Seeing a wolf on campus, nonchalantly scratching itself as you walk to class, is generally cause for concern. However, in this case, the wolf among us was here to teach.
On Tuesday, March 25, speakers from the Wolf Conservation Center (WCC) of South Salem, N.Y. gave a lecture in the Student Union Multipurpose Room on the critically endangered wolf and the negative impacts the loss of the species has had on the ecosystems the wolves inhabit.
With them was special guest “Atka,” a 11-year-old domesticated male Arctic gray wolf who accompanies WCC lecturers as an “ambassador wolf,” helping to teach about the importance of wolf conservation.
“All wolves here in the lower 48 states were considered endangered as recently as 2011, when Congress intervened and removed Endangered Species Act protections from wolves in the State of Idaho, Montana and the [state] parks of Washington, Oregon and Utah. That’s not normally how an endangered species comes off the endangered species list. It’s not usually done through a politician,” Executive Director of WCC Maggie Howell said.
Howell went on to say that since then, wolves have been de-listed from the endangered species list in Wyoming, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan, bringing the total to six states that currently allow for legal wolf hunts.
“I can’t think of another example where an animal is going to be considered an endangered species and then be hunted in the very first year they’re removed [from the list],” Howell said.
According to Alex Spitzer, a WCC educator, more than a century ago the territorial United States was populated by an estimated 250,000 wolves. By the 1970s, years of hunting left the northern tip of Minnesota as the only place wolves remained in the wild – harboring a population that had dwindled to an estimated 500 to 700 individuals, prompting their inclusion on the endangered species list the same decade.
This decline in species population comes at a significant cost to eco-systems where wolves act as keystone species – a species that has a disproportionately large effect on its environment relative to its abundance, in this case acting as a natural predator to many large-hoofed animals such as deer and elk, said Spitzer. By picking off sick, injured and weak prey in the animals they hunt, wolves are partially responsible for regulating the genetic health of a species by adhering to Charles Darwin’s theory of “survival of the fittest.”
WCC belongs to federally instituted “Species Survival Programs” designed to fund conservation efforts in helping two subspecies of wolves found in the U.S., the Mexican gray wolf and the red wolf, make a resurgence in population, Spitzer said.
According to Spitzer, only 300 red wolves are left in the world – under 100 of which live in the wild with the remaining population housed in captive facilities like the WCC, which is home to four. Similar was said of the Mexican gray wolf; only 400 are left in the world, 82 in the wild with the rest in captivity of which the WCC house 13.
In the wild, the average lifespan of a wolf is about four to six years, Spitzer said, while a wolf in captivity can be expected to live 12 to 15 years.
Since being listed as endangered in the 1970s, Spitzer said wolves have made a small return to regions such as the western Great Lakes, the northern Rockies, in the southwest along the New Mexico-Arizona border which serves as the reintroduction site of the Mexican gray wolf and in the Outer Banks of North Carolina which serves as the reintroduction site of the red wolf.
Spitzer said wolves have been villianized by classic myths like “Little Red Riding Hood” and news media that cite wolves as main causes of depredation – the killing of domestic livestock or pets – when according to a chart shown during the presentation depicting the causes of cattle loss before reaching market, wolves counted for only 0.2 percent of all unintended livestock losses. By the same chart, it was two times more likely to have cattle stolen by another rancher than it was for cattle to be killed by wolves.
“All good stories need a bad guy, and unfortunately wolves have been the bad guy in so many stories and they have to live with the consequences when really, they’re scared of us,” Spitzer said. “So one of the things we like to do is teach people what the real wolf is all about.”
Enter Atka. The 82-pound wolf, whose name means “guardian spirit” in the Inuit language, was born in captivity and has since lost his fear of humans, yet remains a wolf in all other behavioral regards. As a “socialized wolf” having been raised by humans and even a dog during his infancy, he is unable to return to the wild and instead works as an ambassador wolf with the WCC traveling together with the speakers as they host lectures at around 135 schools, museums and nature centers per year.
“Right now, U.S. Fish and Wildlife is poised to remove Endangered Species Act protections from all gray wolfs nationwide, with the exception of the critically endangered Mexican gray wolf,” Howell said.
The national de-listing would be the result of a reclassification of a wolf subspecies formerly native to the northeast U.S. as a species of wolf known as the eastern wolf, separate from the gray wolf currently considered native to the northeast, Spitzer said. By reducing the native territory of the gray wolf, its population proportional to the area of its habituation would not define the species as endangered.
However, according to Howell, an independent panel of scientists have said this reclassification “is not based on sound science” in a peer-reviewed report released in December. WCC is currently exploring protection legislation on the state level, should the de-listing be approved.
“If things do get bad enough and they do get de-listed, eventually they’ll be put back on the Endangered Species list and that’s exactly where a lot of states are going right now,” Spitzer said. “The odds of reintroduction of wolves to this area are pretty out of the question at this point but there needs to be laws in place to protect them if they do come back.”