Three little pigs dance in a circle singing “Who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf?”
Little Red Riding Hood barely escapes the cunning advances of the ravenous wolf
disguised as her grandmother.
Movie audiences shriek as a gentle young man is transformed before their eyes
into a blood-thirsty werewolf, a symbol for centuries of the essence of evil.
Such myths and legends have portrayed the wolf as a threat to human existence.
Feared as cold-blooded killers, they were hated and persecuted. Wolves were not
merely shot and killed; they were tortured as well. In what was believed to be a
battle between good and evil, wolves were poisoned, drawn and quartered, doused
with gasoline and set on fire, and, in some cases, left with their mouths wired
shut to starve (Begley 53). Convinced that they were a problem to be solved, U.S.
citizens gradually eradicated gray wolves from the lower 48 states over a period
of 25 years.
Today many people are convinced that the elimination of the gray wolf was not
only an error, but also a detriment to the quality of life in this country.
There has been a public outcry to rectify the situation created by the ignorance
of our ancestors. However, in seeking to address a situation created by the
human compulsion to control nature, it is crucial to discern how much human
interference is necessary. Human control must be tempered by respect and
restraint. Programs designed for the protection and restoration of wildlife must
reflect deference for the natural order rather than dominance over it.
The consequences of human actions involving the elimination of the gray wolf
have been especially acute in Yellowstone National Park, where the lack of a
natural predator has resulted in the overpopulation of bison, deer, and elk.
According to Sharon Begley of Newsweek magazine, “Absent a natural predator,
thousands of the ungulates have starved during tough winters, and there has been
no selection pressure to keep deer fast and moose powerful” (53).
Another issue is more subtle. As Ms. Begley points out, “The wolf has been the
only native animal missing from Yellowstone” (53). In one of the few places
where the wildness of the west could be preserved, the wolf’s absence leaves a
big hole. In a world filled with skyscrapers, subdivisions, and superhighways,
human beings yearn for the wolf’s untamable majesty.
In 1995, it is obvious that the hatred and fear which fueled the elimination of
the gray wolf stemmed from a gross misunderstanding of wolves and their behavior.
Cultural myths picturing wolves as scheming, aggressive beasts plotting to
pounce on innocent victims do not reflect the truth. In reality, wolves are
elusive creatures who keep to themselves. The wolf’s social structure is much
like ours. They live in family units called packs consisting of a mated pair,
young pups, and older offspring. It is through the intricate relationships and
interactions within the pack that offspring learn how to live as adult wolves.
As the environmentalist Charles Bergman points out, “Wolves are intensely social
animals, living in packs that are structured in rigid hierarchies. In the chain
of power each wolf has a defined place on a ladder of dominance and submission”
(3l). The entire pack works together according to position to raise and nurture
the pups, teaching them a highly sophisticated system of communication used “for
expressing their status relative to each other” (Bergman 31). Also, from parents
and older siblings, young wolves learn not only how to hunt, but what to hunt as
well. Wolves are trained early to go after certain prey and leave others alone.
Since their prey is usually larger and stronger than they, wolves are taught
specifically to hunt the weak and sick in order to avoid injury.
Information given in Friends of the Forest describes the similarity between
humans and wolves. This publication states, “Like humans, some wolves stay with
their families until they die, others leave the pack during adolescence in
search of uninhabited territory and a mate” (1-2). Unlike humans, wolves
instinctively control their population. The number in a pack rarely exceeds
twelve and is determined by the availability and size of prey in their territory.
Faced with the consequences of hasty actions to eliminate the wolves, as well as
increased knowledge about their behavior, the U.S. Congress passed the
Endangered Species Act in 1973, giving full protection to the gray wolf. In
Section 1531 of the Act, Congressional findings state that since certain species
of wildlife have been threatened with extinction, “the United States has pledged