her an advantage. So she left, gave the elk a false sense of security, and then she circled back. She did not let the bull rest; he must have been very tired from the stand-off. She did not let the bull recuperate; he had lost blood from the pack's earlier bites. Instead, 06 did what she was famous for: used her experience and leadership to once again feed her family.

On a winter day in 2012, O6, led her family out of Yellowstone and toward the rising sun. No one knows why she chose to travel fifteen miles east of the park and into a Wyoming’s Wolf Trophy Game Management Area. Maybe she went in search of migrating elk. Maybe she went in search of 754M, her alpha male’s brother, a wolf with which she had also mated. Several weeks earlier in the area to which she was heading, he had become a fatality in a legal Wyoming wolf hunt. Whatever drew her, she never returned. On December 6, 2012, 06 became a trophy. 

The deaths of 06 and 754M disrupted the delicate family structure of the Lamar Canyon pack. They were not the only Yellowstone wolves killed in the 2012-13 wolf hunt. A total of twelve park wolves were killed. Six of them wore collars that provided valuable scientific information. Data from 06’s collar shows that she spent ninety-five percent of her time within the park. She was used to the presence of people—she had been observed by thousands and thousands of park visitors—and this would have made her an easy target outside Yellowstone.

While hunting wolves is not currently allowed in Wyoming, special interest groups are fighting tooth and nail to bring back the Wyoming wolf hunt. In Montana, there are two hunting districts just outside Yellowstone’s northern border where wolves can be taken, disrupting other wolf families and forcing numerous wolves to choose new leaders, new roles, new lives.

Perhaps the best tribute we can pay to 06 is to keep fighting to stop the hunting of wolves everywhere.

This tribute adapted from a chapter of In the Temple of Wolves.

In the Temple of Wolves
by Rick Lamplugh

More than 250 Five-Star Reviews
Amazon Best Seller

Monday, November 28, 2016

How Wolves and Humans Are Alike

Photos public domain. Collage by Rick Lamplugh
While some people see wolves as vicious killers to be feared, hated, and eradicated, I see them as essential predators that we have much in common with. 

Some commonalities lead to conflict.

Our similar preferences in habitat encourage clashes. Wolves can live most places we do: forests, prairies, tundra, mountains, deserts, swamps. They can thrive even in Europe and Asia, areas dense with humans. 

Our similar tastes in food lead to competition. Wolves and humans both enjoy sheep, cattle, deer, and elk. Many humans would rather kill wolves than share with them.

While wolves and humans are both territorial, we string barbed wire, draw lines on maps, and kill thousands of wolves in our misguided attempt to protect “our” territory.

Other similarities--if we understand them--can forge stronger bonds between wolves and humans. 

Both species evolved in families, found strength in numbers. Members of any healthy family—human or wolf—assume specific roles. Like human parents, the alpha pair makes decisions and controls the pack. Other members contribute to the pack’s survival. In their families, wolves—like humans—play, show affection, feed and discipline their young, and mourn their dead.

Photo CC By 2.0 Bob Haarmans
Wolves, like humans, have different personalities: some are loners; some are lovers; some are leaders. 

Wolves postures and facial displays express aggression and fear, dominance and submission. In humans we call this non-verbal communication.

Wolves, as well as coyotes, red foxes, and domestic dogs, even experience “human” emotions such as joy and grief. In his book, The Emotional Lives of Animals, evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff writes that while animals may experience some emotions that humans can't understand, we can understand many of their feelings. Observing is the key. 

Bekoff observed, for example, how body language revealed the grief a pack of wolves felt after losing a low-ranking female. The grieving animals lost their spirit and playfulness. They no longer howled as a group. Instead, they sang alone in a slow mournful cry. They held their heads and tails low and walked softly and slowly when they came upon the place where a mountain lion had killed their pack mate. I’m struck by how the changes are similar to those a human family may experience after losing a loved one.

If wolves and coyotes can experience emotions that humans feel, can they also become mentally impaired? Bekoff asks this intriguing question and then concludes that since many psychological disorders have been diagnosed in dogs, "there's no reason why this couldn't be true for their wild relatives.”

The similarity between wolves and humans goes even deeper. Both are moral creatures. Not long ago most scientists believed that animals lacked a moral compass. But times and attitudes change. When Bekoff and bioethicist Jessica Pierce wrote their book Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals a few years ago, they reported that the “staggering amount of information that we have about animal intelligence and animal emotions” now leads more scientists to say that animals can act with compassion, altruism, forgiveness, trust, and empathy. “In humans,” say the authors, “these behaviors form the core of what we call morality.”

