Last night, I attended “The Hidden Lives of Wolves” presented by National Geographic Live. It’s a great series where various photographers and scientists talk about their work with animals. In this lecture, Jim and Jamie Dutcher talked about spending six years living in a tent with wolves in Idaho. Their story and findings were incredible.
They wanted to study the social habits of wolves. These animals are so intelligent that if they sense human observation, they will change their habits. So the Dutchers wanted to see what would happen if wolves became used to them and did not modify their behaviors. So they set up a yurt with a wood stove in a 23 acre plot of wilderness and lived there for six years through 40 below zero weather. They reared wolf cubs so they would be used to people. And then they just observed them, noting the interplay between the wolves. While I think this is an awesome story, I question the premise that they were able to observe the wolves without affecting their behavior. Rearing them from cubs must have impacted them. But I think their findings are still important.
I learned that wolf packs are very hierarchical. There is an alpha male and female who control the pack. They are the only ones to mate and have cubs. Next is the Beta wolves, then the mid level wolves. Last is the Omega wolf who is picked on. He’s the one who is forced to eat last. But he’s the one who reduces tensions by instigating play. However, while there is this hierarchy, the wolves show a lot of affection for one another. One of the Beta wolves helped the Omega wolf, often times body checking other wolves who got too aggressive. When a member of the pack died, there was a distinct change in pack. She may have been an Omega wolf but the clan mourned her loss. Suddenly, the wolves were less playful, and their howling was more solitary and mournful.
The Dutchers talked about visiting with a biologist in Alaska who showed them a wolf skull with a healed broken jaw. The wolf wouldn’t have been able to hunt or really chew meat. But the jaw healed and the wolf lived many years afterwards. The wolves in the pack must have cared for him, probably regurgitating food so the wolf could eat.
Their work turned into conservation since wolf numbers became so low. Wolves were hunted in the past and only recently started making a resurgence in numbers thanks to their listing on the Endangered animals list. The Dutchers talked about the importance of the wolf to the ecosystem. The presence of the wolf was fairly far-reaching. Without the wolves, elks would feel safe and eat all the saplings by the river, preventing new tree growth. In some areas, the only trees were seventy plus years. The wolves helped to keep the elk population down so they wouldn’t decimate the banks. Saplings were able to grow and provided shade to the rivers and streams, which lowered the temperature of the water so fish could hatch eggs. Wolves also scared away coyotes, who would feast on small rodents and antelope. Owls would feed on the rodents, helping their numbers propagate. These were just a few examples of the impact of the wolf.
There is a lot of misrepresentation and fear about the wolf. They pointed out that in 100 years, only two people have been killed by a wolf. One bear conservation website claims that 62 people have been killed by bears since 1900. So yeah. Also, there is the claim that wolves are a threat to livestock. The Dutchers quoted a figure of 7 million animals of livestock in Idaho alone. The Fish and Wildlife commission reports that wolves kill 645 animals each year. That’s a tiny percentage. Moreover, there are steps that people can take to prevent even these loses.
Sadly, the wolf was taken off the Endangered Animals list in 2011 or so by an act of Congress, not biologists. Formerly there were about 1000 wolves in Idaho, now there are under 600. These fears and misrepresentations are causing people to hunt and slaughter wolves. This is untenable. There is some work to get the wolves put back on the endangered animals list. Here is a link to the Credo petition to get protections for the grey wolf. The petition may have passed the deadline for Congress but it can’t hurt to sign it anyway.
So if you feel strongly about the environment and these amazing creatures, check it out. Maybe we can make a difference.
Thanks to the Dutchers and their work to bringing an amazing story to life.