Dispelling The Canadian Wolf Myth

Today, in honor of National Wolf Awareness Week, I’m reposting an article I wrote back in April of this year. It busts the oft-repeated myth that wolves reintroduced to the US in 95 from Canada, are a larger more aggressive wolf then previously roamed the Northern Rockies. It’s a common mantra spread by the anti-wolf crowd and is not grounded in fact. But hey why bother with pesky facts? They just get in the way of demonizing wolves.

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April 12, 2010

If I had a dollar every time I heard the derogatory term “Non-Native Canadian wolf”, I’d be rich.

The myth goes something like this. Wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone and Central Idaho in 1995 were a larger, non-native, more aggressive wolf then the wolves who roamed the Northern Rockies before the Western extermination. This kind of thinking and rhetoric is what fuels wolf hatred in the first place. When nasty rumors and stories get started they develop legs. Pretty soon people are repeating it as if it’s fact. My advice would be to do a little research on the history of wolves and their morphology, instead of repeating rumors and innuendo. But this myth has nothing to do with the search for truth, it’s all about demonizing wolves. Please make it your business to shed light on these fairy tales. The wolves will thank you.

I wonder how many people who make these claims have ever seen a wild wolf? I’ve been lucky to view wild wolves. One of my Malamutes, who passed away several years ago, was bigger and weighed more than any wolf I’ve ever encountered. He was 180 lbs full-grown. He was so tall he could actually eat food right off the kitchen counter. But unlike the wolf his body was stockier. Wolves have long legs, big feet and large heads, their bodies are also longer than dogs. This gives them the appearance of being bigger then they actually are. Wolves in the Northern Rockies weigh on average between 80-110 lbs. Wolves also weigh more when their bellies are full. That’s because after a kill wolves gorge on a meal because they may not eat again for several days. It’s feast or famine for the wolf. Remember, only one in ten wolf hunts is successful. They expend a great deal of energy during the hunt and very often have nothing to show for it.

Did you know 31% of the wolves killed in Montana’s hunt were under a year of age (juveniles) and weighed an average of 62 lbs.  31% were yearlings and weighed about 80 lbs. 62% of wolves killed in Montana’s wolf hunt in 2009 were a year old or under a year of age, in other words, PUPPIES! Shocked? Only 38% of wolves killed in Montana’s hunt were adults, weighing an average 97 lbs. The largest wolf weighed 117 lbs. Again way smaller than my Malamute. The average weight of wolves killed in the Idaho hunt was under a 100 lbs.

There is strong evidence the two subspecies of wolves that roamed the Rocky Mountains north and south of the Canadian border, for tens of thousands of years,  Canis Lupus Occidentalis (The Mackenzie Valley wolf) and Canis Lupus Irremotus (Northern Rocky Mountain wolf) bred with each other and mixed their genes. Some believe the Mackenzie Valley wolves bred the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf out of existence, instead of the government eliminating them.

It’s a specious argument, not grounded in science, to state Canis Lupus Occidentalis is a non-native wolf from Canada that was foisted upon the Northern Rockies region. In fact wolves know no boundaries and regularly cross back and forth between Canada and the US. There is no doubt sub-species exchanged DNA, making it almost impossible to tell how much of one subspecies is contained in another.

The whole idea of numbers of wolf subspecies is debated in the scientific world, ranging from 24 to just 5. The one thing we do know is wolves from different subspecies mate and share their DNA. The truth is, wolves are wolves, with slight variations in height, weight or fur color.

Think how silly the notion is when you consider humans created the boundaries between Canada and the US. To wolves it’s all the same landscape. They do what wolves do, breed, form packs and when they’re old enough strike out on their own, looking for new territory and a mate. It’s really that simple. Wolf thy name is wanderlust.

Wolves have large territories and travel great distances to establish a place for themselves. Does anyone truly believe wolves didn’t freely cross borders before they were exterminated in the West? Invisible lines created by humans have no meaning for wolves. They go as they please, truly free yet horribly persecuted, never knowing why.

