Monday, March 21, 2016

Part 4: How to Build a Culture That Respects Wolves

I must start with a story about a country that took its culture from wolf respect to wolf hatred. Though that’s the opposite direction of where we must go, buried in that tragic tale of rejection of wolves are lessons that we can use to build acceptance.

The story, told well by Brett Walker in his book The Lost Wolves of Japan, begins around 1600 when the Japanese regarded wolves as deities and worshipped them at shrines. Farmers accepted the wolf as a partner that killed boar and deer that ate the grain crops on the small farms that were the cornerstone of Japanese agriculture.

During the 1700s, Japan’s population swelled and people encroached on wolf territory. Rabid wolves killed some Japanese. Hatred stirred; bounties were placed. But the Japanese still held the animal in high esteem.

All that changed in 1868 when a new Japanese government vowed to modernize the country’s economy. As part of that modernization, Japan would create a large-scale livestock industry similar to that in the U.S. The government wrote policy that demoted small-scale grain farming and promoted livestock production on huge new ranches carved from wolf territory. Walker writes that modernization was built into the Japanese education system, workplace, political values, and attitudes about agriculture.

Five years later, the Japanese government took another step and hired an American rancher, Edwin Dun, to help build the livestock industry and destroy wolves. Dun knew about industrial poisoning with strychnine, and when he arrived, the war on wolves erupted. The government helped by portraying wolves as monstrous killers that preyed on almighty livestock. They even used taxidermy—stuffed snarling specimens—to transform reverence to fear. The government created a bounty system that provided financial incentive to kill animals once seen as essential partners.

Statue of Honshu-wolf via GNU
In only 32 years—by 1905—wolves were extinct in Japan. The key was the government-sponsored campaign to shift the citizen’s image of the wolf from deity to demon.

This story reveals how a government has the power to convince citizens to do the unthinkable: annihilate an animal they once respected. Our government might use such power to do something almost as unthinkable: convince those who annihilate wolves to respect them. What did Japan use for the bad that the U.S. can use for the good?

The Japanese government used financial incentives, bounties, to overwhelm centuries-old reverence and to make wolves more valuable dead than alive.

Our government must value wolves in a way that encourages protection. Right now the opposite happens. Not so long ago, in Michigan, for example, legislators introduced two bills that dealt with restitution and fines for poaching. The bills valued relatively rare wolves less than more abundant animals. Restitution for killing a moose or elk, for example, was $5,000. For killing a wolf: $100. Bills such as these demonstrate with dollars that wolves have less value than other animals.

Wyoming recently devalued wolves even further. A bill under consideration would bar the Wyoming Game and Fish Department or state law enforcement from helping the federal government investigate, arrest, or prosecute anyone who kills or injures a gray wolf or grizzly bear—both animals currently protected in that state under the federal Endangered Species Act. The legislators’ message is clear: wolves and grizzlies are not worth the effort to protect.

Financial incentives have been used elsewhere to actually improve attitudes toward wolves. In a part of Sweden where livestock producers received subsidies for installing predator-proof fencing, scientists found that those who had received subsidies tolerated wolves better than those who had not, regardless of the number of wolf attacks on sheep or dogs.

Fencing is just one type of nonlethal deterrent that keeps wolves and livestock separate and alive. For an excellent example of how nonlethal deterrents can work in the U.S., look at the Wood River Wolf Project in Blaine County, Idaho. For more than a decade this Defenders of Wildlife project has been refining, adding, and succeeding with nonlethal deterrents. The project proves that groups that often fight one another—ranchers, wolf advocates, and county, state and federal agencies—can work together.  

Given the power of nonlethal deterrents to protect wolves and livestock and improve attitudes toward predators, all wolf states should provide financial incentives to use nonlethal deterrents. States should also require the use of nonlethal deterrents as a primary part of the process of reimbursing ranchers for losses due to wolves.

Japan’s government wrote powerful polices that led to the eradication of wolves in only 32 years.

Photo by Max Goldberg via CC BY 2.0
Policies harm wolves in the U.S. as well. There exists, for example, a little-known Department of Justice guideline referred to as the McKittrick Policy. This policy evolved from a Montana case in which Chad McKittrick was convicted under the Endangered Species Act for killing Wolf Number 10—one of the first wolves released into nearby Yellowstone National Park in 1995. McKittrick had argued that he was not guilty because he thought he was shooting a wild dog. He appealed his conviction and lost. 

Even though the Justice Department prevailed, administrators adopted what became known as the McKittrick policy. This directs their attorneys to not prosecute unless they can prove that the accused knowingly killed a protected species. A 2013 lawsuit challenging this policy reported that following that guideline has prevented the criminal prosecution of individuals who killed a total of 48 endangered Mexican wolves. This policy is why the hunters who killed federally protected gray wolves dispersing to Iowa, Colorado, and the Grand Canyon were not prosecuted; the shooters claim to have misidentified the wolves as coyotes.

The McKittrick Policy tells hunters that wolves don’t matter, that even though they are endangered there are no consequences for killing them. Policies such as these must be abolished if we are to say that wolves deserve to live.

The Japanese government hammered home to its citizens the message that wolves were demons to be killed, not deities to be worshipped. Citizens complied. 

Our federal and state governments also send important—and deadly—messages. Wolf states have federally approved wolf management plans that define protecting wolves as keeping a certain number of breeding pairs alive. Some of those states’ plans allow, even encourage, the legal killing of “surplus” wolves. Those plans endanger wolves in two ways. First, the animals die in legal hunts. Second, government-sanctioned killing influences the intention to poach. If the government says it’s acceptable to hunt wolves, then citizens figure it’s acceptable to poach them. 

