No wild creature has influenced human society as much as the wolf. These wild canines have been legendary in the folklore of many nations, a famous musical score has young Peter and his wild friends hunting the beast, even our hometown NBA team has selected a snarling wolf as ther namesake. Here in Minnesota there is no consensus on the image of the wolf; it is characterized as a noble icon of the northern wilderness one moment, villified as a blood-thristy carnivore the next.
Both the good and bad image of the wolf found root centuries ago. The Roman brothers Remus and Romulous were nursed and raised by a benevolent she wolf. Old Testament David gained skill with his sling slaying wolves that threatened the family flocks. A macabre Russian folk tale tells of a wedding party traveling in sleighs from the church to the village that was attacked by a pack of starving wolves. One by one the beasts pulled the horses down and tore the screaming guests to peices. Frantically, the remaining drivers beat their horses as they tried to stay ahead of the pack. But as the horses tired the wolves caught them one by one. The bride and groom were in the lead sled and watched in horror as, one by one, their family and friends met their fate. Slowly the remaining wolves closed in on the sled as the village and safety came into sight. The groom looked at his new wife, her eyes wide with terror. Moments later, the lathered, heaving horse staggered into town. Only the groom remained in the sleigh, his new bride gone. He swore she lost her footing and fell to the wolves, but the people of the town turned their backs to him. He spent the rest of his days as a cast off … the man who sacrificed his bride for his own life.
These stories were carried with American settlers as they carved homes from the land. The wilderness was threatening to them, something that had to be beaten and tamed to suit them. On the top of that list of threats was the wolf. So for decades, these creatures were shot on sight and trapped or poisoned into near extinction. This war on wolves was not so much because people thought wolves threatened them, but because wolves sometimes ate cows, sheep, and pigs. And that’s what early settlers depended upon for survival.
This same feeling exists today among some farmers in the northern part of Minnesota where a viable number of wolves remain, even thrive, in scattered locations. Wolves do prey upon livestock, and farmers rightfully want to defend their property.
Things are much different today, however. As the greater part of our state population is no longer dependent upon personal livestock for food, there are many who view the wolf as a rare natural treasure that needs to be protected. Professor James Cooper from the wildlife department at University of Minnesota believes a groundswell of interest in the preservation of wildlife, including wolves, resulted from the Viet Nam era when our society developed a greater sensitivity for lives, both human and animal.
As the feelings of sympathy for the wolf have paralleled the prevailing suspicion of all wolves as cattle eaters, the wolf has become the source of an ongoing conflict and debate. Some feel wolves should not only be protected, but managed so they can propogate and increase their range, others remember the Russian story and would just as soon shoot every remaining wolf.
Many deer hunters have joined the ranks of wolf opponents. The primary food source of the timber wolf is the whitetailed deer. In many northern areas of the wolf range, food for the deer is limited compared to southern agricultural regions, and deer populations can be limited. It isn’t hard to vision how a pack of wolves can decimate a local deer population. So when deer numbers are down, hunters frequently blame it on wolves, despite the fact there can be other factors invloved like disease and severe weather.
The fate of the Minnesota timber wolf has been placed in the hands of government agencies including the Minnesota DNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife. Few from either side of the issue have been satisfied with measures taken by these agencies, butefforts have been made to address the concerns of local farmers as well as protect the wolf from indiscriminate destruction.
Timber wolf populations have rebounded in Minnesota to the point where family groups are showing up areas that held no wolves in the recent past. At least some timber wolf sightings are probably of coyotes or “brush wolves,” but timber wolves are definitley expanding their range. Minnesota now has an estimated wolf population of 2,000 animals, which exceeds the state’s recovery goals. The wolf has been reclassified in Minnesota from endangered to threatened, though it is still on the endangered list. The most recent wolf management initiative is being developed by the MN DNR that will likely recommend that the wolf be removed from the endangered species list.
As with almost any issue, understanding is required on both sides. Wolves are, indeed, an important part of Minnesota’s ecological system. These creatures have an elaborate family social structure that has allowed them to survive without decimating their natural food source for centuries. Whenever someone says wolves totally wiped out a local deer herd, likely it wasn’t just the wolves to blame. In many cases, the land has been developed and altered by humans to the point that the natural ecosystem is no longer intact.
Niether are wolves the gentle, sensitive groups portrayed by some. Wolves live by savagely killing prey. Everyone should take the opportunity to visit the Wolf Center in Ely, Minn. Vistors to the center get a very accurate portrayol of wolves – more vivid than some are prepared for. Part of the complex is a glassed in area that overlooks a confined area that’s home to a small wolf pack. Wolf Center employees lure the wolves up close for viewing by tossing out some food bits. Like dogs begging for food, the wolves rear up on their hind legs and leap into the air to grab the morsels before another wolf gets it. The sight is incredible. Wolves often reach six feet in length, and when they leap into the air, one gets an idea of their power as they snap their jaws far above one’s head.
The Wolf Center pack is regularly fed car-killed deer set out where visitors can watch them feed. Before the feeding, one woman made it clear that she was a proponent of the Disney-styled movies that sometimes portray wild animals only as gentle, sensitive creatures. The wolves, indeed, appeared that way when they came out from the trees, but that changed when the deer carcass was tossed over the fence. The calm wolves became violent eating machines that snapped and at each other as they tore the deer to bits in front of the shocked crowd. The lady visitor gasped and put her hand to her mouth when one wolf turned to the glass, its muzzle covered in blood from its nose to its eyes.
Despite what side of the issue one is on, all should realize the timber wolf is an incredible animal whose presence we should find comfort in. Free-roaming wolves mean we have not totally squandered our part of the earth for gain or greed. For where there are wolves, there is wilderness.
(image from crazywhiskers.us)
Posted by Jeff Howard on January 28, 2011
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