Wolves are great wanderers and can travel an average of 25 miles per day while hunting. One Scandinavian wolf, pursued by hunters, traveled 125 miles in 24 hours. Wolves have runners bodies, lean and sleek. David Mech, the wolf biologist once stated “Wolves are fed by their feet.” Covering ground, exploring, seeking new territory, is bound to the wolves’ soul.  One only has to read the tale of wolf 314f, just a year and a half old, who traveled from her home in Montana to a lonely hillside called No Name Ridge in Colorado, where she was found dead under suspicious circumstances. She logged a thousand miles on her GPS collar during her amazing journey. Wolves are great adventurers and travelers.

Do wolf haters think there is some imaginary line at the border between Canada and the US that wolves didn’t dare cross? How ridiculous is that?

Long before the reintroduction, wolves made their way back to the US in the 1970’s and 80’s, dispersing from Canada to Glacier National Park,  They formed the Camas, Wigwam and Magic packs and these packs were not small, some numbering from twenty to thirty wolves. Does this sound like an animal who’s afraid to cross an invisible line they’ve been navigating for thousands of years, long before Canada and the United States were even a thought?

It follows that sub-species of wolves will mix their genes and basically become a combination of both. The myth that wolves reintroduced from Canada are somehow enormous super wolves who never set foot on American soil before reintroduction, is ludicrous. If you don’t believe me listen to experts on the subject, who have worked with wolves for years and understand their morphology.

Carter Niermeyer Interview (Outdoor Idaho) Spring 2009 (Carter Niermeyer was the Idaho Wolf Recovery Coordinator for USFWS from 2000 to 2006)

Q.There are those who say we brought the wrong wolves into Idaho in 1995 and 1996, that they’re bigger wolves than the ones that were here.

CN: I have to support the science again, and specialists in morphology and genetics on wolves indicate that the wolf that was brought down from Canada is the same wolf that lived here previously. And I did some research into books on early wolves that were captured in the Northern Rockies, even as far south as Colorado during the days that wolves were being hunted down in the 1930s; and the body weights were very much the same.

So I feel that this wolf that was brought from Canada is the same species and genetics as the wolves that lived here once upon a time. I think people have to remember that the northern Rockies — we call it the northern Rockies in Idaho and Montana, but actually we’re a southern extension of the northern Rockies out of Canada — and all of those wolves in Canada have the potential and the ability to disperse. I believe what happened over the last 50-60 years is that individual wolves have come from Canada following the Rocky Mountain chain and ended up periodically in places like Montana and Idaho.

Or Mike Jimenez (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and Wyoming wolf recovery coordinator)

Jimenez disputed claims that the wolves reintroduced from Canada in the mid-1990s are a larger, more aggressive breed than had historically lived in Wyoming.

While scientists once divided wolves into 24 subspecies, he said more recent DNA evidence shows five subspecies in North America. Further, given the fact that wolves tend to disburse hundreds of miles, he said wolves from Canada likely interbred with Wyoming wolves and vice versa before they were exterminated from the region.

“The idea that those Canadian wolves are different … the argument gets weak,” he said. “Where they transition from one subspecies to the next is totally up for grabs.”

People cling to anti-wolf myths because wolves have become scapegoats for anti-government feelings. Many anti-wolfers believe reintroducing wolves was forced on them even though bringing wolves home to the Northern Rockies was not a rogue scheme dreamed up by a few government biologists. It was supported by many Americans. In fact a poll taken in 1990 found two-thirds of Montanans supported bringing wolves back to the state. Even so, it was a huge battle that waged for decades because the same, small, vocal minority that opposes wolves today were against them then, IE: ranchers, hunters and outfitters.

The feds finally compromised and classified wolves as a non-essential experimental population, which meant they could be shot and killed for agribusiness.

The little known fact is Wildlife Services has been killing wolves for years, along with the wolf hunts in 2009/2010. Still without ESA protection wolves would NEVER have been able to make any kind of comeback. It’s been their saving grace and now sadly they are at the mercy of their enemies once again.

