on the November proposition to reintroduce wolves to Colorado
by Morgan Bielawski
Wolves and people share a peculiar likeness in size, temperament, and priorities. We both prize “family values,” the family unit as the central structure, we raise our young instead of letting them fend for themselves, and we structure the family unit by a hierarchy of power — parents and children, verses mated pair, secondary wolves, and children. For the most part we are about the same length, between five and six feet (snout to the tip of the tail, in their case). They are, on average, lighter than we are in weight (despite the imagination that they are huge). A wolf-tracker once pointed out to me that a wolf print in the snow is the same size as a human palm.
We are at a junction where our perception of wolves matters: the Colorado Gray Wolf Reintroduction Initiative aims to release wolves in rural Colorado by 2023, and it will be up for vote in Colorado this November.
Our fear of wolves is very old. We have had our eye on them forever; words for “wolf” exist in Old English, Old Church Slavonic, Hebrew, and countless indigenous languages among many others. They appear in folktales and stories, often inhabiting more human traits than wolf ones, as tricksters, stealers, and nighttime dwellers.
One Russian folktale depicts a fearful sort of wolf. In it, two parents and an infant ride in a horse-drawn sleigh through a snowy forest. A pack of wolves starts to chase them and the sleigh is not light enough to outrun them. The parents were so frightened that they decided to throw their child out of the sleigh, thinking the wolves would stop to devour it. They threw the child, but the wolves kept attacking. Later, when the villagers came out to check on them, they found the baby perfectly unharmed, wrapped in a blanket. And they found the parents, killed and eaten. The wolves perform their moral janitorial service, and appear in the story like the great cavernous Hellmouths of medieval art. The fantasized hunting pattern in the story shows that our main fear is that they will come for us. Wolves hunt bison in packs but they rarely hunt sleds, even with horses, because there is little real reason to. Wolves hunt by isolating one animal and then all attacking that one animal; two horses, and four people tightly packed together are not a viable target for their hunting tactic by any means.
I am tempted to say that our likeness to wolves leads to our fear and our hatred of them. We turn away in disgust at our own cruelty and our own tendencies for self-preservation. Our own species is far more vicious than wolves are, and yet we call a malevolent person “a wolf.” Lazar M. Kaganovich, Stalin’s “apparatus of fear,” for example, was called “the wolf of the Kremlin.” Yet the wolf uses its instincts to kill a hare. Kaganovich was an organized killer. We animalize him to distance ourselves from his nature, yet the animal is much more civilized.
When you imagine wild wolves in Colorado, do you imagine a granny alone in the birch woods being stalked by a wolf? Or perhaps an experienced forester trapped and attacked by a pack of them? Immediately our fear pipes up: how could we possibly coexist—they will kill us! However, that fantasy has little to do with our actual relationship with wild wolves. Wolves are frightened of people and rarely aggressive towards them. Since 1900, there has been only a single human fatality by a wild wolf. More people have been killed by cows than by wolves. No one in Yellowstone National Park has been mauled by a wolf since their reintroduction to the park in 1996, despite the approximately four million annual visitors there.
It requires a strangely ambitious creature to consider itself the natural top of the food chain when it has such small teeth, no claws, and no notable innate weapon to speak of except for its brain. Despite our natural similarities, when we compare ourselves to wolves (their teeth, their speed, their hunting strategy) we feel weak and frightened, a fear latched on to and aggrandized by media. But, when we fear for ourselves, our fears are essentially baseless. Wolves show no real pattern of violence towards people. And, just like we cohabitate with bears in major parks and forests, we can learn to cohabitate with wolves.
The ranchers that fear for their sheep have a valid concern. It is unclear what the reintroduction of wolves would mean for them and their stock. We have no real example to draw from for this, since we haven’t had a healthy population of wolves in ranchland since the 1800s. However, there is no particular evidence that the fear of losing droves of sheep has any demonstrated basis. Also, it is important to remember that wolves do not hunt like people do—wolves prefer the lame, wounded, sick, aging, and young animals, where people prize the healthiest and strongest specimens. Most importantly to those who fear the loss of livestock, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission will manage and distribute state funds as compensation for animals lost to gray wolves—the state will pay for animal losses.
One thing is certain, the ecological impact of wild wolves is immense, as demonstrated at Yellowstone National Park. Forty-one wolves were carefully reintroduced to the park between 1996 and 1997 by a team of specialists. When they were released, they set to work on culling the overpopulated deer herds across the park, which were overeating the saplings and grasses, leading to a gap generation in the trees, the total loss of some species of plants from the park, and the widening of rivers due to the erosion of the banks. Wider rivers are hotter in temperature, which effected the spawning of fish. So, with fewer deer and less erosion, deeper and cooler rivers saw the return of fish populations, as well as beavers, and other rightful creatures. The park entered an ecological renaissance.
The implication of free wolves in the United States is a change of psyche, a change of numen, a shy admittance that the human race is not the only tenant of Earth. Wolves are made to do their job; as the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone proved, their presence in an ecosystem strengthens and even heals that system enormously. Apex predators are crucial for the maintenance of species and habitats and we are ill fit to do their job for them. Amidst the growing pains of a culture that cannot go back to “normal,” wild wolves may be a real ticket for a change of order.
Morgan Bielawski is a writer and musician from Northern California.
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“Wolf Restoration.” National Parks Service, U. S. Department of the Interior, 2020.