[Un]Natural Selection Ep. 3: What To Do With The 'Big Bad Wolf'
Gray wolves went back on the endangered species list this month in most U.S. states. The number of wolves didn’t suddenly plummet. In fact, wildlife biologists say wolf populations are stable in the Upper Great lakes and Northern Rocky Mountain regions – an environmental success. It happened because of a legal fight that’s been going on for years. At the heart of this fight are competing feelings about the significance of wolves and strong disagreements about the science. Battle lines harden when recreational wolf hunts are considered.
Credits for this episode:
Host: Dan Wanschura
Producer: Morgan Springer
Editor: Dan Wanschura
Consulting Editor: Peter Payette
Music: Mocke, Marlin Ledin, Blue Dot Sessions, Santah
Logo: Erin O'Malley
MORGAN SPRINGER, BYLINE: This month, gray wolves were put back on the endangered species list.
But the interesting thing here is it isn’t because their population suddenly plummeted. In fact, some people argue wolves have successfully recovered.
DAN WANSCHURA, HOST: Huh, well then why would they go back on the list and get all those protections again?
SPRINGER: Well, today’s story will give one explanation for that. And what we see is it’s not as simple as “what does the science say should happen to wolves?” There’s something else muddying the water, and it’s us – all these different stakeholders with competing feelings about wolves.
And to understand that we have to go back in time.
WANSCHURA: From Interlochen Public Radio this is [Un]Natural Selection, a series about humans tinkering with the natural world. I’m Dan Wanschura.
SPRINGER: And I’m Morgan Springer. Each week we ask the question: are we helping the environment or hurting it?
WANSCHURA: Episode three. What to do with the ‘big bad wolf’?
SPRINGER: Gray wolves were pretty much all over the United States historically. They were in the Upper Midwest. They were also in Alabama and Maine, New Mexico and Montana.
But then came European colonization.
BRIAN ROELL: They went, ‘kill every wolf you see.’
SPRINGER: That’s Brian Roell. He’s a wildlife biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and he specializes in wolves.
ROELL: And they used a lot of unscrupulous methods … gassing dens to … poisoning with cyanide and strychnine … And it would kill everything that touched ‘em.
WANSCHURA: What were they doing with the wolves they killed?
SPRINGER: Well, for one, they got a bounty.
ROELL: They did. Yeah. They were paid actually to do a lot of this stuff at the time.
SPRINGER: And people essentially succeeded, killing almost all of the gray wolves in the lower 48 by the mid 1900s with one small exception. There were still a couple hundred wolves in northern Minnesota.
But then, around this time, there was this growing environmental movement in the U.S and our feelings about wolves started to change.
ROELL: You had Aldo Leopold and other authors talking about the importance of looking more at an ecosystem rather than just management of game. … So they realized having a predator in the system was important.
SPRINGER: And then in the 60s and 70s most wolves became federally protected. And eventually they were put on the endangered species list. It’s this powerful conservation tool. What “endangered” meant in this case was – with rare exceptions – no more killing gray wolves at all. The only spot in the lower 48 where it was different was Minnesota where wolves were listed as threatened.
ROELL: And wolves started to descend out of that Northern Minnesota stronghold.
SPRINGER: In the 70s there was a breeding wolf pair on the Wisconsin-Minnesota border. And by the late 80s, the first wolves were verified again in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
This January, on a truly frigid zero degree day, I’m in Marquette, Michigan with Brian Roell. And we’re looking for wolf tracks.
This is something Brian and a bunch of biologists do in the winter. They methodically look for tracks in the snow, record the ones they find, and that’s how they come up with a minimum estimate for the wolf population. Brian drives his truck down plowed dirt roads just slow enough that he can identify tracks.
ROELL: Dog tracks. Somebody has a big dog.
SPRINGER: We drive for a bit longer.
ROELL: So there’s a good deer trail coming right through there.
SPRINGER: And you know just because of how those tracks are spaced apart. Cause we’re what 20 feet away?
SPRINGER: And I gotta say, Dan. What Brian can do is absolutely amazing. I mean, he does have about 25 years of experience. But still, we’ll be driving at, I don’t know 5 to 10 miles per hour. And I see non-distinct animal tracks, but he can tell exactly what animal it is and while we’re still moving a lot of the time.
