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Success of Nature, Victim of History: The Predator Became the Prey
The wolfyellow-eyed, loping, relentless, carnivorousprowls the periphery of human vision, populating the jack-pine forest just beyond the firelight and the myths that darkness fosters. It's not surprising that, through the millennia, people have developed a love-hate relationship with this predator. For wolveslike peoplehave shared the same territory and many of the same characteristics. The gray wolf (Canis lupus) has the largest natural range of any mammal other than its ancient nemesis, Homo sapiens. Its sociability was recognized when, about 12 000 years ago, early humans in the Near East domesticated the wolf, making it the predecessor of all 120 species of dogs today. The wolf s allegiance to its pack's leaders, its strong parental sense, its exceptional hunting skills, its poetic howling, even its bloodthirsty natureoccasionally killing for the sake of killingare mirrors, reflecting the proximity of the primitive in human nature.
That is why the wolf features so prominently in the folktales and legends of the northern hemisphere. In 20 000-year-old cave drawings from southern Europe, in accounts from Mesopotamian farmers 7000 years ago, in early Christian demonology, in tales of werewolves from the Middle Ages, in gothic stories like Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs, Canis lupus gradually assumed its fatefuland undeservedreputation as Evil Incarnate. Much of this misconception was the result of agrarian European cultures seeking justification for killing an animal that sometimes preyed on theirlivestock.
In North America, where native hunter-gatherers had no concept of domesticated herds of goats, sheep, or cattle, the wolf assumed a benign, even honored, role: wise, powerful, an instinctive hunter, a teaches in fact, of tactics humans could emulate against buffalo or caribou. But with the arrival in North America of the European colonialists in the 17th century, the extermination of this continent's wolves began. That the wolf has in the last 300 years been eradicated from much of Europe and most of the contiguous 48 American states is a tribute to the power of agricultural societies to conjure up myths and create legislation against the unreal, but imagined, threat of the Big, Bad Wolf huffing and puffing at the door.
The fact is: no animal on earth has been so unfairly maligned or so completely misunderstood.
Originally, the wolf occupied most of North Americafrom the icy islands of Canada's arctic to the dry, mountainous ravines of central Mexico. The only areas that it never inhabited were the southeast corner of the U.S. and coastal California and Mexico. Across this enormous range, the wolf made regional adaptations to the climate, the terrain, and the available prey. Some zoologists claim that these variations in appearance and behavior have produced 24 subspecies of wolves in North America; others set the number of subspecies at only five.
The timber or gray wolf of the Canadian forest is the largest member of the canine family, which includes coyotes, foxes, dingos, and jackals. Almost three-quarters of a metre (27 inches) tall and two metres (six feet) long, the gray wolf occupies in most of its territory the top of the food chain, rivalled only in the Pacific Northwest by cougars and grizzly bears and in the arctic by polar bears. The timber wolfs mottled, gray-white coat, its long legs, and its impressive ten-centimetre-wide (four-inch) paws are suited for bushwhacking over crusted snow in pursuit of deer and moose.
The smaller white or subarctic wolf of northern Canada and Alaska depends on its coloration to attack herds of musk ox and caribou in its terrain. Naturalists report that this is the only subspecies of wolf which has not developed an instinctive distrust of man. Patient observers of the white wolf relate incidents of playful pups untying the laces of photographers' boots and adults urinating on human intruders' tent-posts as if to reassert their territorial claims.
The highly endangered red wolf, now isolated in small parts of Louisiana and Texas, is the smallest member of the wolf family It has developed an unusual ability, sometimes standing on its spindly rear legs to peer across grasslands and swamps, searching for rabbits and rats. The grayish, dry-lands Mexican wolf stands at the threshold of extinction, numbering in the wild fewer than 40.
Beyond these differences, the various subspecies of wolf share a number of similarities, regardless of locale, in social structure, in mating patterns, in parenting, in play, and in hunting techniques. These intimate details are known because, as a result of its long and controversial interaction with humans, the wolf has probably been more intensively studied than any other wild animal on earth. In the last half-century, field naturalists have spent unnumbered hours recording the behavior of North America's wolves. Gradually, the old perceptions have been replaced by information based, not on superstition and fear but on close observation and analysis.
Few mammals anywhere are as awareand as loyal totheir social group as the wolf. Unlike coyotes and foxes, the wolf usually exists for its pack. The rare exception is the proverbial "lone wolf"the runt, the outsider, ostracized from the pack. This wolf may wander ten kilometres (six miles) or 1000 kilometres (600 miles), passing cautiously through the domains of other packs until it finds a mate and begins a new pack. For most wolves, however, their identity begins and ends as part of a cohesive, eight- to fifteen-member pack. The hierarchy of the pack is known to all and reinforced by favors, rituals, nips, and fights. The so-called alpha male and female are the pack's leaders. The subservient members are usually direct descendants of the alpha parents, which means a pack is really one extended family. Some subservient wolves assist in feeding and raising each spring's new batch of pups. All share in hunting duties. All socialize together, snooze together, and often howl together. All pay daily, ritualized allegiance to the group's leaders.
This ability to communicate in a communal group sets the wolf apart from most other North American animals. Lower-ranking younger wolves literally bow before the alpha adults to show their submission. And unlike the dominant adults that urinate with a raised leg, many weaker wolves squat while urinating to minimize the distribution of scent. Most packs have a regular, weaker "baby-sitter" that helps look after the youngand often goes hungrywhile the alpha parents are out hunting. In attacks on large prey, the wolf employs a wide variety of group tactics, led initially by the pair of alpha wolves which communicate through vocalizations, facial expressions, and body movements to other pack members.
