Wrestling with wolves

2016 | Story and photos by Haley Pope

The sun struggled to illuminate the day barely breaking through the cool, moist air and resulting in a soft yellow glow that perfused the forest. Knobby pine tree branches interrupted the light and cast undefined shadows that fell on the damp ground. The whole scene was ghost-like and eerie, which only added to the intensity of the next moments.

 

Having placed my hand on his back, I could feel the power, the unpredictability, the ferocity if provoked. As if a wild and crazed animal was hidden deep within his deceivingly amiable exterior. I could see it in his eyes too. Orange and arresting like a lion’s, looking through me and exposing my vulnerabilities. Judging my physical inferiority.

 

I knelt on the ground in front of him, eye to eye, and I recognized the perilous situation I was in. I cringed at the thought of him turning on me since there would be nothing I could do to prevent it. And yet, he didn’t. The ferocity remained hidden, the judgment, if made, dismissed, and there we stood staring at one another in the foggy morning mist.

A black timber wolf (Canis lupus), rescued from being a pet, now lives at the Colorado Wolf & Wildlife Center. While these animals can't be released back into the "wild" on account of their extreme habituation to humans, they have wonderful lives in communion with other rescued wolves. Their sociable and intelligent natures were a reminder of the shared past they have with our beloved "man's best friend".

A British Columbian tundra wolf named Keara eyes me suspiciously at the Colorado Wolf & Wildlife Center. She was rescued from a pet breeding program. 

Which interaction with wolves would we foster in the future: one of mutual respect and compatibility or one of fear, suspicion, and distaste?

The Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center, part of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, sits nestled amidst a forested valley in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado about an hour west of Colorado Springs. The center rescues wolves from unethical situations, strives to improve the public’s understanding of wolf behavior and ecology, and works with other organizations to explore options for reestablishing the species in Colorado. Our trip to the center was a birthday gift from my husband. Led by two staff members, we moved from one densely vegetated enclosure to another, interacting with and photographing six adult gray and British Columbian tundra wolves (Canis lupus).

 

As we entered, one wolf named Navi bounded energetically towards us, his tongue dangling from a mouth drawn back in a smile. His companion, Keara, shied away keeping closer to the shadows and eying us with suspicion from a distance. Both behaviors I could comprehend. Each conveyed something true and honest about wolves and our interactions with them. The former reminded me of the shared ancestry between wolves and our beloved domesticated dogs and therefore, a connection to us. The latter reminded me of the tragic but valid reasons wolves fear humans and what we have done to perpetuate it.

 

As I playfully interacted with the boisterous Navi and cast sideways glances at the suspicious Keara, one question came to mind: which interaction were we going to foster in the future with wolves: one of mutual respect and compatibility or one of fear, suspicion, and distaste?

Gray Wolves of Yellowstone

 

As large mammal species, like the gray wolf, can attest to, humans are unyielding competitors. Gray wolves were once the most widely distributed mammal, roaming across much of North America, Europe, and Mexico. While not considered endangered at the global level, today there are one-third fewer gray wolves remaining in the wild. In the U.S., the declines have been plainly evident. The remaining 15,000 can be found throughout Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Alaska albeit in smaller populations than in decades past. 

 

Sadly, no wild wolves exist in Colorado today, the state of my encounter although historically, they did. The last wolves in Colorado were killed in the 1940s. Prior to this date, wolves became extinct from the greater Yellowstone National Park area in Wyoming.

 

Throughout the 1800s, thousands of gray wolves roamed across North America’s western plains and throughout what is today Yellowstone National Park. However, with the increasing numbers of settlers moving into the western territories, tensions rose. Gray wolves had a tendency of attacking and killing livestock, prompting people to consider them “pests”. This epithet encouraged others to target them as such. Consequently, in the late 1920s gray wolf numbers reached their lowest point nationwide. By then, the species was already extinct in Yellowstone.

Keara, a British Columbian tundra wolf, eyes me suspiciously at the Colorado Wolf & Wildlife Center. She was rescued from a pet breeding program and remained distrustful of unfamiliar people, like me.

Watch this video for a narrative of the aftereffects of gray wolf reintroductions in Yellowstone. 

During a trip to see the Cliff Dwellings of the Anasazi people in Manitou Springs, Colorado we came upon a non-profit wolf rescue organization that had two timber wolves for educational purposes. Their names were Kiowa (left) and Ghost (right).

FUN FACT:

Gray wolves have a hierarchical social system consisting of alpha females and males at the top. These individuals are the only ones to breed within a pack. 

Almost immediately after their disappearance, scientists noticed striking ecological changes taking place within the park’s landscape that prompted them to reconsider whether wolfless parks were healthy. Deer and elk numbers soared exhausting vital plant species that other animals relied upon, including beavers, whose numbers plummeted in response. Dams broke up and rivers won control, meandering and creating new channels.

 

Predator species were affected too. Coyote numbers multiplied decimating smaller mammal species, while bear numbers dwindled as a result of fewer foraging plants. The Yellowstone ecosystem had been unquestionably changed as a direct result of wolf extermination. Since the park’s ecology was far worse without them, something had to be done.

 

Despite the fact that species reintroduction was a fairly new idea to ecology, it was decided that gray wolves needed to be reintroduced to the park. Starting in 1995, 31 gray wolves from Canada were relocated to Yellowstone and monitored religiously. Gray wolf numbers climbed thanks to diligent conservation efforts and in 2014, Yellowstone was home to around 104 gray wolves comprising 11 packs (many more wolves inhabit the area outside of Yellowstone in neighboring states and in Canada). To everyone’s delight, the Yellowstone ecosystem underwent dramatic ecological changes that restored the park to its former glory, wolves and all.