And then about seven minutes down one road.
ROELL: Well, you’re in luck.
SPRINGER: I’m in luck?
ROELL: There’s wolf tracks and dog tracks here.
SPRINGER: Seriously? Oh my god.
SPRINGER: So we get out of the truck.
ROELL: Let me look at these a little better.
SPRINGER: What are we looking at?
ROELL: That’s a dog. And that’s a wolf.
SPRINGER: Oh my god. So hard to tell. How can you tell?
ROELL: They’re not the best. See how oval that is compared to – go back to the dog tracks. Look how round they are. And then just size.
SPRINGER: The wolf tracks are big. Really big. Brain actually gave me a magnet he had made of a life sized wolf track. Let me show you. I want to show you this. Here’s my face. And here’s the magnet.
WANSCHURA: Wow. That’s gigantic.
SPRINGER: I know.
WANSCHURA: You’re not going to have any other room for any other magnets on your fridge. That’s huge. It says four and a half inches by three and a half.
SPRINGER: Yeah, it’s about the size of my hand, and it is almost the size of my face.
WANSCHURA: That is significantly larger than your average dog for sure.
SPRINGER: I can’t tell you how exciting that is for me. It’s probably every day for you.
ROELL: Hopefully I can find you some better stuff with more detail than that.
SPRINGER: Today, most wildlife biologists say wolf populations are considered stable in the Upper Midwest and in the Northern Rockies Mountains. There are – at minimum – more than 7,000 gray wolves in the lower 48 and much more in Alaska.
Are gray wolves endangered?
ROELL: No, not in Michigan or the Great Lake states. You could say that maybe for Maine or for northern New York, New Hampshire where there is a suitable habitat, and they really don't have a wolf population, but in the Great Lakes states, no. Wolves are not endangered. They're not fragile.
SPRINGER: The management that happened to bring wolves back to Michigan was stop killing them.
ROELL: It was, yeah, it was. I mean, when you look at early on, it was: stopped killing them.
SPRINGER: You didn’t do anything else?
ROELL: We didn't do anything else.
SPRINGER: And so in January 2021, just over a year ago, gray wolves came off the federal endangered species list, which for many wildlife biologists is this amazing and rare success story. It’s much more common for human activity to lead to extinction.
But now that wolves are off the endangered species list, we face this question of: what is the right balance between humans and wolves? And that question is really emotional for some people.
And I want to take you next to a farm in Central Wisconsin where the growing wolf population has posed a direct threat.
ASHLEIGH CALAWAY: My name is Ashley Calaway, and I'm a farmer in central Wisconsin.
SPRINGER: Ashleigh married into farming. Her husband bred sheep for competitions when he was a little boy.
CALAWAY: I always joke that I wasn't raised on a farm, but I got to one as fast as I possibly could. It's all I've ever really wanted to be able to do.
SPRINGER: Ashleigh and her husband now run sheep and beef farms with her Calaway in-laws.
Ashleigh says she knew wolves were close to their farms. In the summer, she’d sit out on her porch and like clockwork, a black wolf would walk across the property.
CALAWAY: That was my favorite thing to do every morning is to watch that wolf walk our north 40. And we had a pretty great relationship that way. He never bothered our cattle, and I just sat there and enjoyed my morning cup of coffee watching him.
SPRINGER: But then in the spring of 2017, wolves killed two of their ewes. Two years later it happened again, but this time it was much worse.
CALAWAY: My father-in-law had walked down to the sheep pastor to check on the flock the same way he's done for over 20 some years. … And when he had gotten down there only one ewe had greeted him.
SPRINGER: He started walking along the fence to see if they’d escaped through a break, and then he got his answer.
CALAWAY: He saw a sight that was definitely one out of our worst nightmares. He pretty much found the massacred remains of her family’s flock of sheep.
SPRINGER: All remaining 12 sheep had been killed, which may not sound like a lot. But you have to understand that the Calaways spent decades breeding these sheep for competition.
CALAWAY: Literally we lost 30 years of blood, sweat and tears really just to be told that there's nothing they can do about it. Like we can fill out some paperwork and wait for a small reimbursement but wouldn't really equal the true value of the animals we lost.