What’s behind the giant Canadian wolf myth that’s passed off as truth? I believe it’s fear of competition. Many hunters don’t want to share the woods or compete with wolves. They liked it when wolves were gone and elk were complacent, standing around all day, munching down aspen trees, never allowing them to get any taller than a few feet. Apparently hunters like lazy, slow elk, ones that are easier to kill.  Since the return of the wolf, elk are no longer complacent, their old nemesis is back and they know it.  I think Carter Niermeyer hit the nail on the head when he said:

“Hunters look at the wolf from many angles and perspectives, too, and I have to emphasize that I’m a hunter. Certainly wolves compete, but I don’t think they’re any excuse for not being a successful hunter. There’s tremendous numbers of game animals available to sportsman and with a little effort and sleuth, you still have great potential to collect a wild animal from hunting. I don’t know what the excuse was before wolves, but it has become the main excuse now for unsuccessful hunters. I mean, there are just so many other issues involved in why hunters are not successful, but the wolf is a lame excuse.”

It’s necessary to spread untruths about wolves to further the agenda of getting rid of them or make excuses for why a particular hunter wasn’t able to “get his elk” during hunting season. I’ve reported over and over that the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation trumpeted in the their Spring 2009 press release that elk numbers were up 44% nationally since 1984, when the organization was founded. They stated the elk herds in Montana, Colorado and Utah  increased between 50-70 percent.  The Montana’s elk population stood at 150,000 and Idaho at 105,000.  I guess that wasn’t good news to everyone, since it doesn’t fit in with the “wolf is decimating all the elk” argument. Hunters whine that elk numbers may be up in the state but down in some areas. Ummmmmm that’s how nature works. And I hate to break it to the elk hunters but it’s not all about them. Wolf advocates opinions are being ignored. We’ve had to watch in horror as wolves were removed from the Endangered Species List and hunted almost immediately.

This was unforgiveable behavior by the states and certainly didn’t earn any points with wolf supporters about their intent to “manage” wolves fairly.  It’s not a secret there’s a conflict of interest when it comes to state game agencies “managing/killing” predators.  They want to please their customers, the hunters, who demand more game. The saddest part of this story is wolves were brought back only to be used for target practice fifteen years later.

Carter  Niermeyer states:

It’s a little late now, but I wish that when the states assume management of wolves that there could have been some kind of a moratorium where the states took the responsibility and didn’t jump right into a wolf harvest, or a wolf culling, or whatever you want to call it. It would’ve been nice, I think, to establish some credibility with wolf advocates and conservationists, environmentalists and people who appreciate wolves for other values. And just sort of get a handle on things and get a feel for managing the wolf. Because there’s this perception that suddenly we’re going from a listed animal to a hunted animal and I think a lot of the public is having a struggle with coming along with that.

The other thing I wish could happen, too, is there’d be more dialogue between the broad term wolf advocates and the Fish and Game Department and talk about these issues more openly, because the conservation groups have been a close ally in getting wolf recovery moving forward and actually being partners, and now there seems to be this falling out and a relationship that’s deteriorating.

Wolf advocates are rightly upset to see wolves hunted at all, especially freshly off the Endangered Species List.

I wonder how hunters would feel if over 40% of the elk herd was killed in one season. What would they think of a seven month-long elk hunt like the state of Idaho imposed on wolves?

Are Canadians laughing at us when they hear the Canadian super-wolf myth? Does this mean Canadians are superior hunters, who seem to have no trouble bagging game with their Canadian monster wolves roaming the countryside?

The truth is wolves living in the Northern Rockies today are the same wolves that were here before they were exterminated. It’s not about how tall wolves are or how much they weigh or the color of their fur. This myth is grounded in hatred of a species just as it was when they were exterminated the first time around.

Hunters by their very nature are in the business of killing and not all hunters can shoot straight or are ethical. There are people who hunt out of their rigs, while drinking.  Gut shot deer roam the forest during hunting season, leaving blood trails until they finally collapse and die. I’ve seen deer with arrows sticking out of them, barely able to stand.

If anyone has seen Predator Derby pictures of bloody dead coyotes, or dead wolves displayed by their killers with no respect, smiling like they just won the lottery, understand it’s not the wolf that’s the deadliest predator. Wolves kill to survive. The cruelest predator of all is man. No giant wolf myth can compete with that.

HOWL for speaking the truth about wolves.

Pass it on!

“May we all never be judged by anything so harshly or hold to as strict a life or unremitting of borders as the ones we try to place on and around wolves”…Rick Bass 1992

Photo Courtesy Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Posted in: Wolf myths, gray wolf/canis lupus, Wolf Wars

Tags: wolf subspecies, wolf myths, wolves in the crossfire, wolf intolerance, demonizing wolves

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