Outdoors

People still believe too many myths about wolves

Gray wolves can be easily distinguished from coyotes. (Associated Press)
Gray wolves can be easily distinguished from coyotes. (Associated Press)

While wolves generate passionate polarized responses from people who love or hate them, it’s pretty clear that most people don’t give a damn.

Speaking before several service clubs in recent months, I’ve noted the top news stories dominating the Outdoors beat. Wolf reintroduction, of course, continues to be at the head of the list.

General audiences tend to know little or nothing about wolf reintroduction.

What’s more startling is that many people who seem to care about the subject know little more than the myths perpetuated by hearsay.

In one Q&A session, a man said his rancher friend in Montana couldn’t kill a wolf even if he caught it chewing on one of his cows.

That’s not true, I told him. Montana ranchers can defend their stock. They can even buy hunting or trapping licenses and kill wolves regardless of whether they’re bothering livestock.

He didn’t believe me until I emailed a link to the Montana law.

Another man said he had photos of the wolf that was in the field behind his rural Spokane Valley home this winter. The sighting was certainly possible, since wolves already have been officially documented in Spokane County.

However, the photos clearly showed a coyote. In their rich winter fur, coyotes might fool people into thinking they are wolves, especially when the people desire to see a wolf instead of a coyote.

Incidentally, a coyote’s snout is more slender than a wolf’s, and a coyote’s ears are pointed.

Especially in winter, I suggest people measure tracks of suspected wolves. Averaging 4 1/8 inches long by 3 3/4 inches wide, the front paw of an adult gray wolf is nearly twice as large as a coyote’s.

One of the most durable myths suggests the gray wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone Park and Central Idaho in the mid-1990s were of a super-charged Canadian subspecies.

The claim is that the reintroduced wolves are larger, more lethal and more voracious and detrimental to big-game herds than the “timber wolves” that were native to the region before they were extirpated in the 1940s or so.

This claim was made authoritatively but without substantiation in a reader’s letter to the editor published on Sunday.

There’s a kernel of truth to the theory based on the taxonomic classifications given to the various Canis lupus subspecies listed in the original federal wolf reintroduction plan.

People who oppose wolf reintroduction twist the details to bolster their stand.

However, wolf biologists point out that some of those subspecies listings are no longer considered scientifically valid. (See direct quotes and details in my Outdoors Blog, spokesman.com/blogs/outdoors.)

Beyond that, scientists generally say the subspecies hoopla is moot.

Modern telemetry and GPS research has proved that wolves range incredible distances. With no wolf-proof fences at the border, Canada’s wolves have always had access to wolves in the northern states.

It’s clear that some of these wolves that settled in Montana and North Idaho on their own are among those moving in naturally and setting up housekeeping in Washington.

Jon Rachael, Idaho Fish and Game Department wildlife manager and wolf expert, regularly sorts out wolf myths from facts for the public.

He said he steers away from the wolf genetics issue because the scientific evidence is slim. “We just don’t have good information on wolves from the early 1900s,” he said, noting that only a few skull samples from that period are available for research.

“What I CAN tell you is that the wolves brought to the U.S. from Canada were the exact same wolves that were fully entrenched in northwestern Montana and reoccupying northern Idaho at that point in the 1990s.

“All the (central Idaho) reintroduction did was move the timeline ahead 15-20 years.”

Certainly some wolves roaming Idaho are big, he confirmed, noting that a few of the best-nourished specimens have been officially weighed at a whopping 130 pounds.

“But the average for an adult male has been around 99 pounds and 80 pounds for females,” he said – well within the normal gray wolf range.

To a wolf biologist, dwelling on the genetic origins of reintroduced gray wolves is a little like the smoldering controversy over the birthplace of Barack Obama.

“The bottom line is that the people who don’t want wolves wouldn’t be any happier regardless of what subspecies was reintroduced,” Rachael said.

Contact Rich Landers at (509) 459-5508 or email richl@spokesman.com.


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Rich Landers

Rich Landers

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