SPRINGER: The reimbursement was about $200 per sheep that year, according to stats from the Wisconsin DNR.
Ashleigh says an investigator was able to confirm that a wolf – and likely a wolf pack – killed their sheep.
CALAWAY: It's still hard to talk about because once you've lived through one of those things, it's not like it ever erases out of your mind. … There's a lot of restless sleeping, a lot of pacing the halls at night.
SPRINGER: It’s been two years now, and the Calaways have begun to rebuild. They have about a half dozen sheep now. But the wolves are still active in the area, and Ashleigh says she’s scared to let her daughter play outside, and she’s scared for her livestock.
WANSCHURA: Wow, yeah. What does she think should happen to protect their sheep then?
CALAWAY: Even though our family has experienced some pretty detrimental loss, we're not asking – we've never asked or desired even – to have wolves be eliminated. That is not something we want by any stretch. We understand wolves have an important place in our ecosystem. We just want to keep them off the … endangered species list and be appropriately managed just to have the ability to protect ourselves and our livestock.
WANSCHURA: I mean, that seems like a reasonable request given what they’ve gone through.
SPRINGER: It’s totally understandable that she feels that way.
Some broader context though – because biologists in Wisconsin and Michigan both told me the number of livestock killed by wolves – it’s low enough that it’s not a big threat to the farming industry.
WANSCHURA: That’s interesting. That doesn’t take away from the tragedy at Ashleigh’s farm, but it is good context.
SPRINGER: Right. Now, there’s another group that really wants wolves to be off the endangered species list, and that’s deer hunters. Basically, their argument is wolves are killing too many deer and making it harder to hunt. Now I will say that’s not backed by research done in Michigan. They found that wolves killing deer – it was just one small piece of the pie. The main thing that hurt the deer population was a string of really cold winters.
These two things though – wolves killing livestock and wolves killing deer – they have energized a lot of people who want to hunt wolves and protect resources.
ROELL: The real gorilla in the room is hunting ‘em. That's really where … the rubber meets the road is, should we hunt this population?
SPRINGER: Brian Roell with the Michigan DNR again. Brian says one of the challenges to answering that question is it’s very emotionally and politically charged. Some people see wolves as this majestic iconic species that should never be killed.
ROELL: I'm sure you've heard the term charismatic megafauna. I mean, you go and there's a wolf calendar. There's moose calendars. There's little stuffed wolves. People love the things.
SPRINGER: This is more in alignment with how many Native Americans see wolves. Gussie Lord works for EarthJustice and is representing six Ojibwe tribes in a wolf lawsuit. She’s also a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin.
GUSSIE LORD: Many of the Ojibwe, particularly the very traditional Ojibwe, believe that it's never appropriate to hunt wolves. … First, because you don't eat wolves. So it's not appropriate to kill animals that you don't eat. And, second, because the Ojibwe believe that the wolf is their brother. That the creator sent the wolf to walk with the Ojibwe – to show them the path for various … very spiritual reasons.
SPRINGER: Brian Roell says there are just as many people who hate wolves. And he says that has a lot to do with mythologies that have been around for a long time.
ROELL: You look at all our Little Red Riding Hood, Three Little Pigs. … Like Warner Brothers and Looney Tunes. All of their wolves are usually the villain.
SPRINGER: To be clear, Brian says wolves are not a big threat to humans. The chance of being attacked by a wolf is extremely low.
ROELL: Not zero, but it's darn close to zero.
WANSCHURA: So what’s Brian’s answer to that question: should we hunt wolves?
SPRINGER: Right, back to that. Here’s his take for the Upper Midwest.
ROELL: What I always tell people, I said, ‘well, that's a personal decision.’ Biologically scientifically, yes, we could harvest the animals sustainably and not risk putting wolves back on the endangered species list. That could be done. You can’t argue the science there. And then that's why I always said, I stick to the science. Now, when you say, should we, that's a really a personal question. … And so science isn't going to tell you whether you should or should not hunt wolves. Science will just predict what the outcome might be.
WANSCHURA: I find that answer is really annoying to me. What does he mean it’s a personal decision? We make all sorts of management decisions on other animals like deer.
