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The Wolves in Our Dogs: Are We Trying to Protect the Species Because They're So Much Like Man's Best Friend?

Observations from a day spent watching the “8 Mile” pack in Yellowstone with crowds of tourists from an environmental scientist who should know better.
Gray wolf in Yellowstone. (Photo: Jean-Edouard Rozey/Shutterstock)

Gray wolf in Yellowstone. (Photo: Jean-Edouard Rozey/Shutterstock)

When Olympian Kate Hansen tweeted a video of a wolf roaming the corridors of her dorm in Sochi, the media lit up with extended discussions of whether it was a real wolf or more likely a large husky dog. Even when we learned that the video was actually shot in Los Angeles by late night prankster Jimmy Kimmel, speculation continued as to the canine accomplice's genetic purity. His trainer claims he's a timber wolf mix, 80-95 percent wolf. When Kimmel revealed all and introduced “Rugby” to his studio audience, they let out a collective "aaawww." The audience's verdict: Not a wolf.

What is it about wolves that inspires fascination, fear, and also affection? Wolves abound in ancient mythologies, and now fairy tales of the big bad wolf are replaced with the fantasies of werewolves terrifying and alluring as they accompany vampires in popular films and fiction. The wolf is also the symbol of a shrinking wildness, living with other predators at the edges of the growing human footprint on the planet.

Their presence is fearsome, but so is their absence, which may explain our ongoing national conflict over what to do with the wolves in our midst. In 1974, after decades of hunting and poisoning in efforts to eradicate them, the gray wolf was listed as a federally protected endangered species in the lower 48 states. With this designation, wolves were protected from hunting or harassment, and plans were put in place to recover their habitat in regions such as the northern Rockies. It worked. Wolf populations increased from less than 500 (mostly in Minnesota) to more than 5,000 in the lower 48. Today, Alaska has more than 7,000 wolves and Canada more than 50,000. But as populations recovered, the federal government de-listed wolves as an endangered species and handed their management over to the states, which has led to conflict and controversy. Conservation groups sue to maintain endangered species status while states issue permits to kill wolves as trophies and to protect livestock and other game. In 2012-13 more than 1,000 wolves were hunted or trapped in the lower 48.

The wolf is the symbol of a shrinking wildness, living with other predators at the edges of the growing human footprint on the planet.

This winter I had the opportunity to observe wolves in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley. Although wolves tend to stay away from the road, excellent views are possible using a spotting scope or binoculars from one of the many roadside pullouts. One afternoon I watched the “8 Mile” pack interacting on a snow-covered slope across a valley. February is mating season, and I saw lots of playful, hierarchical, flirtatious behavior. An alpha male and alpha female tried to prevent an encounter between a lower-ranked couple, standing over them in dominating poses, placing their muzzles and paws on the backs of the other wolves, and body-slamming them into submissive postures. Meanwhile, the rest of the pack, excited by the action, was wagging tails and play fighting. Around midday the wolves bedded down and slept, choosing a higher point where they had a good view. Occasionally one would rise into a relaxed stretch, rear end in the air and front bowed.

An unusual group of people are there every day wolf-watching. They know each wolf by number (at least those wolves collared by wildlife managers) and the detailed demography of each pack. I met Rick McIntyre, who is famous for having watched the wolves for more than 3,000 consecutive days. Rick and others report the latest locations and activities to each other by radio and care about the wolves with a passion that borders on obsession.

These citizen scientists were carefully recording each interaction, including attempts to mate and successful couplings. Their vehicles, with distinctive radio antennae, are in the park from dawn to dusk, and have become a beacon for wolf tourists who would otherwise not know where to look. But this can lead to conflict when parking is scarce, and I heard some of the regulars become frustrated with talkative tourists who lacked the patience to stand in freezing temperatures peering through scopes at the tiny black and grey figures in the snowy landscape.

Yellowstone is a touchstone for wolf re-introduction in North America. Wolves are protected within the park, but since they were removed from the endangered species list in 2009, when they leave in search of food or to avoid conflict with other wolves they can be legally hunted and killed. Eradicated in the 1920s, wolves were re-introduced into Yellowstone in 1995, growing to a peak population of about 170 in 16 packs in the mid 2000s. Now the population has dropped by half, not just because of hunting but also because of diseases and inter-species conflict. Mange, a parasitic skin disease like scabies, can cause them to lose their fur, which weakens and exposes them to dangerous cold in winter. Distemper, a viral disease, weakens immune systems and can affect breathing, digestion, and the central nervous system. Climate variations affect food supplies, and wolves from competing packs will also kill each other.

