Have you seen the billboards around town about the Big Bad Wolf?
They’re clearly designed to scare us in the hopes that wolves stay gone forever from this part of the country.
But the truth is that wolves belong here. They’ve always belonged here and, despite these fearmongering billboards, wolves aren’t a threat to life as we know it in Eastern Washington.
Wolves have always loomed large in legend, often depicted as sharp-toothed devils keen on feasting on all we hold dear. But stories are stories, and facts are facts. And the fact is that real wolves just aren’t much like the ones in fairy tales.
A quick bit of history: There were once as many as 2 million wolves in North America. For thousands of years these top-line predators helped calibrate the complex ecosystems where they lived, keeping diseases in check, moving prey around the landscape so they didn’t overgraze, and supplying other animals – including scavengers like crows and ravens – with ample food supplies. The system worked.
As European settlers moved west, wolves were driven out, first by private operations looking to clear land for ranches and later by government programs under the illusion that a human world couldn’t exist with large predators like grizzlies and wolves. So, for the sin of being born that way, these animals were shot, poisoned and trapped to oblivion, wiped from the landscape in just a few decades.
It didn’t just happen in the United States; it also happened with tigers in Russia, lions in India and even snow leopards in Central Asia.
But we know more now. We understand the important role that predators have on our natural landscapes. We learn from our mistakes and we try to do better.
Once eradicated from the West, wolves began their slow return in the mid-1990s with reintroductions in parts of Idaho and Yellowstone National Park. These populations have grown and expanded.
Yes, livestock have been lost to wolves, but those losses pale in comparison to sheep or cattle killed each year by dogs or bad weather or disease. Yes, those ranchers should be compensated for those losses, and many have been.
Right here in Washington, several dozen sheep were recently killed by the Huckleberry pack but, like every place wolves are returning to, those losses are dwarfed by losses from other causes.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s national agricultural statistics service, which provides state-by-state figures once every five years, 2009 figures for Washington sheep and lambs indicate that 2,100 sheep and lambs were lost because of non-predator-related causes. Similarly, its 2010 figures for Washington cattle and calves show that 37,300 cattle and calves died from causes unrelated to predation, compared to 1,700 cattle and calves lost from all predators combined, including coyotes, mountain lions, dogs, wolves, bears and others. Of all losses caused by predators, wolves accounted for only 2 percent.
But here’s what hasn’t happened. No child has been snatched by a wolf at a bus stop. No one’s been attacked. Elk haven’t disappeared. Wolves have returned, but the world hasn’t ended, and the sun still comes up in the morning.
The billboards around Spokane, though, speak to a fear of wolves that’s been unjustly perpetuated for generations. It’s now manifested in political pressure to strip away Endangered Species Act protection from these intelligent animals – a step that will prematurely end this country’s 40-year effort to recover wolves in the Lower 48 states, even though wolves have returned to less than 10 percent of their historic range.
We could give in to fear and simply return to the old days of the Big Bad Wolf. Or we can boldly move forward, reject those who want to hold us back, and offer wolves a real chance at survival – and ourselves a chance to right a tragic wrong.
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