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A Letter to ESPN (and Disney) About Wolves

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Dear ESPN (and Disney),

I am baffled and troubled by your publishing of “The myth of the harmless wolf” by James Swan on the Outdoors section of your popular website.  The article is so misleading, one-sided, over-the-top, and, at times, bizarre, it is difficult to understand how you decided to publish it.

I’d like to know why ESPN would baselessly demonize the wolf, an iconic wildlife species revered by many across the country, on its website.  Why are you trying to needlessly scare people?  What’s your goal here? 

If a mainstream monster network like ESPN wants a legitimate outdoors section on its website, it should celebrate wolves and the amazing American conservation success story of wolf reintroduction in the Northern Rockies, not reach into the Fox News toolbox of fear tactics.

The majority owner of ESPN is The Walt Disney Company.  Disney is quite proud of its conservation and environmental-protection efforts.  (Full disclosure: Disney is supporting an NRDC conservation effort in Costa Rica.)  Just last week, Disney announced:

The Walt Disney Company's rich legacy of respect for the planet and all its inhabitants began with Walt himself and continues on today.  A new Disney Conservation Report provides an overview of The Walt Disney Company's efforts to save wildlife and wild places and engage people of all ages in conservation, as well as snapshots of some of Disney's most important initiatives.

ESPN also touts its own corporate-sustainability efforts on its website (and links to Disney’s corporate responsibility page):

It’s our fishing sanctuary, our local soccer pitch, our makeshift dirt bike track – but in the end, the Earth needs just as much attention as the things we enjoy in life.  ESPN is proud to do its part to promote and resurrect a greener world.

Really?  Swan’s article is a not-so-subtle call to kill wolves, which only occupy a tiny portion of their historic range -- about 5% -- in the lower 48.  Please explain how trying to scare the soccer balls out of your viewership with a sensationalized, misleading vilification of wolves jibes with your and Disney’s statements. 

Throughout Swan’s article, he misrepresents facts, spouts half-truths, makes astounding leaps for his “support,” and plays fast and loose with the truth.

It’s a dreadfully dismal piece of journalism.

Here are some of the many problems in the article:

Swan begins his article with a discussion of three recent fatal attacks by “wild wolves” in North America: the death of a teacher in Alaska in 2010; the killing of a folk singer in Nova Scotia in 2009, and the loss of a student in Saskatchewan in 2005.  It’s a striking opening, but it’s not the whole story.

Regarding the attack of the folk singer in Nova Scotia, Swan initially explains that she was killed by coyotes, not wolves.  He then says the coyotes were subsequently identified by park rangers as a wolf-coyote hybrid.  That’s correct; the coyotes in Novia Scotia have some wolf genes from past interbreeding.  But they’re still largely coyotes (or hybrids at best) and classified as coyotes by the Novia Scotia government

And thus it’s shocking to see Swan a mere two paragraphs later write, “The attacking wolves in these three incidents . . . .”  Where did the coyotes go?  How did it change from a coyote attack to a wolf attack in Novia Scotia?  Research it; see how it has been reported.  To call that event a “wolf attack” is boldly dishonest. 

Regarding the 2005 attack in Saskatchewan, Swan points out that whether that was even a wolf attack is disputed, but he neglects to mention that the wolves seen in that area had been feeding at a garbage dump and people were concerned they’d lost their fear of humans.  Therefore, even if it was a wolf attack, these were not typical wild wolves (and this was the first recorded fatal wolf attack in North America, a pretty big fact Swan conveniently omits).

So, Swan opens his piece with three fatal attacks, of which one was simply not a wolf attack and another was a disputed wolf attack by garbage-feeding wolves that had likely lost their fear of humans.  This means we’re left with a single recorded fatal attack in North America by truly wild wolves.

And let me be very clear: that one freakish attack is a horribly sad, tragic loss (as were, of course, the other two).  There’s no question about that.  I discuss the attacks to shed some light at how Swan twisted the truth and left out some key facts to make his opening sexier and scarier. 

Moving along, what about the various quotes Swan provides from Dr. David Mech?  Strangely missing from the article are other statements made by Mech.  For example, the following is from a 2006 High Country News article on the 2005 Saskatchewan killing: “[T]he odds [of a wolf attack in North America are extraordinarily low, points out L. David Mech, a leading wolf biologist: ‘Wolves are still not any more dangerous than they ever were.’”  Whoa, that’s an inconvenient statement for Swan’s wolves-are-coming-for-you article.

Swan writes, “Wolf biologist David Mech advises people to never feed wolves and/or allow them to become habituated.  He says that if you meet a wolf, do not run away — yell, look as big as you can, throw rocks.  Pepper spray helps.  The sound of a gun will let them know you mean business.”  Sounds pretty ominous, right? 

Well, the following is from the same article Swan likely found some of the above statements: “Mech, a senior research scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey who has studied wolves full-time for more than five decades, said there have been about two dozen nonfatal attacks in North America in the past century or so.  Most involve wolves that had become habituated to people who have been feeding them at campgrounds, dumps and other sites near wolf habitat, he said.”

About two dozen nonfatal attacks in 100 years?  And most from habituated wolves?  How is that support for the picture Swan paints of bloodthirsty wild wolves stalking your children at this very minute? Any reasonable person reading that would find it reassuring, not terrifying. 

To support his argument that wolf attacks and aggressive wolf encounters are either increasing or receiving better reporting, Swan writes, “One recent incident involved a pack of wolves killing a mountain lion within sight of downtown Sun Valley, Idaho. Presumably these are the same wolves that have been seen prowling the streets of Sun Valley at night.” 

First, how does a pack of wolves killing another wild animal in the foothills of an Idaho town translate into “wolves are going to kill you”?  Wolves are carnivores.  They eat other wild animals.  I don’t understand the hysteria here.

And “prowling the streets of Sun Valley at night”?  Yes, wolves were often seen in residential neighborhoods in the Wood River valley last year.  But this is the Northern Rockies, not Cleveland.  In Bozeman, Montana, where I live, black bears come into town in the fall.  Many people move here for the wildness and wildlife of the Northern Rockies.  And wolves are (thankfully) part of what make the Northern Rockies so special.  (Swan also fails to mention that, due to Idaho’s wolf hunt that recently ended, these wolves are now rarely seen around Sun Valley.)

Swan then takes quite a swan dive with this one: “If you are out hunting and you're using a predator call, be careful.  Recently, one Idaho hunter was wailing on a dying rabbit call to draw in coyotes while his son was about 100 yards away.  A pack of wolves came in and surrounded his son.  The father and son had a very tough time driving away the wolves.”

Is this for real?  The father and son were out HUNTING PREDATORS!  They were making the sounds of a dying rabbit to lure in predators, and a pack of wolves showed up.  Wasn’t that what they were trying to do?  Did they expect Santa Claus to respond to the dying rabbit call?  I’m sorry, but this is just downright deceptive. 

Swan also advises us not to trust wolves.  To get to his don’t-trust-wolves admonition, Swan discusses old traditions and teachings of the Blackfoot Indians: “[T]he elders teach to respect the wolf, for he is a good hunter.  However, the elders also teach to never trust the wolf (or the coyote), for he can turn on his own kind, as well as anything else, and kill it.”

He then writes, “Co-existence between man and wolf is new to both species in the lower 48.  We should enter into this relationship following Blackfoot wisdom for relating to wolves — respect, admire them, but do not trust them to be like to [sic] warm, cuddly, animals you see on TV.”  Swan wants us to follow old Blackfoot wisdom in our relationship with wolves, but he also tells us that coexistence between humans and wolves is new to both species in the lower 48.  So, did the thousands of years of coexistence between Native Americans (e.g., Blackfoot) and wolves not occur?  Does it not count?  How can we follow the Blackfoot coexistence wisdom if Swan doesn’t acknowledge that it ever happened?  I am seriously confused.

Though there’s much more to say about Swan’s article (e.g., his maverick position on wolf movies and fairy tales), I’ll stop here.  Reread it.  Slowly.  Use Google.  Try to figure out how Swan arrives at his insane ending: “So, if you meet a wolf in the woods, cry ‘wolf!’ and protect yourself.  And don't stop reading ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ ‘Three Little Pigs,’ and ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ to your kids.  Someday, it might just save their lives.” 

Swan’s piece is an illusory house of cards that should never have been published on 

And this is only the most recent snafu on the Outdoors section of your website.

Last month, in response to your problematic reporting on the false Obama fishing ban,’s Executive Editor, Steve Bowman, wrote, “We take seriously the tenets of journalism that require we take an unbiased approach, and when we make mistakes in the presentation of a story or a column, it is our responsibility to admit them.”

I look forward to another mea culpa, ESPN (and Disney).

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.

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