Saturday, June 10, 2017

How to Build a Culture that Respects Wolves

Yellowstone's Canyon pack alpha female (Rick Lamplugh)
To describe how to build a culture that respects wolves, I'll start with a story about a country that forced its culture from wolf respect to wolf hatred--the opposite direction of where we must go. But buried in that tale of rejection of wolves are lessons we can use to build the acceptance that is needed--with the recent poaching of Yellowstone's Canyon pack alpha female--more than ever.

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. 

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 wolves—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 thirty-two years—by 1905—wolves were extinct in Japan. The key was that 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 want to annihilate wolves to respect them instead. Let’s consider a few steps that Japan used 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. Now the opposite happens. Not so long ago, in one of the Great Lakes wolf states, 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.

The cost of a license to kill a wolf also shows how the government does not value the animal. In Idaho, for example, a resident can buy a tag for a wolf for $11.50. For that resident to kill an elk, the cost is $30.75.

Financial incentives have been used elsewhere to 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. Since 2008, this 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 to benefit wolves and livestock. 

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 required 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 thirty-two years.

Yellowstone coyote and wolf  (Rick Lamplugh)
Policies harm wolves in the U.S. as well. There's a little-known Department of Justice guideline called the McKittrick Policy. It 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 in 1995. McKittrick 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 department 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 prevented the criminal prosecution of individuals who killed dozens of endangered Mexican wolves. The McKittrick Policy is why the hunters who killed federally protected gray wolves dispersing to Iowa, Colorado, and the Grand Canyon were not prosecuted; the shooters claimed 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 can increase poaching. If the government says it’s acceptable to hunt wolves, then citizens figure it’s acceptable to poach them—as happened with the alpha female of Yellowstone’s Canyon pack recently. 

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 committed to spending $2,000,000—most of it from taxpayers—over a five-year period to eradicate wolves. A message 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 the country’s education system. Today, more than a century after their eradication, wolves are still vilified in Japan. 

Grizzly and Wolf (NPS photo)
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 implement a curriculum to teach how little risk wolves present and how much ecological benefit they provide. A number of curricula already exist. One for students in K-12 was produced by National Geographic and Living with Wolves. Another wolf curriculum, for grades 9-12, was produced by Bear Trust International. These curricula provide 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:

  1. All wolf states should subsidize nonlethal deterrents and require their use as a part of the process of reimbursing ranchers for losses due to wolves.
  2. The McKittrick Policy must be abolished.
  3. Every wolf state should write policy and enact legislation which requires that killing wolves should be the last resort, not the first.
  4. The federal government should implement a curriculum to teach how little risk wolves present and how much ecological benefit they provide.
Rick Lamplugh writes to protect wildlife and preserve wildlands. He lives near Yellowstone’s north gate and is just finishing his new book, Deep into Yellowstone: A Year’s Immersion in 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.

To learn more about the National Geographic Wolf Curriculum
To learn more about the Bear Trust International Wolf Curriculum
To learn more about the Wood River Wolf Project


  1. Fantastic post, Rick. Thanks for this and all you do to help animals.

  2. Thanks a lot, Rick Lamplugh. You provide such excellent insight, creating the basis for a change of mentality, which again helps to support necessary legislation. The facts may differ, but the pattern of demonization, for instance, is similar in many places.

  3. Fantastic post, Rick. Thanks for this and all you do to help animals.The facts may differ, but the pattern of demonization, for instance, is similar in many places.

    1. Thanks, Linda, for your kind words and your support of wolves.

  4. As a wildlife biologist turned wildlife artist, I educate people that where wolf populations are healthy, we find far less Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) within the deer, elk, and moose. CWD is a prion (RNA similar) disease very similar to Mad Cow. Research is scanty because universities are discouraged to investigate its possible level as a contagion to human and livestock hosts, which would decimate hunting revenues. After I speak to ranchers saying they should fear CWD far greater than they are fearing wolves, they become open to getting the giant dogs to protect their herds, while the wolves protect their herds from CWD!

    1. Thanks, Peggy, for your comment and info about CWD. And thanks for talking to ranchers about the value of non-lethal deterrents and wolves.