Wolf Awareness Week: Mythbusting

Debunking common myths about wolves

Wolves have been demonized and misunderstood for much of human history, long before the first campaigns began to eliminate them from the landscape. Mislabeled as vicious, evil or unpredictable creatures, they have been blamed for all manner of ills, from spreading disease to putting ranchers out of business. We’ve addressed some of the more common myths below in an attempt to clear the air, cultivate greater respect for these native animals, and increase awareness of the wolf’s proper place in the ecosystem.

Myth: Wolves pose a serious threat to humans and their pets.

Like most wildlife, wolves have an innate fear of humans and tend to keep their distance. Reports of wolves attacking humans are extremely rare – only two deaths in the past 100 years have even been plausibly related to wolves. Far more humans have been killed by bee stings, grizzly bears, mountain lions and pet dogs than by wolves, and many more people die from road accidents with elk, deer and cattle than from all wildlife attacks combined.

At the same time, wolves are intelligent and curious creatures, especially when it comes to finding food. Wolves may perceive domestic dogs as rivals and smaller pets as an easy meal. Thus, humans should always take care to protect their family, property and beloved pets from wild animals and teach their children to respect all wildlife.

Myth: The wolves that were reintroduced to Yellowstone and central Idaho in the mid-‘90s were non-native “Canadian” wolves.

The gray wolves currently in the Northern Rockies are the same species (Canis lupis) that once roamed across much of the west before they were eliminated by humans. Many of them descended from wolves that walked across the Canadian border on their own in the 1970s and 1980s to re-colonize their historic range in northern Montana. And the wolves that were trapped in Canada and released in Yellowstone and central Idaho were selected for the similarity of their habitat and prey. Furthermore, a recent genetic study of 555 wolves in the Northern Rockies failed to find any traces of a remnant native wolf population different from today’s existing gray wolf population.

Myth: Wolves are wiping out elk and other prized game species in the Northern Rockies.

Overall, elk and deer continue to do well in the region. The 2010 hunting forecast from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation estimated regional populations (in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming) at more than 370,000, with most herds at or above management targets. In addition, there are more than a million deer, leaving plenty of game for both hunters and wolves.

Elk herds naturally increase and decrease in size over time. They do so in response to changes in habitat, nutrition, disease, hunting pressure, predation, weather and a number of other factors. Sometimes predators may cause local impacts on local prey populations, but predator numbers are primarily driven by the availability of their prey, which in turn is controlled by the availability of food and the uncertainty of the weather. These intertwined factors demonstrate nature’s inherent balance, and ensure that elk, deer and other ungulates are not ‘wiped out’ by the animals that eat them.

It is possible for wolves and humans to coexist, but the size of the population varies with our willingness to accommodate them.

Myth: Wolves will destroy the ranching business by killing livestock.

A range rider and guard dogs keep an eye on a flock of sheep in central Idaho. Photo by Cindi Hillemeyer.

Across the country, wolves account for less than 1% of livestock losses. More livestock are lost to other predators like coyotes and even stray dogs than to wolves. Far more are killed by disease, bad weather, birthing problems and other natural causes. Furthermore, Defenders has a successful track record of working with ranchers and other livestock producers to minimize wolf conflicts. Nonlethal methods such as using range riders, guard dogs, portable fencing, hazing and changing animal husbandry practices have all proven effective in help wolves and livestock coexist when appropriate proactive steps are taken.

Myth: There are more than enough wolves on the landscape already, warranting no further protections.

There is no magic number of wolves that will guarantee the long-term survival of the species in a given area. Before humans settled the United States, there were hundreds of thousands of wolves that roamed across the continent. Today, 11,000 wolves remain in Alaska while dedicated recovery efforts elsewhere have brought wolves back from the brink of extinction. 4,000 wolves now survive in the Great Lakes, nearly 2,000 inhabit the Northern Rockies, a couple hundred red wolves in North Carolina and just 42 Mexican wolves in Arizona and New Mexico.

These disparate numbers show that it is possible for wolves and humans to coexist, but the size of the population varies with our willingness to accommodate them.

You can download our full wolf media kit here.

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