Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Hearing the howl of the wolves

Stephen Hilger, Community Columnist 

The howl of the wolf is a sound that summons polarizing emotions.

For some, the unsettling howl of a wolf is one of the scariest sounds imaginable. In it, we hear the wolf as the villain of our folktales; a constant threat to our livestock, children, and way of life. Yet, others hear a more optimistic tone in the wolf's howl. They hear a primeval reminder of our origins in wilderness, embedded with a message that wilderness, which was once lost, can be regained with effort.

In the wolf's howl, we hear our values.

Currently in Wisconsin, we are grappling with this age-old dilemma of how to live with wolves. Our Republican leaders have pushed forward legislation that seeks to decrease Wisconsin's fledgling timber wolf, or gray wolf, population. Timber wolves in Wisconsin have rebounded from complete extirpation in 1960, to an estimated 800 animals in 2011. In 2012, Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican legislature opened a wolf hunting season that barbarically allowed the use of dogs and traps.

In 2014, a federal judge ordered an end to wolf hunts because they violated the Endangered Species Act. In February, Rep. Reid Ribble brazenly introduced legislation in Congress that sought to de-list timber wolves from the Endangered Species Act so Wisconsin could continue its wolf hunting program. It is clear from their actions that when these leaders hear the wolf's howl, they hear a threat, particularly to business and deer hunting interests.

Yet at one time, Wisconsin's greatest ecological thinker, Aldo Leopold, also thought of wolves as a dangerous predator incompatible with humans. In "Think Like a Mountain," Leopold describes encountering a mother wolf and her cubs while hunting in New Mexico. Like many hunters, Leopold believed that, "because fewer wolves meant more deer, no wolves would mean a hunter's paradise." So, he and his partner lifted their rifles, took aim, and fired. After the melee of bullets, the mother wolf lay collapsed on the mountainside, dying from her wounds. While standing next to the perishing animal, Leopold "watched a fierce green fire dying in her eyes."

This life and death moment was a revelation for Leopold. He felt that, "After seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed" with the view that a smaller wolf population was good for the earth and its inhabitants.

This encounter led Leopold to believe we must "think like a mountain" when interacting with predators. He recognized that wolves are an essential part of the ecosystems they inhabit. Without them, he knew that the ecosystem and the deer population he sought would be jeopardized. He suspected, "That just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer." For once wolves are removed, deer populations devastate an ecosystem's flora through overgrazing. Overgrazing leads to desertification, damaging the land for all animals that depend on it.

Perhaps the largest proponents of limiting wolf populations in Wisconsin comes from a faction of deer hunters. They, like young Leopold, believe that more wolves mean fewer deer for hunters. The scientific literature, however, suggests that wolves play only a minute factor in decreasing deer populations. In a study of the effects of wolves on deer populations in the northern forest hunting zones of Wisconsin, researchers documented that in the 1996-1997 winter, 125,894 deer were harvested by rifle and bow hunters, a staggering 70,000 deer were estimated to die by harsh winter conditions, an estimated 10,000 deer died as a result of motor vehicles, leaving only an estimated 2,250 to 2,700 deer consumed by wolves. As Leopold believed, wolves actually play a positive role on the health of deer populations as they cull the old, wounded and sick deer, leaving more resources for healthy deer to thrive and repopulate.

There are real problems caused by living in proximity of wolves, most notably in the damage they cause livestock. But believing that living with wolves is impossible or even undesirable is shortsighted. Like Leopold, we must "think like a mountain" about the long-term costs and benefits of living with wolves and other predators. Then, we will recognize as he did that wolves play a critical role in keeping our natural ecosystems healthy.

We must learn to listen to the howl of the wolf as the mountain would and hear in its song the wolf's rightful place in the world.

Stephen Hilger is an Appleton resident. He can be reached at hilgerst@gmail.com. 

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