The people seeking the company of wolves

Lone ranger: Wolves can travel distances of 1,000 miles or more in search of a mate. © Getty

Is it time for the return of the wolf? For centuries, these fierce animals have been seen as a menace. But some now believe they have a vital part to play in rebalancing the environment.

The Italian town of Scanno was in lockdown when Ennio Ciccoti glanced out of his window and saw an amazing sight. Racing along the road past shuttered shops and restaurants came a herd of red deer, pursued by four wolves. As he watched, one of the deer tried to leap a high fence – in vain. The wolves caught and killed it.

This was not the only such incident during the lockdown – Cicotti alone witnessed two others. It was a dramatic reminder that, despite historical attempts to eradicate them, wolves have survived in some unexpected places. Now, experts are arguing that they should be not only protected, but encouraged – and reintroduced into places where they have not been seen in living memory.

A significant step towards this was taken three weeks ago, when the people of Colorado voted by a narrow margin in favour of reintroduction. It followed confirmation that a wolf pack had made its home in the US state for the first time in nearly a century.

“Together with biologists, ranchers, wildlife watchers and hunters, we will lean in to craft a future where co-existing with wolves is a widely shared value,” declared the president of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, Rob Edward. “We will put science to work to build understanding and trust.”

People like Edward believe that we have upset the balance of nature by claiming untamed countryside for agriculture and housing, and hunting down species we perceive as a threat. What is needed, they argue, is “rewilding” to restore the environment to health.

Paul Lister, who owns a Scottish wilderness reserve, agrees. He is particularly concerned by the effect on the landscape of overgrazing by deer, whose numbers in Scotland have grown from 150,000 to 400,000 in the past 60 years.

Lister would like to create a 50,000-acre enclosure where wolves would control the deer population. Not only would they reduce numbers to a sustainable point, but fear of them would keep the deer moving so that no area was grazed bare. Trees and plants would flourish once again.

This is what happened in Yellowstone National Park after grey wolves were reintroduced in 1995. Over the following 15 years, the wolves – together with mountain lions, which re-established themselves naturally – halved the number of elk in the park. The landscape became far more fertile.

Not surprisingly, there is considerable opposition. Those who campaigned against the new measure in Colorado included the Colorado Cattleman's Association, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Last month President Trump removed grey wolves from the US government’s list of protected species, and in some states people are hunting the animals again.

It is estimated that 12,000 sheep were killed by wolves in France in 2017. In Germany, one shepherd has reported six attacks on his flock in the last four years. In one of them, 20 sheep were killed and another 30 disappeared.

Is it time for the return of the wolf?

Legal claws

Some say, no. Wolves are incredibly dangerous animals that threaten humans and animals alike – which is why they were hunted almost to extinction. We are deluded if we think we can manage wild creatures: such experiments almost always end in disaster. If wolves were to imitate foxes and start searching for food in cities, the consequences would be terrifying.

Others argue that the best way to care for the environment is to let nature take its course. That means allowing animal populations to be controlled by their instinctive predators, who ensure the health of a herd by preying on its weakest members. As the example of Yellowstone National Park shows, this has benefits for the whole of the food chain.

You Decide

  1. Does a wolf have more right to protection than a deer?
  2. Should we simply accept that some animals are our enemies and treat them accordingly?

Activities

  1. Paint a picture of a wolf pack in an urban setting.
  2. On his deathbed, Lenin was read Jack London’s story Love of Life, about a fight between a man and a wolf. Write a story about an encounter between a wolf and a politician.

Some People Say...

“Wilderness is not a luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit.”

Edward Abbey (1927 - 1989), American writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that wolves have survived hunting by humans by withdrawing to remote, mountainous regions. In Europe these included the Alps (where most of France’s wolves live), the Apennines and the Balkans. There are now estimated to be 12,000 European wolves, and they have been spotted in every country on the continent’s mainland. In Britain, where refuge was harder to find, wild wolves were extinct by 1700.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether rewilding can play an effective role in solving our environmental crisis. Its supporters say that it is the best use for agricultural land which has poor soil or does not suit modern farming methods, and areas depopulated by people moving to cities. According to one estimate, there will be 30 million hectares of abandoned farmland in Europe by 2030: the equivalent of a large country. But critics consider rewilding an unproductive and messy use of land.

Word Watch

Red deer
One of the largest types of deer. Cave paintings of the animals dating from 5,000BC have been found in Siberia. In medieval times they were a huntsman’s most prized quarry.
Eradicate
Wipe out. It originally meant to pull up by the roots – “radix” being the Latin for root.
Rocky Mountain
The Rocky Mountains are the biggest range in North America, stretching for 3,000 miles from New Mexico to the Yukon in Canada.
Yellowstone National Park
The largest national park in the US, covering 3,500 square miles. Most of it is in Wyoming, but it also extends into Montana and Idaho.
Elk
Confusingly, Americans and Europeans use this name differently. Europeans apply it to what Americans call a moose, while Americans apply it to a smaller type of deer.
Colorado
One of the largest states in the US. Part of it was originally claimed by Spain and part by Mexico; these disputes were not finally settled until 1848.
Voted
When presidential and congressional elections are held in the US, voters are often asked to vote on local issues at the same time.

Subjects

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