Saturday, February 16, 2019

A Brief History of Wolves and Humans, Part 3 of 3

How to Build a Culture that Respects Wolves

I will 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 are lessons we can use to build the acceptance of wolves that is needed now 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. (This progression is similar to what happened in Europe a few hundred years earlier, as described in Part 2 of this series.) 

But Japanese citizens continued to hold the wolf in high esteem. 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, of course, 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 eradicate 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

By 1905—just thirty-two years after this war began—wolves were extinct in Japan. The key was that government-sponsored campaign to its citizens’ 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 revered. 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.

We must value wolves in a way that encourages protection. But now the opposite happens. For instance, Idaho hunters and trappers who kill wolves legally can be reimbursed up to $1,000 per dead wolf. The organization behind this bounty system claims that wolves have decimated Idaho’s elk herd. However, statistics from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game show that the statewide elk harvest now is similar to the harvest prior to the reintroduction of wolves. This same organization is trying to get a bill passed in the Montana legislature that would make a bounty system legal in Montana too. 

Montana legislators are also considering two bills that devalue wolves. One would add a wolf hunting tag to a resident’s hunting license for only $10. A second bill would allow non-resident deer and elk hunters to receive a FREE wolf tag. Both these bills aim to use financial incentives to increase wolf killing.

On the other hand, financial incentives have been used elsewhere to actually improve attitudes toward wolves. A 2011 study took place in a part of Sweden where livestock producers living in wolf territories received subsidies for installing predator-proof fencing. Scientists found that those who had received the subsidies tolerated wolves better than those who had not, regardless of the number of wolf attacks on sheep or dogs.

photo from WRWP website

Fencing is just one kind 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 Idaho. Since 2008, this project has been succeeding with nonlethal deterrents. During the first seven years, documented sheep losses to wolves in the project area were 90% lower than losses to wolves in the rest of Idaho. The Project states on their web site, “Using nonlethal methods reduces management costs and social conflict while maintaining the wolf’s important ecological contribution.” The Wood River Wolf Project also proves that groups that often fight one another—ranchers, wolf advocates, scientists, county officials, 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 significant financial incentives to use nonlethal deterrents. States should also require that realistic nonlethal deterrents be used before ranchers can be reimbursed for losses due to wolves.

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

A policy in the U.S. harms wolves as well. A little-known Department of Justice guideline referred to as the McKittrick policy has existed for years. This policy evolved from a 1995 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. McKittrick argued that he was not guilty because he thought he was shooting a wild dog. He appealed his conviction and lost. 

photo of coyote and wolf by Rick Lamplugh

Even though the the Department of Justice prevailed, DOJ administrators adopted what became known as the McKittrick policy. This directed DOJ attorneys to not prosecute unless they could prove that the accused knowingly killed a protected species. 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.

In June of 2017 WildEarth Guardians and the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance won a four-year-long lawsuit against the McKitrick Policy. A U.S. District Court Judge found for the groups and ruled that the government does not have to prove that a defendant who kills an endangered animal knew that the animal was endangered. Unfortunately, a little over a year later, The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the District Judge’s finding.

The McKittrick policy continues to tell hunters that wolves don’t matter. That even though wolves are endangered there are no consequences for killing them. Policies such as these must be abolished if we are to say that wolves’ lives matter.

The Japanese government hammered home to its citizens the message that wolves were demons to be destroyed, 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 in Yellowstone National Park with the alpha female of the Canyon pack. 

Canyon alpha female photo by Rick Lamplugh

A study in Wisconsin looked at the connection between legal killing and illegally poaching of wolves. Published in 2015 in the journal Biological Conservation, the study examined atttitudes and inclinations to poach among farmers and hunters living in Wisconsin’s wolf range. The results of the study suggest that “lethal-control measures, in the short term, may be ineffective for increasing tolerance of wolves.” The scientists write that this result is important because for many years scholars “have predicted that poaching would decline if other forms of lethal management were legalized.” That’s not the case.

Idaho has 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 fund the Idaho Wolf Depredation Control Board and eradicate wolves. The money is spent only on lethal methods, and in fiscal year 2018 Wildlife Services was paid to kill 83 Idaho wolves. (This is in addition to the 312 that hunters and trappers took in fiscal 2018.)  Currently, the Idaho legislature is considering making the board permanent. 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 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. 

Education changes—one mind at a time—how people view predators. 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. 

Grizzly and wolf photo by NPS

With that in mind, 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 survive. By focusing only on risks and not on benefits, wolf management plans can actually 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 curriculums already exist. One for students in K-12 was produced by National Geographic and Living with Wolves. These curriculums 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. 

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 before 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.

To learn more about the Wood River Wolf Project 

To Read Part One of this series

To Read Part Two of this series

Indie author Rick Lamplugh writes to protect wildlife and preserve wild lands. 

His bestselling In the Temple of Wolves is available signed and on Amazon

The award-winning sequel, Deep into Yellowstone, is available signed or on Amazon.

The new prequel, The Wilds of Aging, is is available signed or on Amazon in paper or eBook.

Wolf photo at top of post by Eric Kilby via CC BY-SA 2.0


  1. Nicely done, as usual, Rick. Good luck with it!

  2. Great read. Nice to meet you and have you sign my books at Wolf Week.