Ancestral competitor elicits fears, passions and stirs political debate
By Gary Gerhardt, Rocky Mountain News
August 7, 2004
No animal on Earth inflames the passions of admirers and detractors alike.
It is not the animal so much as the symbol imprinted on our psyches, a strand of evolutionary DNA harkening back to our cave-dweller ancestors who fought the sabre-toothed tiger and cave bear and competed with the wolf for game until they eventually domesticated the animal to serve as hunter, companion and sentinel.
Wolves might seem a strange subject for a column dealing with Colorado watchable wildlife, because there is no proof any wild, free-born wolves exist in the state.
And, yet, the animal found crushed June 5 on Interstate 70 west of Dumont definitely was an animal born two years before to the Swan Lake Pack west of Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park and apparently walked 490 miles just to meet an untimely end.
“You can bet more will be coming,” said Ed Bangs, the Rocky Mountain wolf coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“And chances are good the next one in will come the same way as that one killed on I-70, sticking to the hillsides and the valleys and preying on deer or other kills it can make.”
While it seems a huge number of people are “seeing” wolves in Colorado, it’s important to understand that, unless the animal has a radio collar on verifying it is a wild wolf rather than a full-blooded wolf that became too much for someone to handle or a wolf-dog mix that got loose, seeing a wolf is almost impossible.
Bangs believes it could take a decade or two before two unmated individuals will wander into Colorado and link up to establish a pack in the state.
The state has a committee trying to establish a management plan in case wolves do wander in, or if the Fish and Wildlife Service decides Colorado has habitat suitable to help re-establish the Mexican wolf being reintroduced in New Mexico and Arizona.
Of course, it won’t be biology that makes the final decision but politics driven by public opinion.
One poll indicated more than 70 percent of Coloradans favored a return of wolves, and a quickie habitat assessment by the Fish and Wildlife Service indicated biologically there is adequate prey and habitat for up to 1,000 wolves in the state. The chance of anything like that happening is slim, but the possibility does exist.
According to the Wolf Education and Research Center Web site, the lineage of wolves can be traced to an ancient species called creodonts some 30 million to 60 million years ago.
Somewhere along the line they branched into cat and dog families, and by the time humans appeared on Earth, they were pretty well established as the wolves we know today.
Equally interesting, biologists say all dogs descended from the gray wolf, and even a pet Chihuahua and the 350 other breeds of dogs today share 78 chromosomes with wolves.
While much is made by wolf opponents that the wolves re-established in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana are not the same subspecies that historically lived in those areas, Bangs says, “A wolf is a wolf.”
“There are gray wolves and red wolves, two distinct species, but that’s all. The Mexican wolf and the gray wolf in Alaska are the same animals. The size differential is due to environmental differences.”
Some sportsmen are prejudiced against the wolf, believing they will kill trophy elk and deer that the hunters want to kill themselves.
Some stockbreeders believe wolves will decimate sheep and kill calves.
Bangs tells them, while wolves will take some game and domestic animals, “a pack of wolves doesn’t go through an area like a lawn mower, destroying everything in (its) path.”
A familiar family
One thing that fires the imagination of people about wolves is the similarity of their family dynamics. It’s probable humans learned to cooperate as a family unit by watching wolves. A wolf pack is a family group with an alpha male and female (the mother and father) and their offspring (usually the two or so surviving pups from the previous year), including pups from the current year.
Because the older male and female are better hunters, when they leave the pups, an “aunt” or “uncle” stays back to protect them.
Wolves are monogamous, mating for life, which also is considered a virtue in human society, although alphas will stray occasionally.
A 2-year-old usually breaks off from the pack, becoming a lone wolf until it finds a suitable mate.
In the search, it might fall in with a rowdy pack that doesn’t accept it and could be driven off, injured or even killed.
Feelings about wolves in North America were formed before the first white settlers arrived on this continent’s shores.
Europeans brought a hatred and fear of predators based on myth and because of the economic impact of the wolves that roamed most of the Northern Hemisphere from the Mediterranean to Finland and from Portugal through Russia into Siberia.
There, as here, wolves preyed on livestock and were exterminated throughout most of Europe, and their numbers, even today, are greatly reduced in the Near and Middle East into India.
The extermination frenzy here started during the western expansion between 1860 and 1885.
Woolgrowers and stockmen offered bounties for wolves, and professional trappers called “wolvers,” were hired to poison and trap wolves.
During one winter in 1861, three trappers in Kansas took more than 3,000 wolves, coyotes and swift foxes worth $2,500 in bounties and pelts.
Between 1914 and 1926, 136 wolves, including 80 pups, were killed, shot or poisoned in Yellowstone because they were a “menace to the deer, elk and bison.”
Colorado had its share of wolves, and perhaps the most notorious was Old Three Toes, a wolf that lost part of his foot to a steel trap but still led his pack between New Mexico and southern Colorado for two years before being dispatched in 1929.
Only eight wolves were seen in Colorado national forests in 1936, and two years later, the number dropped to two.
What is believed to have been the last free-born wolf in the state was killed by a government trapper in 1943 in Conejos County.
Are wolves really a threat to humans?
This is a question that forever will be debated. Most experts agree: There is no record of any person being killed by a healthy, wild wolf in North America in the past century. But yes, people have been bitten by wolves usually for one of four reasons according to The Fear of Wolves: A Review of Wolf Attacks on Humans, edited by John Linnell.
Rabies. A majority of attacks involved rabid wolves.
Habituation. Wolves that lost fear of humans by being fed.
Provocation: Wolves provoked into attack when humans cornered or trapped them or entered their den.
Highly modified environments: Attacks occurred in areas where humans have greatly altered the environment.