Another role of the pack is to protect its territory against incursions from other wolves. This strong identity with an established area of land may last for generations. The boundaries of this area are fiercely protected by regular, ritual scent-markings every 100 to 200 metres (or yards) along a perimeter that typically encompassesdepending on the subspecies and the amount of available preyabout 400 square kilometres (150 square miles). The wolves within this area see the local game as "their" prey. Intruding wolves are attacked and, on occasion, killed.
Research has shown the wolf prefers wild game, selecting among ungulates like elk, deer, and mountain sheep where possible, but utilizing a full range of local resources, including bison, seals, beaver, muskrat, voles, waterfowl, fish, garbage, and even berries. But it is the wolfs reputation as a killer of domestic animals that has earned it so much trouble.
At the turn of the century, several American wolves gained notoriety and nicknames for their predation of livestock. One wolf, named "Old Lefty" since it had lost a left paw in a trap, became a legend in Colorado, killing, it is said, 384 head of livestock in 1913. And "Three Toes," another maimed wolf, reportedly took $50 000 worth of cattle in its time. Despite the fact that there have been no recorded human deaths from wolf attacks in North America, a persistent fear of wolves and the occasional livestock-killing lent credence to the long-held view that nothing could prevent wolf predation except mass slaughter.
Between 1630 and 1960 in North America, a systematic eradication of the wolf population followed the westward expansion of the frontier. At first, as had happened earlier in Europe, wolves were killed by farmers and herders whenever the animals trespassed on agricultural land. As settlement spread west, early explorers reported that the number of wolves on the Great Plains rivaled the number of buffalo. Following the explorers, farmers, cattlemen, and trappers brought death on a genocidal scale to wolves across the continent. There is no doubt that the elimination of the wolfs preybison on the prairies, deer in eastern Canadacontributed to the wolf's demise. And it's not as if the wolf was the only predator singled out for slaughter. In what naturalist Barry Lopez calls an "American pogrom," millions of predatory creatures, from the black-footed ferret to the bald eagle, were exterminated.
Where localized hunting didn't remove the wolf, governments established bounty systems to encourage the killing. In 1909 in British Columbia, trappers were paid $2.50 for each wolf killed. By 1949, the price for a wolf had risen to $40. Similar rates existed elsewhere. During its peak period in the late 1940s, 10 000 wolves per year were being killed in Canada for bounties. The bounty system was supplemented in many places with mass poisonings of wolves. Ranchers in Texas would lace pieces of meat with cyanide or strychnine and trappers in the Yukon would set out poisoned bait.
These methods of eliminating the North American wolf population ceased around 1960. But by that time, the wolf had become virtually extinct in nearly half its former territory Except for the tiny enclaves of wolves in the American south and Mexico and the 1200 or so timber wolves that survived in northern Minnesota, the contiguous 48 states are practically free of wolves even today. Fewer than 100 wolves live in the northern-tier states along the Canadian border. A rough line, drawn east to west through Canada 50 to 100 kilometres (30 to 60 miles) north of the U.S. border, marks the southern border of the remaining territory of large numbers of wolves in North America. It is estimated that 60 000 wolves still live in Canada, the largest surviving group in the world. Another 6000 wolves live in Alaska.
In the last few decades, public attitudes toward the wolfand the steady decline in the wolf populationhave, in most places, been reversed. Part of this is due to the belated realization that in the U.S. the wolf was headed toward extinction. Better management of the wolfs prey population and the end of bounties and poisonings have allowed Canis lupus to reestablish itself in some regions where it had disappeared. With the exception of the Mexican wolf, all remaining subspecies of North American wolf are now increasing in number.
But more than the changes in game management and legislation, the public itself has found in the wolf a modern-day metaphor for nature untrammeled by human predation. People who know the wolf bestbackcountry hikers, outfitters, natives, naturalistsreturn from the continent's fast-disappearing wilderness bearing a message about the wolf quite different than the one borne by frontiersmen and farmers of generations past. Those who know the wolf most intimately speak in awe of the wolf s parental skills: feeding, playing, instructing, and disciplining the pups in a communal family of parents and older siblings. The human visitors among the wolf have come to admire the sophistication and tenacity the pack employs, working as a team to track and subdue its prey. Despite centuries of persecution for their predations of livestock, modern research has shown this occurs, in fact, infrequently In a 1981 Minnesota study it was calculated that wolves killed 110 sheep and 30 cattle that year out of a state-wide population of livestock numbering 300 000.
Those who have lived among wolves are inevitably impressed by the sociability among pack members: the nuzzling, sniffing, rubbing, wrestling, the helping of injured members, the protectiveness toward the babies. They are, as well, inevitably struck by the wolfs amazing skills in navigation, marking trails, defending its territory's perimeter, wandering long distances daily before returning home to the den. Outdoors, at night, wherever the wolf still survives, the eerie yowlingfirst one voice, then two, then a chorus of undulating, lugubrious howlsreminds those who have heard the sound that the darkness is still alive with possibilities. The wolf s forlorn cries alert humankind to the precariousness of nature's creatures and the mystical quality of wilderness.