Events in Wisconsin exemplify this.  There, the state killed wolves implicated in livestock attacks, believing that taking out “bad wolves” would foster greater tolerance for wolves in general. But a study found the opposite: Wisconsin residents who lived in wolf areas showed a decline in tolerance and an increase in intention to poach wolves. Tolerance fell even further after the state’s first legal wolf hunt. 

Idaho has also sent to its citizens a deadly message about wolves. The state government has committed to spending $2,000,000—most of it from taxpayers—over a five-year period to eradicate wolves. A messages such as this can only increase the prevalence of the shoot, shovel, and shut up mentality.

Every state with wolves should write policy and enact legislation which sends the message that killing wolves should be the last resort, not the first.

The Japanese government built modernization—and the need to abolish wolves—into that country’s education system. Today, more than a century after their eradication, wolves are still vilified in Japan. 

Photo by Serge Melki via CC BY 2.0
Education changes how people view predators one mind at a time. One study found that the acceptance of bears, for example, increased when people were given two pieces of information: how bears benefit the ecosystem and how to reduce risks posed by bears. But if people were told only about how to reduce risks and not about how the ecosystem benefits, acceptance decreased. 

Try this: study the wolf management plans of the wolf states. You will likely find that each plan describes how to reduce the risk of wolf-human or wolf-livestock encounters. But you will not likely find a plan that promotes any meaningful information about the benefits wolves provide to the ecosystems in which they are allowed to live. By focusing only on risks and not on benefits, wolf management plans reduce the acceptance of wolves. 

The federal government should develop and implement a curriculum to teach how little risk wolves present and how much ecological benefit they provide. Or the government could partner with National Geographic and Living with Wolves, two well-respected organizations that have worked together to produce such a guide for students from kindergarten to high school. Their guide provides educators with activities that enrich students' understanding about the wolves. The activities dispel common myths and prejudices and encourage youth to get involved in conservation efforts. 

Our hatred and disrespect of wolves is centuries old and will not change quickly or easily. But here are four steps that can start building a culture that respects wolves:

  • All wolf states should subsidize nonlethal deterrents and require their use as a primary part of the process of reimbursing ranchers for losses due to wolves.
  • The McKittrick Policy must be abolished.
  • Every wolf state should write policy and enact legislation which requires that killing wolves should be the last resort, not the first.
  • The federal government should implement a curriculum to teach how little risk wolves present and how much ecological benefit they provide.

Part Five of this series will look at why dispersing wolves still need federal protection.

To read Part Three: The War on Wolves

In the Temple of Wolves
by Rick Lamplugh

More than 225 Five-Star Reviews
Amazon Best Seller


  1. Bravo, bravo, bravo; Standing ovation and thunderous applause for this well written and logical piece of journalism. I have LONG believed that education was the key to changing the incorrect notions about wolves in this country. You have taken it farther and have suggested some wonderfully simple steps that our government should take as well. That combination, education and governmental policies, would certainly make a difference. If Japan could change their views in only 32 years, we SHOULD be able to change our views toward the positive in a similar period of time. Now, if only we could get somebody in DC to read this and then have the testosterone to stand up to the ranchers and hunters. Rick, again I thank you for a well conceived and well written piece. It is my prayer that this can and will happen in my lifetime.

    1. Hi Rob, thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment on How to Build a Culture that Respects Wolves. I really appreciate both. And I agree with you about getting someone in DC to read this and take action...

  2. Ditto Rob's comments ... this is brilliant, reasonable and empowering. As I am at the beginning of "Yosemite Howling," a novel that was supposed to be a rather light story of an ordinary woman on an extraordinary journey, I find the focus shifting. The wolves are grabbing me. Who knows how many people you are touching with your work, but you've definitely had an impact on me.

    1. Hi Joyce, thanks for your kind words. I hope that the wolves are able to become major characters in your novel. Many people are reached and moved by fiction based on fact.

  3. These four steps mentioned don't sound so difficult to accomplish. I agree with everything Rob stated in his comment. The question is how do we get the government to listen to the general population and not the fear mongers and wolf haters? Education will help in the long run as a new generation learns the importance of having wolves in our ecosystem. More public awareness will also help through advocacy with media attention which I have done at all but two wolf state capitals. The obstacle most obtrusive to accomplishing these 4 steps is our government. We are in an election year and how it turns out will be a big factor. In the meantime I do everything I can to promote awareness of the importance of this beautiful apex predator in our ecosystem and world. Thanks for a very informative and well written piece Rick.

    1. Hi Jeanne, thanks for all you are doing for wolves. I don't know yet how to get these ideas into the hands of interested government officials. But I'm glad to know that the ideas make sense to others.

  4. Nicely done, Rick! Keep on keepin' on; you're doing great work!

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  6. You bring up some very good points, Rick, and they are relevant & will be helpful as I craft my comments on grizzly delisting. I am troubled, though, at the impenetrable wall of state "game" commissions & agencies whose agenda and fealty is to promote killing for recreation, trophy, subsistence, commercial profit (outfitters & trappers), and for no reason at all. I can't yet even glimpse how those dynamics are going to change in frontier-mentality states like Idaho. Nonetheless, I will continue to add my voice at chipping away that wall, even if shrill & frustrated!

  7. Hi Pamela. Thanks for taking the time to craft an individualized comment to FWS. That is so important to do. I appreciate how troubling the fish and game departments and trophy hunters are. But I encourage you to focus just on what you can do--submit the best comment possible. Rick