SPRINGER: Yeah, it’s a good observation, but like he said, science tells you the potential outcome of a decision. It’s not going to make the decision. People – with all their messy feelings – have to do that. Take for example, the bald eagle. Another iconic species – a national emblem – that people are attached to. Bald eagles are no longer endangered. But well before they had even recovered, Congress passed an Eagle Act to protect the national bird. It prohibits most people from hunting or even disturbing the bald eagle. This decision wasn’t about what science said. It was about people, their choices and how they felt.
WANSCHURA: Wow. That’s really interesting. Yeah, you would never think about hunting a bald eagle. He has a good point. Ok so after the wolves were taken off the federal endangered species list, did that mean anyone could now legally just kill a wolf if they wanted to?
SPRINGER: Absolutely not. What it meant was that state and tribal agencies that have already been studying and managing wolves, they’re now responsible for making sure the population remains stable. They decide if they’ll allow people to hunt wolves recreationally. And – if they do, then how many wolves can be killed per season.
Now Michigan seems to be pretty far away from making a decision on a recreational wolf hunt – though there are people strongly advocating for and against it. But in Idaho, for example, people are allowed to kill as many wolves as they want.
And then that brings us to Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, a month after gray wolves were taken off the endangered species last year, they had a wolf hunt.
And Brian was almost at a loss for words to categorize how that hunt went.
ROELL: Oh, it was, it was. … It was dismal. I mean, it just, it just, no … I mean, it really was a failure as far as management of wildlife goes.
SPRINGER: Wisconsin law requires a wolf hunt when they’re off the endangered list. So, after a lot of back and forth, a wolf hunt was approved for the last week of February.
Tell me what happened during that season. It was a short one.
RANDY JOHNSON: Yeah, it was very short
SPRINGER: That’s Randy Johnson - he’s the large carnivore specialist with the Wisconsin DNR.
The DNR set a quota, saying hunters could kill 119 wolves. No more. But by day three of the hunt 208 wolves had been killed. And that was nearly double the quota. People were outraged, environmentalists, tribes, scientists. You take wolves off the endangered list. You do a complete 180 and start hunting them a month later, and then you go way over your limit.
WANSCHURA: Geez. Yeah, that is not a good look.
SPRINGER: Yeah, I put that to Randy with the DNR.
How do you feel about how that hunt went?
JOHNSON: I mean obviously not as designed. … As a biologist, I try to think about the biological impact, and I don't think it's devastating by any means. There's a lot of literature and science that supports the fact that wolves are very resilient.
SPRINGER: He says the DNR went so far over the quota for a bunch of reasons – some of them outside their control.
Over the years, gray wolves have gone on and off the endangered species list. And that’s exactly what happened this month. A federal judge said that the government improperly delisted gray wolves last year. The judge cited a lot of reasons, but a big one was, ‘look, wolves are not even close to repopulating their historic range. And you, federal government, argued that the stable wolf populations in the Western Great Lakes and Northern Rocky Mountains – those populations will make up for that. But you didn’t show how.’
And so, like that, wolves became endangered again this month in 44 states.
And for Brian Roell with Michigan DNR, this flip flopping with the list, this way that we’re manipulating and tinkering with the natural world using this act and the law, it keeps happening because of us – people, and our feelings about wolves. Not because of science.
ROELL: If we could pull the human dimension side out of wolves, it sure would be a lot easier.
SPRINGER: You know, Dan. I gotta go back toward the beginning when we’re out searching for wolf tracks with Brian. Because even though this fight over wolves is really frustrating for a lot of people, and a lot of people see the issue so, so differently, it’s still kind of amazing that we get to have this fight – that wolves have made such a comeback that I can go for a drive with a DNR biologist in Marquette, Michigan and see wolf tracks within a half hour.
ROELL: This is a wolf track. There’s a track right there and then a track right there.
SPRINGER: And that the population is at least stable enough in the Upper Great Lakes and Northern Rockies that there’s actually a debate to be had about whether wolves should still be protected or not, hunted or not. That’s pretty remarkable.
Now, we can’t end this piece without hearing from a wolf. So, I leave you with this really buzzy recording of wolves in the Upper Peninsula courtesy of the state’s DNR.
(SOUNDBITE OF WOLVES HOWLING)