Red Wolves of the Southeast

 

The incident from Yellowstone illustrates the immense importance of wolves as ecosystem engineers and serves as an example of what can be accomplished if appropriate measures are taken. Sadly, history repeated itself only a few decades later with the red wolf (Canis rufus). It’s a heartening and overlooked story about a species many don’t know exists. The historical geographic range of the red wolf is small, limited to the southeastern United States from Pennsylvania to Florida. Until recently, the reddish-brown dappled canid couldn’t be found in the wild. Even today, their numbers remain few and the species as a whole balances on the precipice between existence and extinction.

 

Reflecting the gray wolf’s story in many respects, red wolves were routinely targeted throughout their entire range for killing livestock. After a series of highly successful “predator control” tactics were initiated, i.e. hunting, they became endangered in 1976. So successful were these tactics that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) didn’t recognize the ecological blunder until too late. By the early 1980s, red wolves were effectively extinct.

 

While their demise came years after that of gray wolves, efforts to reintroduce the red wolf came before. As part of the red wolf recovery program, the USFWS captured the last remaining wild red wolves, 14 individuals, and in 1987 the first red wolves were reintroduced to northeastern North Carolina. Unfortunately, the reintroduction process has not been easy or straightforward. Red wolves face stark odds.

 

Because of their smaller distribution and geographic location, red wolves are in greater contact with humans and coyotes than gray wolves. As a result, they are more intensely persecuted by humans and run the risk of hybridizing with coyotes*. Both have prevented populations from achieving sustainable numbers and have led to a loss of genetic diversity. If hybridization continues to happen, the species runs the risk of removed from the Endangered Species Act**, something that could seal the deal on their fate.

 

To better direct conservation efforts and address problems like these, the USFWS announced in September 2016 a new framework for the red wolf recovery program. Guided by new science and management plans, the goal is to have at least 400 red wolves comprising 52 breeding pairs in captive breeding programs before any more wolves are reintroduced – an attempt to stabilize the existing population. An honorable yet bold feat. Bold because today only around 50 individuals remain in the wild, while 200 live in captivity. Such low numbers qualify the species as critically endangered. If the program proves successful, the red wolf may boast a conservation success story similar to that of the gray wolf in Yellowstone.

 

What tips the balance is how the community-wildlife conflict is addressed. Red wolves need a better reputation among landowners, who in turn need to trust that the USFWS will effectively manage the population and quickly respond when red wolves venture onto private lands. If better communication, understanding, trust, and reliability is established between all three, the red wolves have a better chance of survival than if any of those factors is missing.

A black timber wolf named Navi was rescued from a pet breeding program and now lives at the Colorado Wolf & Wildlife Center. During an encounter with him at the center, I was allowed to interact with him in his large enclosure. While he may seem cautious here, he was quite playful and friendly with me.

FUN FACT:

Hear the sound of red wolves howling

*Hybridization occurs when two different species mate and produce offspring. The offspring is a hybrid of the parent species. Given enough time and appropriate conditions, hybridization can lead to a merger between species creating a new and separate species. 

 

**Hybrid offspring between red wolves and coyotes would not be genetically unique. Only genetically unique species are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

LEARN MORE:

Listen to the media release about the new red wolf recovery program

LEFT: Ghost, a rescued timber wolf now part of educational programs, rolls over and paws at me to get a belly rub. Because of his friendly nature, it was easy to forget he wasn't a dog!

 

RIGHT: Navi and I share a special moment at the Colorado Wolf & Wildlife CenterI had the honor of spending time with and photographing six wolves. Their sociable and intelligent natures were a reminder of the shared past they have with our beloved man's best friend.

As it stands today, many people, like those at the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are doing all they can to protect the remaining wolves and ensure that their conservation efforts translate into better public understanding and opinion. If their goals can be achieved, not only will wolves survive in the wild, but they will also promote fully functioning, healthy ecosystems across the continent. 

 

Both stories serve as a reminder of the unmatched power and advantage the human species wields, enabling us to influence not only our own fate, but also the fate of other species. We have the ability to leave a path of destruction in our wake or to pave the way for a coexisting planet. With great power comes great responsibility.

Kneeling there on that foggy morning in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, I regarded his confident countenance and gazed in his expressive eyes. It was harrowing, really. He was ill-suited for life in a human-dominated world, despite the fact that he represented the ancestor of those we consider “man’s best friend”.

 

Yet here he was, in an enclosure meant to protect him and his kind from our destructive ways. Before, he would have been top dog, so to speak: uncontested, with the freedom to roam, hunt, and live as he saw fit. But the freedoms and authority he would have enjoyed then are long gone and not likely to return.

 

As if he understood this, he studied me thoughtfully, his flashing gaze focusing on one of my eyes and then the other, while he shifted his weight between four mighty paws and his ears stood erect. I discerned an intelligent problem solver, an adaptable learner, and a sociable companion – traits we might use to describe our own species. But I also discerned a ferocious predator. In that moment, I realized I wasn’t the only one who was looking a predator in the eye. He was silently sizing me up as well, trying to decide if I could be trusted.

This black timber wolf could hardly have looked more like the wolf I imagine in the story Little Red Riding Hood. This particular individual, with his alert gaze and athletic stance, seemed to epitomize the very essence of a "wolf".

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