Photo by NPS
I don’t always associate the words compassion and empathy with wolves and coyotes. Sometimes when I observe these animals in Yellowstone, I see a dog-eat-dog world: an alpha puts an upstart in its place, two packs battle over territory, a coyote dies trying to share in a wolf pack’s feast.

But wolves and coyotes live in tight social groups built on a network of relationships that depends on trust, reciprocity, and flexibility, just as human relationships do. Animals in such groups, say Bekoff and Pierce, live according to a code of conduct that discourages some behaviors and encourages others, that fosters cooperation and coexistence.

The ability to get along, in fact, may determine the ultimate size of a wolf pack. For a long time scientists thought that available food regulated pack size. But Bekoff and Pierce point to research by wolf expert David Mech that shows pack size may be regulated by social factors and not just food. My interpretation of Mech’s findings: pack size is governed by the number of wolves in the pack that can bond versus the number of wolves viewed as competition. When those numbers are out of balance—not enough bonders, too many competitors—packs splinter. 

Philosopher Mark Rowlands also believes that many animals—including rats, chimpanzees, and dogs—feel emotions such as love, grief, outrage, and empathy. When acting on those emotions, animals choose to be good or bad. In his book, Can Animals Be Moral?, he presents examples suggesting that animals know right from wrong. Though humans possess a more developed moral consciousness, Rowlands says that animals can act for reasons that require an awareness of and concern for others. They can act morally.

Several years ago, a group of prominent scientists signed the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. The scientists declared that rapidly evolving scientific evidence shows that many animals are conscious and aware in the same way humans are. And that animals act with intention. Consciousness, awareness, and intention are keystones of morality.

photo via flickr CC BY 2.0
Because we have so much in common with wolves, we must treat them differently.

If we believe that animals can act morally, can experience emotions such as joy and grief, can even become mentally impaired, then we must make sure that our actions match our beliefs. We must, as Bekoff writes, treat these other beings with respect, appreciation, compassion, and love. “There's no doubt whatsoever that, when it comes to what we can and cannot do to other animals, it's their emotions that should inform our actions on their behalf, and we can always do more for them.”

Yes, we can always do more for wolves. And we should do less to them. We are far too similar to wolves to fear and hate and kill them.

In the Temple of Wolves
by Rick Lamplugh

More than 250 Five-Star Reviews
Amazon Best Seller

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

It's Time to Thank Wolves

Wolf photo via USFWS (CC BY 2.0)
As the thankful time of year arrives, I think wolves deserve our thanks. With the help of wolves, early humans improved their hunting skills and out competed Neanderthals. Ancient wolves were generous enough to share their hard-earned kills and brave enough to make a leap of friendship with humans.

For hundreds of thousands of years, wolves dogged herds of reindeer that migrated between what is now Spain and Siberia. After the last Ice Age, perhaps 10,000 years ago, early humans may have seen wolves bringing down reindeer. Our ancestors may have been as hungry as those wolves. Stomachs growling, they puzzled over how to plunder some of their competitor’s bounty. A couple of early humans--no matter how desperate--couldn't just take a pack's kill.  

But early humans were superior to their competitor in some ways, say Wolfgang Schleidt and Michael Shalter in the journal article “Coevolution of Humans and Canids.” Humans have greater cognitive ability. Humans can see better at longer distances, because we stand taller than wolves. Humans with weapons could hit a target from a distance. These strengths could have enabled early humans to assist wolves in hunting.

Ancient wolves hunted, as they do now, by sorting and sifting a herd to expose the animal that required the least effort to bring down. Once wolves cut that animal from the herd, the dangerous work of bringing down a much bigger animal began. And that’s where humans might have come in. With bigger brains, better vision from a distance, and weapons, humans could have helped the wolves. Working together, a meal was won using the strengths of both predators. The partners shared the spoils. 

There is even evidence that wolves helped humans survive. Pat Shipman, an anthropologist, in her book, The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction, also theorizes that early humans partnered with wolves. But she adds a twist: that alliance gave our ancestors an unbeatable advantage over Neanderthals, our competitor.

Neanderthal sites in Europe (Via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Scientists estimate that Neanderthals had dominated the European continent for more than 200,000 years. Our ancestors reached Europe about 45,000 years ago, and within just 5,000 years Neanderthals had disappeared. Some experts believe that climate change caused their demise. Shipman presents an exciting alternative. 

“At that time, modern humans, Neanderthals and wolves were all top predators and competed to kill mammoths and other huge herbivores,” she told Robin McKie, of The Guardian. “But then we formed an alliance with the wolf and that would have been the end for the Neanderthal.”

