Midnight on a wild and cold mountain in Oregon. A small human pack howls out, hoping to hear wild wolves. Our plaintive and hopeful howls echo through the valley. We listen intently: Screech owl, airplane high above, a scattering in the bushes. But no communal and haunting canis lupus howl comes back to us. The same answer as it's been for decades in this country -- the silence of the wolves.
"Wolves are slowly coming back here," whispers our biologist from this U.S. Forest Service's enlightened HJ Andrews Experiment Forest. "In Oregon we now have a pretty sane and sensible management program. But the wolves are still hiding out. And who can blame them?"
Our history with wolves is horrible. This fellow top predator once ranged throughout the 48 states, but was driven almost to extinction by ranchers, hunters, and federal wolf control programs. In the dark ages of wolf management, wolves were considered only a game or "nuisance animal" to be gunned down, poisoned, trapped, and exterminated. But when wolves were reintroduced in 1995 in Yellowstone Park and Idaho, scientists soon discovered that wolves actually restore damaged ecosystems.
Scientists call this benefit the "Trophic Cascade" effect. Wolves are "keystone species" who help balance and bring stability to degraded ecosystems that have for decades been managed more like exclusive game farms for hunters than wilderness areas we all share. When wolves are missing from our wild lands, elk overgraze new growth of willow, aspen, and cottonwoods, especially along rivers. When wolves return, they redistribute elk to higher and safer ground. Vegetation bounces back. Trees stabilize the riverbanks, offering shade, which creates cooler streams and bigger fish. Grasslands, native plants, even songbirds return when wolves are restored to their rightful place.
"We've really learned a lot from the return of wolves," say National Geographic authors, Jim and Jamie Dutcher, who lived alongside and studied the famous Sawtooth Pack in Idaho. "In fact, it was the wolves who allowed us to become civilized -- when we domesticated dogs, they helped us domesticate cattle and sheep and we became a stable, agricultural society."
Now we're in a very civilized Seattle concert hall packed with 2,500 people for "The Hidden Lives of Wolves." In their book and program, the Dutchers share stories of their six years living with wolves in a remote tent camp during winters as frigid as 40 degrees below Farenheit.
"Wolves are a lot like us," Jim Dutcher explains. "They are close-knit families who care for each other. Wolves mate for life, they are devoted to their young, and they self-regulate their own populations."
"We once found a wolf skull with signs of a broken jaw," Jamie adds. "But the jawbones had mended. That is evidence that other pack members fed him, and helped the wounded wolf to survive."
In their observation of the Sawtooth wolves, the Dutchers were accepted and so trusted by the pack that now through their films and books, the world can understand the real life of wolves: loyal, intimate, cooperative, highly communicative, and now again, sadly endangered.
"We completely misunderstand and reserve a spectral hatred for wolves that we show no other animal," notes Jamie.
In their "Living with Wolves" website, the Dutchers cite statistics that tell the story of our long history of prejudice. In the past 100 years in North America only two people have allegedly been killed by wolves. Put this in its proper context: Since 2002, bears killed 35 people; and cougars killed 11 people since 1990. In the U.S., domestic dogs kill 20-30 people every year. And hunters kill nearly 100 people in the U.S. and Canada every year and injure around 1,000.
Yet the Big Bad Wolf myth still dominates our stories and our wildlife policies. In an otherwise delightful Disney movie, "Frozen," the lie about wolves is perpetuated when a snarling and yellow-eyed pack of wolves chases children through the woods. In our Western States, wildlife officials are gunning down entire wolf packs from helicopters; hunters and ranchers shoot wolves "on sight" rather than employ common-sense policies that limit predation of their livestock. Some responsible ranchers are returning to methods proven to limit predation: keeping cow-calf pairs together and hiring ranch riders to patrol the vast public lands where their livestock wanders open range without supervision. But these sustainable ranchers are still in the minority.
Since the federal government has proposed delisting wolves and Western states have returned to wolf slaughter instead of management, it's another all-out war on the wild wolf. According to Defenders of Wildlife, 2,262 wolves have been killed to date. Idaho is Ground Zero for wild wolves with Governor Otter's lethal wolf control bill to bring the population down to an unsustainable just over 100 animals, now just passing the Senate.
This wolf slaughter may actually hurt ranchers, explains Jim. "When you decimate a pack --especially the experienced alphas -- you end up with a younger, dysfunctional, and smaller pack. The young wolves don't know how to take care of themselves or hunt down larger prey. So they go after slower, easier livestock."
Such wolf culling is not based on science, but on hatred and superstition. The USFW's proposal to declare the wolves "recovered" is a "delisting disaster," says Defenders of Wildlife, Jamie Clark Rappaport, noting that in February, 2014 a USFW scientific peer-review panel reported to Secretary Sally Jewell that their proposal to delist the gray wolf from protection in most of the 48 states was not based on the best available science . . . delisting the gray wolf is premature and shortsighted."
Earthjustice and Natural Resources Defense Council have also filed suits to stop the delisting of wolves. The deadline for public comment is March 27th. But will Secretary Sally Jewell listen to the howling of humans -- so far, one million strong voices -- on behalf of wolves?
In that Seattle concert hall the Dutchers spoke to 12,000 people in their several presentations; and 5,000 of them were children. When the kids were told about the rampant wolf hunting, they screamed out in one shocked voice, "Noooooooo!"
The audience asked if the Dutchers would lead us in a communal howl. Before she did, Jamie explained that when a wolf pack loses one of the family members, their howls change. "When the Sawtooth Pack lost Motaki, their omega wolf, to a cougar attack, the whole pack mourned his loss. They moped around, tails tucked, ears back. For weeks, they even stopped playing. Their howls took on a searching and mournful quality."
That's exactly how our human howls sounded that day when 2,500 of us answered the Dutchers much-practiced wolf howl with our own elegiac and yet strangely hopeful howling. It might take the next generations with blogs like Kids4Wolves to reverse our historic prejudice against wild wolves. It might take our children's screams to stop us from telling lies in our fairy tales about wolves --and start telling the truth and the real science: Wolves are not nuisance animals. They are necessary to our own and our wild lands' survival.
"Killing all these wolves now is irresponsible management," Jim Dutcher says. "It's a policy that shows no science or real understanding of the species' survival. We can't treat wolves like rabbits or deer,or like something that simply grows back. And imagine if you killed off most of the members of your family -- and expected the animals to go on as if nothing devastating had happened."
Before March 27th, make your howls heard: public comment
Listen to the audience howling together at The Hidden Lives of Wolves event: