Until 2007, you wouldn’t have seen wolves in Washington. Though historically common throughout the Pacific Northwest, by the early 1900s shooting, poisoning and trapping had eradicated the state’s wolves. Today, thanks to the Endangered Species Act, we have a fledgling population of an estimated 52 wolves as a result of their 1995 reintroduction in adjacent Idaho, and migrating animals from Canada.
Past polling has indicated that over 70 percent of Washington residents support wolf recovery in the state, yet you may not guess that if you live in Spokane. Here, vehement anti-wolf propaganda campaigns continue to spread false information about wolves, including efforts designed to scare local residents into thinking wolves are dangerous predators that will eat our children for lunch!
No other animal in history has been the subject of so many hateful myths and misinformation campaigns. I grew up in Spokane, and as a child I learned all the fairy tales about wolves – The Three Little Pigs, Red Riding Hood – that predispose us to fear this endangered species. Indeed, the folklore and Wild West vigilante attitude toward wolves is so pervasive, it influences how some want to “manage” wolves back into oblivion. Too often, fear-based hatred seems to prevail over science and common sense.
Demonizing and persecuting wolves once again is not the future we want for Washington.
Wolves are an essential part of our landscapes – our treasured natural heritage. Wolves contribute to the overall health of the areas they inhabit, and the majority of residents cite this as the primary reason for their continued support of wolf recovery. Wolves naturally prey on elk, deer and other grazers, and by targeting diseased and injured members of prey populations, wolves help sustain healthy herds. By keeping herd populations in balance, wolves also enhance the health and diversity of the forests and the plants other wildlife need to thrive.
Today in Washington, we find ourselves at a crossroads. We can choose to react impulsively and out of hatred toward wolves – and be manipulated by myths like the recent anti-wolf propaganda – or we can take a measured approach based on the best available science and learn to coexist with the wolves in the state, knowing they are beneficial to our community and landscapes and are here to stay.
We have the nonlethal tools we need to protect rural economic interests and livestock while simultaneously protecting Washington’s fledgling wolf population. Unfortunately, on the rare instances when livestock and wolves do come into conflict, too often the impulsive response is to kill wolves in the affected pack, whether they were involved in depredation or not. But killing wolves in response to livestock conflicts is an expensive strategy and it can actually make the problem worse according to new research out of Washington State University. Researchers found that when key wolves are killed, the likelihood of livestock depredation the following year actually increases.
Using effective wolf deterrents like temporary night corrals around a band of sheep or the use of lights, guard dogs and human presence provides better solutions than lethal control, and can prevent conflicts between wolves and livestock before they can occur. Just across the state line in Idaho lies the Wood River Project, the nation’s largest successful sheep and wolf co-existence operation. There, ranchers are using nonlethal tools to protect 20,000 sheep that annually graze on the Sawtooth National Forest. During the past seven years, fewer than 30 sheep have been lost (far less than 1 percent) and not a single wolf has had to be killed in the project area. Despite being one of the highest concentrations of wolves and livestock sharing the same landscape, this project has the lowest rate of livestock loss to wolves statewide.
While some livestock operators in Washington have begun to implement nonlethal tools, we still have a long way to go. That’s why Defenders of Wildlife is working with local residents and other partners to ensure we manage our state’s wildlife based on the best available science, not on fear and fairy tales. Let’s not allow scare tactics to dictate how we live and coexist with wolves. By embracing the presence of wolves like we do other wildlife, we will be restoring an important part of Washington’s lost natural heritage, making Washington an even better place to live, for people and for wildlife.
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