The Wolf Almanac
Barring some competition from whales, wolves are probably America’s most popular wild animal. Wolves are also contenders for America’s most unpopular wild animal, with perhaps some competition from coyotes. Their supporters tend to be environmentalists, and their detractors tend to be ranchers and deer and caribou hunters who see wolves as competitors and want them eliminated from the earth. This reviewer remembers rabid anti-wolf lobbyists in the late 1960s who compared wolves to the Viet Cong, and suggested that anyone who wanted to save them was a Communist.
Owing to the emotional nature of the wolf controversy, many people have become deeply involved with them, sometimes to the benefit of the wolves, more often not. Literally hundreds of organizations, large and small, have sprung up to work for wolf preservation, often to great effect. The recent reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park has surely been among the most dramatic pro-wolf developments in wolf history—the discrete, personable individuals who were introduced there have by now been sighted by some two thousand delighted tourists, which should win yet more friends for wolves and also for Yellowstone Park.
It seems, however, that for each wolf saved several others are killed in wolfcontrol programs, often by people who characterize themselves as wildlife biologists. One wonders if the term “wildlife biology” is an accurate description of that branch of the profession. At one time, some of the practices now termed “wildlife biology” were known as “farming.” What else are we to call the forceful and unnatural manipulation of animal populations for financial gain? Today, in an effort to produce an exaggerated number of ungulates—in this case deer, elk, moose, and caribou—for the hunting pleasure and license fees of sportsmen, many Fish and Game departments in the United States and Canada wage a merciless war on wolves, using poison, traps, snowmobiles, and aircraft. Such purges have horrifying consequences for the wolves—a recent purge in British Columbia resulted in the deaths of approximately sixty thousand of them, reducing the wolf population to eight thousand. How is it possible that as a society we have become so polarized on the subject of wolves, and where are we getting our information about them?
In paleolithic times, when wolves and our ancestors hunted the same kinds of game around the edges of the glaciers, we surely got our information from direct experience, and if our ancestors were anything like modern hunter-gatherers such as the Kalahari Bushmen (whom I once watched accurately tracking a brown hyena over a vast ledge of bare rock) the observations they made were probably accurate. But with the dawn of agriculture, our ability to observe went into decline. When we became sedentary, lived indoors, and started to raise livestock we began to see wolves not as occasional fur-bearers or fellow hunters but as robbers. The information we would have obtained when we were huntergatherers was to be replaced by an astonishing number of inaccurate and superstitious notions, many of them still in circulation. For…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.