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Wolves Are a Great Benefit, Not a Danger, in the Real World

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The Grey is the #1 movie in America. Response to the film has been spectacular with top national critics like Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone and A.O. Scott of the New York Times lauding The Grey and Liam Neeson's incredible performance with superlatives. The Grey is the story of a group of oil workers fighting for survival after their plane crashes in the Alaskan wilderness and they are hunted by a pack of wolves. It's a great story and thrilling to watch on the big screen, but that's all it is. Fiction. Fantasy. Made up. Realized on the big screen by filmmaker Joe Carnahan, who I had the privilege of working with on his first film, the no-budget thriller Blood, Guts, Bullets & Octane, as well as his 2002 follow up film, Narc.

In the real world -- not the one dreamed up by filmmakers -- the return of wild gray wolves is one of the greatest conservation success stories in the history of the United States, and experts say that wild wolves pose almost no threat to human safety. I am writing this to make those points extremely clear.

When settlers spread west in the 19th and early 20th century, wolves were seen as a threat. They were plagued by mythical baggage that goes back centuries in Europe depicting wolves as, well, "the big bad wolf." Wolves have big teeth and would sometimes kill livestock -- fueling the perception of danger.

So we tried to get rid of every last one of these "evil" animals by shooting, trapping, and poisoning them. Unfortunately we did a great job, and by the 1930s wolves were eradicated from almost the entire lower 48 states.

Fast-forward to the mid-1990s in the northern Rocky Mountains, when wolves had begun crossing the border from Canada and recolonizing parts of their old habitat in the U.S. portion of the northern Rockies. And then in 1995 and 1996, the federal government reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.

The positive ecological changes that have resulted from the return of the wolf in Yellowstone have been nothing short of astonishing. With the return of their primary predator, formerly complacent elk have again begun behaving like wild elk, which has allowed streamside plants and trees to flourish. This streamside vegetation benefits songbirds, trout, beavers, and other wildlife. The benefits of the return of wolves have trickled down throughout the ecosystem and been a great ecological boon for Yellowstone.

At the same time, there have been no wolf attacks on humans in the northern Rockies in the decade and a half since the wolf's return. Simply put, an attack by a wild wolf on a human is extraordinarily rare.

With The Grey, filmmaker Joe Carnahan, along with producers Jules Daly and Ridley Scott, present a great -- and fantastical -- story of man versus the wild that, at its heart, is an exciting and touching story of man versus himself.

That's not to say wolves are gentle herbivores. They do sometimes kill cattle and sheep. While statistically wolves account for a tiny percentage of livestock losses, a calf or a lamb lost to a wolf is a real loss for the owner of that animal. And when wolves prey on livestock, such wolves are usually killed. Therefore, conflicts between wolves and livestock are bad for wolves, bad for livestock, bad for livestock producers, and bad for wildlife enthusiasts.

Fortunately, non-lethal conflict-prevention practices exist, and more and more ranchers are employing these practices in wolf country. Such methods include using guard dogs, deploying riders on horses to accompany livestock, penning animals at night, using electric fencing, and other practices. Hopefully these methods will continue to be implemented more often and more resources will be made available for these conflict-prevention practices.

Today, gray wolves live in the upper Midwest and the northern Rockies, as well as in Alaska and Canada. Wolves are also slowly beginning to make a comeback in the Pacific Northwest, and just a few weeks ago the first wild wolf in more than 80 years showed up in California. The discovery of OR-7, or "Journey," as he has become known, made headline news in California and across the country.

The return of the wolf is an amazing conservation success story, but plenty of misunderstanding about wolves still exists today. Some activists have decided that The Grey is somehow the enemy of wolves and set their sights on boycotting the movie. This effort seems grossly misguided. The Grey will not harm wolves. We need to remember to separate fact from fiction when it comes to this charismatic carnivore.