The hunting of Gray Wolves (Canis lupus) has been legally permitted for the first time this year in the midwest states of Minnesota and Wisconsin. This represents an extension of the legal hunt from Alaska and the western states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Wolves polarize opinion like few other wild animals. They are demonised by many livestock farmers, for example (despite the fact that losses to wolves are extremely small relative to overall profits, and the existence of compensation programmes); whereas they are iconic animals for those inspired by conservation and the wild. The expanded hunt couldn’t fail to be controversial.
After being persecuted close to extinction by the early 20th century, the Gray Wolf has been slowly expanding in range and numbers across parts of the USA, helped by various reintroduction projects in certain areas. This success is strictly relative – there are now estimated to be around 7,000 individuals in the lower 48 states, and perhaps 10,000 in Alaska, compared to some 400,000 estimated to have roamed the continent before the European colonisation.
Nonetheless, the species is gradually increasing, and it’s instructive that the response, from some, to this limited success has been a desire to shoot, trap and bait the animals. The wolf is a potent symbol of “the wild”, and our attitude to their presence in a landscape reveals something of our relationships with wild nature in general.
It’s also becoming ever clearer that the health of an ecosystem depends on the survival of its top carnivores, and an American wilderness deprived of wolves can scarcely be called a wilderness at all. As millions across the USA celebrate Thanksgiving, and mark the start of the colonisation process which almost did for the wolf, it’s important to ponder what the wolf hunt reflects in our relationship with nature.
I’m writing this from the UK, where the last wild wolf was exterminated centuries ago, and reintroduction here, although frequently discussed, still seems incredibly ambitious. A land where wolves run is a wild, unmanaged, unpredictable place, and that seems to be uncomfortable for us to accept.
“We have doomed the Wolf not for what it is, but for what we have deliberately and mistakenly perceived it to be…..the mythologized epitome of a savage, ruthless killer….which is, in reality no more than a reflexed image of ourself.” Farley Mowat