For me, it was the howl of a wolf in Canada’s Algonquin Park many years ago that made me feel I had found the essence of nature in North America. I did not see that wolf, or any others in the years that followed, but I became captivated by the parks and wildlife of this continent, so very different from the domesticated landscapes of England where I lived as a child.

The cultural dislike of wolves, even hatred, is fostered by those who see them as vicious hunters of livestock and game such as elk, and who are angered by efforts to protect and re-introduce the wolf into Yellowstone or New Mexico. Others admire the complex social structure of wolf packs, with the alpha couple controlling the group, and the pack sharing responsibilities for hunting, caring for pups, and defending territory.

Watching the wolves at Yellowstone, I certainly felt great appreciation for America’s efforts to protect wild lands through parks and species protection, and I wanted to better understand prospects for the future and how we can come to consensus over wolf re-introduction. But I was surprised that many of my thoughts while observing the wolves were not actually about wolves, but about dogs, especially my own.

When I returned home to my Australian Shepherd, Carson, I saw so many similarities in his behavior to the wolves that I don’t think I will ever see him the same way again. It was especially vivid in his interactions with my friend Pam’s new puppy, a 12-week-old Bouvier called Herbie, who just wanted to be friends but had a bit too much energy for mature Carson. Tiny Herbie tried to dominate Carson by standing over him or resting his muzzle on his legs or back, and then would submissively show his soft belly. But all I could see were the wolves. When Carson decided to move out of the pup’s way, he yawned (a sign of anxiety in dogs and wolves) and stretched into the downward dog posture I had seen in Yellowstone. It's no wonder: He shares 99.8 percent of his genes with gray wolves, even though their evolutionary paths diverged more than 100,000 years ago.

Is it possible that this is what's behind our fascination with wolves, their close relation to the dogs that share our lives? Perhaps its not the fundamental genetic similarity or difference, but rather the look and the behavior that transfers the affection we feel for our dogs to the wolf. Many dog breeds, especially herders such as sheepdogs, share the long muzzle, lean body, and magnetic eyes of the wolf.

As a student and teacher of environment, I often read and assign Aldo Leopold’s essay, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” in which he kills a wolf. As he watches the "fierce green fire" fade from her eyes, he comes to understand the role a wolf takes in our complex ecosystems, controlling the grazers who can strip the vegetation from landscapes. In Yellowstone, the wolves have restored the landscape. They hunt elk, reducing their numbers and chasing them from valley bottoms, allowing the willows and other vegetation to recover. Although they often leave uneaten parts of the animals they kill, these carcasses feed coyotes, ravens, foxes, and eagles, among others. They also attract millions in tourist revenue to the region, with estimates that the Yellowstone wolves attract an extra 100,000 visitors to the park each year and more than $35 million in economic activity.

In the Southwest, where I live, wolf introduction is tougher. The Mexican gray wolf is smaller, and does not yet have the population numbers or the easy viewing opportunities for tourists as the open valleys of the Rockies. The presence of livestock year-round increases the chances that wolves will kill cattle. Opposition to their presence is intense from some ranchers and local residents, and more than 50 have been illegally shot or trapped since they were re-introduced in 1998. Only 75 Mexican wolves currently survive in the Southwest, on the borders of Arizona and New Mexico. Just this week, the Arizona senate approved a bill allowing livestock owners to shoot a wolf bothering other animals, even though the Mexican wolf has federal government protection.

While I am drawn to wolves as symbols of wildness I struggle with what to do about the conflict over wolf re-introduction. I sympathize with the rancher who loses cattle and sheep to wolf predation, and know from friends who farm or ranch that monetary compensation can be inadequate reward for an animal carefully raised. I found some hope in an article in this month’s High Country News that points out that some Southwest ranchers are looking to move out of livestock anyway, and funds are already in place to purchase land or leases to expand wolf habitat and reduce the temptations of livestock.

As an environmental scientist, my views of wolves should be guided by their ecological value in a landscape, and toward solutions that balance wildlife and livelihoods in the West. Wolves are just one of many keystone species like bears or bighorn sheep that are used in debates over conservation. But I think I need to admit that what I see in the eyes of the Yellowstone wolves, and the Mexican wolves who live at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, is not the fierce green fire of Aldo Leopold’s wolf, but instead the gaze of my dog and the special relationship between humans and other species this domesticated relative of the wolf represents. Man's best friend has made me a friend of the wolf.