When the words “gray wolf” are said, what ideas come to your head? Little Red Riding Hood? Vicious death machine? You may not associate these words with the reintroduction process of Canis lupus into the American West. This decision has lead to a massive fight regarding the safety of livestock and ecological health. Although we must pay attention to the fears of rural populations, the gray wolf’s revival is a necessity, not a luxury.
Emerging from the past century’s culling of predators, biologists have finally begun to understand the interconnectedness of ecosystems and the role wolves have in limiting ungulate populations (primarily elk and deer). Through the Endangered Species Act, the federally-backed reintroduction of the gray wolf began in 1995 when 31 wolves from Canada were relocated to Idaho and Yellowstone National Park. Since then, there may be upwards of 2,500 wolves ranging across the west.
Generally, opposition to the reintroduction process has been from livestock-rich areas. Since the reintroduction of gray wolves, rates of livestock depredation have risen dramatically. As reported by the Humane Society of the U.S., in 2015 there were 10,165 cases of cattle depredation by wolves. This does not account for other kinds of livestock. But because there are over 100 million cows in America, we may want to write these figures off. Cows can cost upwards of $2,500 and many of these depredation events happen to small-scale ranches, where the loss of a few livestock can mean bankruptcy.
In an effort to calm their financial fears, safety nets have been enacted in the form of payout programs for livestock owners. The most famous example was delivered by the Defenders of Wildlife group, which paid livestock operations a combined 1.3 million dollars between 1985 and 2009. However, not all states have safety nets to reduce the damage on ranchers.
Despite this large sum of evidence, however, we need to look at the bigger picture. The gray wolf is commonly referred to as a keystone species, meaning its removal would have enormous consequences. Over the last century, we have observed ungulate populations in the Rocky Mountains exploding without one of their largest limiters. This is bad because the increased pressure of grazing is stripping areas of flora diversity. An excellent example is the removal of the quaking aspen tree (Populus tremuloides). When there is more grazing in the same areas for longer, aspen shoots are continually eaten before they become saplings. This increased rate of nibbling may be one of the main reasons why aspens are experiencing an alarming population decrease. Without wolves’ limiting factors on ungulates, we may see an unprecedented loss of biodiversity, which has already been spread thin by invasive species and fragmentation.
Like most problems, we have no perfect solution. Yes, the reintroduction of the wolf has led to many problems for rural communities, but the benefits they deliver for our natural systems outweigh the negatives. Perhaps we should focus on the refinement of payout systems for ranchers, usage of range riders, creation of electric enclosures, or the fact that respiratory problems alone killed over 900,000 cows in 2015. We cannot afford to have the natural world foot the bill for our refusal to change.