Earth Day evokes wolves in Denver
Earth Day was marked in Denver by an appearance of L. David Mech at the Tattered Cover bookstore in the city’s LoDo district. Despite rain blustering into snow, Mech’s talk was attended by 65 people – nowhere near a record, confided a bookstore employee, but large turnout considering the weather.
“After all,” the employee said, “this is the Jane Goodall of wolves.”
That comparison only slightly overstates Mech’s role with wolves. He began studying the animals in 1958, when wolves were widely held in disrepute. The last of Colorado’s wolves had been killed in 1943, in the San Juan Mountains, and most then considered the event cause for celebration.
Elsewhere below the Canadian border, the story was much the same. Wolves – as he has noted in his nine books that are currently listed on Amazon.com – were seen as agents of evil, harmful to humans and livestock.
Mech, a stout, bald man, and with a whitening beard, could easily be mistaken for the neighborhood butcher or an aging bartender. He’s confident of himself and amusing without being a comedian. What most distinguishes him is the matter-of-fact sensibility he brings to the discussion of wolves despite what is an obvious sympathy for the species.
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“Wolves eat primarily ungulates, i.e. moose, deer, and elk, but whatever else is available, rabbits for example,” he said. But also, he added, they kill cattle and sheep, horses and dogs – even people.
The reputation of wolves as killers of people is probably overstated, he suggested, but not wildly undeserved. Even in recent times wolves have killed children in India, and wolf predation on people in Siberia has also been recorded.
But in North American recorded history, only 16 cases of wolves attacking people have been documented, none fatal. “We can’t say that wolves are harmless to people, but fatal attacks are not recorded,” he said.
But wolves do kill for a living, which is the essence of why some people want wolves back – and others recoil in horror.
An absorbing four-minute film that Mech showed gets to the heart of the ambivalence among people. Taken in Yellowstone National Park, where wolves were reintroduced in 1995, the film is the only one known in existence that showed wolves during the full sequence of hunting then killing an elk.
Television shows about nature have purported to do so, he explained, but in fact showed snippets of various scenes that have been spliced together.
“The Grim Reaper Visits Arthritic Elk” could have been the title. Several wolves are seen chasing after elk in a sagebrush-covered meadow in an almost playful fashion. Soon, the fun turns to serious business, as the wolves ignore other elk in favor of one. The reason, as the chase continues, finally becomes obvious. The elk has a minor lameness in one of its hind legs.
At long length, the two wolves step up the chase, alternatively jumping at the elk’s throat. Sympathizing with the elk, you root for her to boot the wolves with a couple of well-aimed kicks – which does sometimes happen, explained Mech.
In this case, it did not. The attack continued for several minutes, the elk at first running rapidly, then slowing to a walk, stopping, and then toppling over, the wolves hanging to its neck.
A later examination of the carcass revealed the leg was severely arthritic. The point is that the wolves were able to detect a weakness in this cow elk that wasn’t immediate obvious to the human eye.
For those advocating the return of wolves to Colorado, this is one of the basic arguments. Wolves, they say, will cull the herds of elk and deer of their weakest members, improving the general health of those herds the way that rifle-shooting big-game hunters, looking for trophy animals, do not.
In this and other ways, say those advocating restoration, the wolves will return the ecosystems to general good health.
Preparing for predators
But for all that Mech has learned about wolves in the last 46 years, he freely acknowledges that much is not yet known. Since wolves were re-introduced into Wyoming the elk population has dropped.
Many think there’s a correlation, but the connection is unproven, he said. “We really don’t know what is going on,” he said, before suggesting that drought could also be a factor.
Similarly, many believe that wolves have killed coyotes, reducing the population. “We have to be very careful when we make these claims that wolves are having this wonderful effect,” he said.
Clearly, Mech finds wolves to be valuable creatures that deserve a place at the food table of the West, but just as clearly he thinks many claims both for and against wolves stray from what is clearly known.
But what is undisputed, because of radio collars, is that wolves released at Yellowstone last year had migrated to within 30 miles of Colorado and, by Mech’s estimation, are now within Colorado.
All this has Coloradans in a somewhat noisy debate as they have been told that, like it or not, they had better be working on plans for living with wolves. Mech seems to believe the accommodation of wolves can be made, as has been proven in northern Minnesota, where wolves co-exist with people with very few headlines.
In Wyoming, wolves are constantly in the headlines. The difference, he says, is that in Minnesota wolves came on their own, while the wolves in Wyoming were reintroduced by the federal government, inciting anti-government feelings common in Wyoming.
When asked to summarize the changes from 1958, when he began his study of wolves, and today, Mech recalled that early in his career – until about the first Earth Day in 1970 – people would look at him in puzzlement when he talked about wolves. Why would you want to study wolves, they seemed to wonder.
“When I gave a talk before 1970, and used the word ‘ecology,’ nobody knew what I meant. Now the word ecology means everything,” he said.
But there are other changes. When he began studying wolves, the children of those who had killed off the wolves in the West were still around, as well as some of the original wolf-killers. Now, it’s at least the great-grandchildren, and they mostly live in cities, while fewer people live in rural areas.
“It’s far easier to be for wolves if you don’t have wolves in your backyard,” he said before he began signing copies of his latest book, “Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation.”
As is usual at gatherings of wolf enthusiasts, there were more women than men. Mech may have had a hypothesis to explain why, but a store employee arrived to announce the evening’s closing, and customers were being ushered out into the snow.