Friday, June 3, 2011

Wild wolves inhabit the Burke Museum

The history and future of our relationship with wolves is the theme of the new traveling exhibit "Wolves and Wild Lands in the 21st Century," running Saturday, June 4, through Sept. 5 at the University of Washington's Burke Museum.

Seattle Times environment reporter


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'Wolves and Wild Lands in the 21st Century'
10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily through Sept. 5, Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, University of Washington, Seattle.

It's easy to forget how big they really are, which is funny, in a way, considering how large they loom in Western culture.

But it's true. Come face to face with Canis lupus, the gray wolf, and the first thing you notice is how impossible it would be to mistake this creature for anything else. Its neck and shoulders are dense and marbled with enough muscle to take down mammals three times its size. Its paws are as large as a man's hand.
This is not just another coyote.

 Still, staring into the eyes of a wolf on display at the University of Washington's Burke Museum — part of a new exhibit, "Wolves and Wild Lands in the 21st Century" — it's hard to comprehend the virulent strain of hatred that most European settlers once felt toward this creature. It's no coincidence that depictions of wolves in art and literature were almost always dominated by fangs.

"People didn't hate cougars," said Jeff Bradley, the Burke's mammalogy collection manager. "But the wolf was evil incarnate."

The history and future of our relationship with wolves is the theme of the new traveling exhibit running Saturday through Sept. 5 at the Burke. The exhibit includes five full-sized specimens from around the country, pelts, paw prints, photographs, other canine skulls, games and puzzles. It essentially asks: Can we live together?

It is a timely question. Driven out of the West by hunters and paid marksmen decades ago, wolves from successful reintroduction in Idaho and Yellowstone National Park 16 years ago finally worked their way back to Washington in 2008. The state's first wolf pack in 70 years took up residence in the Methow Valley.

Today, authorities already fear poachers have killed three or four of those wolves. One carcass was found dumped along a highway. The pelt of another was found by a FedEx worker after a customer tried shipping a bloody, leaking box to Canada. Meanwhile, as part of a bitter budget fight last month, Congress removed Endangered Species protection for many — but not all — wolves in the northern Rockies.

Clearly we remain divided about these creatures.

The exhibit offers a great primer for the uninitiated, and provides fascinating tidbits for others. Did you know that in just five years after these top predators were reintroduced, gray wolves had so reordered Yellowstone's ecosystem that coyote populations were reduced by half? Or that after North Carolina's red wolves were returned to an 875-square-mile refuge in 1987, the most immediate threat to the species was interbreeding with coyotes? Or that scientists, until recently, still argued over just how many species of wolves are native to the United States?

The exhibit suffers only slightly from its Midwestern roots. (It was created for the Bell Museum of Natural History in Minneapolis.) In a few places it suggests development and habitat loss remain the greatest threat to wolves. While certainly true for many — if not most — endangered species (think salmon and spotted owls), it isn't really true for wolves in Washington. At least not yet.

Unlike, say, southern resident killer whales — whose survival no one seems to oppose — the greatest threat to wolves is public attitudes. For that, one antidote may be the kind of education offered by the Burke.