Prior to European settlement of the area that is modern-day America, the landscape and its inhabitants were vastly different. If you’ve flown across the States you’re familiar with the patchwork appearance of the neatly divided areas and intense agricultural use of so much of our land mass. But back before we “conquered” this territory, it was a vast, diverse, thriving landscape composed of connected ecosystems, enormous diversity in flora and fauna, and people who respected this intricate balance. While we cannot go back in time and undo all of the damage we’ve done, and while it is unrealistic to wish that giant areas of populated/cultivated land would ever be “given back to nature,” there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon for some.
Ranching in the mid-west and west is a practice that has historically been at odds with the health and well-being of many ecosystems and native animals, large predators in specific. As we “settle” more and more of the land that wild creatures once roamed freely, finding enough land and food has become not just a challenge, but in many cases impossible for some native specie like the Gray Wolf (Canis lupis). What have we done about it? Well, for a long time we systematically extirpated them. The greatest threat to wolves in the U.S. came from angry ranchers whose livestock became substitute prey for the wolves and other predators when local habitat changes dramatically reduced the native prey populations. Fenced-in livestock are easy-pickins. But while the wolves had lost most of their home and their food to human encroachment of their native areas, picking off livestock cast them into the role of the villain. Their ecological value was ignored and systematic extirpation went unchecked for far too long. The Gray Wolf was nearly extinct throughout the U.S. until serious action was taken to save them. The year 1978 was a big year for wildlife in the U.S. The Endangered Species Act was signed into law providing unprecedented protections for animals threatened with, or on the brink of extinction. By 1978 the Gray Wolf was listed as endangered throughout the lower 48 states except for Minnesota where it was listed as threatened. The protections afforded to the wolves by the 1978 ESA and later additions in 1982 which allowed the relocation of wolves by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from areas where they live to areas where they could potentially reproduce and repopulate saved the species from extinction. But it wasn’t enough. The core problems remained. Ranchers still have to ranch, and wolves still have to eat AND fulfill their roles in the greater systems of which they are a part. Like all apex predators, wolves serve vital functions for the ecosystems in which they live. They keep deer, elk and rodent populations under control, for one thing. Many have argued that if wolves are killing the deer and elk there won’t be enough left for hunters, but this heralds back to the age-old question: “Do we manage populations to support hunting or do we manage hunting to support populations?” Manipulating populations of game species to ensure that hunters have enough to kill each year is unethical on so many levels, particularly when it means local extinction of natural predators.
While many ranchers still hold stubbornly to the practice of killing wolves, others have made extraordinary efforts to conduct their business and safely respect the presence, and the NEED for wolves. Kathleen and Brian Bean are on the forefront of respectful, progressive ranching. While continuing to operate their ranch, Lava Lake Lamb, this couple has worked hard to implement innovative ways to protect their sheep without killing the wolves. A recent story released by Defenders of Wildlife describes the many ways the Beans are working WITH, rather than AGAINST the wolves they share the land with. A number of measures designed to scare off, rather than harm wolves have been implemented in the Beans’ effort to peacefully coexist with their wolf neighbors. For more information on this successful rancher-wolf partnership, check out the Defenders of Wildlife article, Good News from Idaho: Proof That Farmers and Wolves Can Coexist.
For more information about the history of Gray Wolf decline and recovery in the U.S., please visit the Yellow Stone National Park Web site.