Shipman describes the partnership. “Early wolf-dogs would have tracked and harassed animals like elk and bison and would have hounded them until they tired. Then humans would have killed them with spears or bows and arrows.” In addition to helping with the hunt, wolf-dogs would have kept rival carnivores and scavengers from stealing the kill—just as wolves protect their kills today.

Wolves surround a bison (NPS photo)
Both wolf-dogs and humans benefitted from this partnership, says Shipman. “This meant the dogs did not need to approach these large cornered animals to finish them off—often the most dangerous part of a hunt—while humans didn’t have to expend energy in tracking and wearing down prey. Dogs would have done that. Then we shared the meat. It was a win-win situation.”

These ancient wolf-dogs were not the same as modern wolves or modern dogs, were not a hybrid of wolves and dogs. Shipman told Simon Worrall of National Geographic that wolf-dogs had characteristics similar to those of today’s wolves, but they were a distinct group. Large and built for hunting, they had big teeth and a great sense of smell and could run long and fast.

Shipman found no evidence that Neanderthals joined forces with wolves. As she told Worrall, “They continued to do things in the same old Neanderthal way as life got hard and times cold...And that lack of adaptability may have been a telling failure as [modern humans] moved in. If you then add in wolf-dogs, Neanderthals were at a terrific disadvantage.” 

Modern humans won the evolutionary race. And we have our partners the wolves to thank for some of that victory. 

As centuries passed, this partnership evolved into wolves becoming dogs. The commonly held view of that domestication is that humans chose the lazy, opportunistic, outcast-from-the-pack wolves that scavenged at human camps. But Schleidt and Shalter present an alternate—and intriguing—possibility of unrecorded history: “…scavenging wolves took the initiative and conned the affluent hunting and gathering humans into sharing their plenty, by pretending to be their obedient servants and hunting companions.” In other words, wolves may have chosen and trained us, much to our benefit. 

Wolf pups in Yellowstone (NPS photo)
The impact of wolves on human development could be even greater. Wolves and humans are similar in two important ways. Both survive by cooperating in group activities, such as taking care of young or hunting. Both share risks among group members. Schleidt and Shalter hypothesize that humans may have improved these two survival skills by studying wolves. We apprenticed with wolves and then with our bigger brains and the ability to develop technology, “Humans became better gatherers, better hunters, more successful fishermen, gardeners, astronauts, you name it.” Wolves, domesticated to dogs, became our hunting companions, guards, beasts of burden, playmates, and baby substitutes.

Mark Derr offers another view of the wolf-to-dog transition in his book How the Dog Became the Dog. He does not see wolves as curs slinking around the edge of a human settlement begging for handouts and eventually tamed by intelligent humans. He writes that the partnership with wolves occurred before early humans even had settlements. Certain nomadic humans and wolves met on the trail and were simply right for one another; were both sociable and curious. Those initial connections were no small thing for either party. The first wolves to take up with humans were exceptional animals capable of making what Derr calls “a leap of friendship” with a creature from another species.

Wolves hunting elk (NPS photo)
Once that leap was made, early human and wolves evolved together. Our ancestors learned a few tricks from wolves—and returned the favor.  Early human hunters, writes Derr, were ambushers, while the more experienced wolves were pursuit hunters.  Humans observed wolves and learned to hunt by stampeding prey. This method produced more meat than humans could eat or carry away and they left the remains for wolves and scavengers. Wolves ate their fill and learned that they could benefit from human hunters. 

Derr’s image of two intelligent and resourceful creatures meeting on the trail, befriending one another, and evolving together is an important addition to wolf natural history. No one knows for sure how humans and wolves met or how wolves started their long journey to doghood.  But I think that how we view wolves historically is critical to how we treat them today.

Consider this scenario: You’re in the market for a dog and you go to a reputable breeder. She has two dogs from which you can choose. The dogs look similar. You ask about each. She points to one and says, “Oh, his parents hung out by my trash pile. They’re just scavengers.”  Then she points at the other and says, “This one’s parents were two of my best friends. They were intelligent, attentive, and curious.” Which animal would you take as one you will love and care for? Which might you keep at a distance or demonize? 

Yellowstone wolf pack (NPS photo)
As I see it, ancient wolves were intelligent enough to grasp the advantage of working with our ancestors. Ancient wolves were generous enough to share their hard-earned kills. Ancient wolves were brave enough to make a dangerous leap of friendship with a competitive species. 

In the end, we became top predators with powerful arsenals and few thoughts of long-term consequences. And, sadly, we came to hate wolves and treat them as unacceptable competitors for game and livestock. 

We forgot the thanks we owe these fine creatures that befriended and taught us.

In the Temple of Wolves
by Rick Lamplugh

More than 250 Five-Star Reviews
Amazon Best Seller