Canadians Retaking Crater Lake, eh?
An old myth brought down with even older information
There’s no lack of anti-wolf myths ripe for debunking. Much like climate change denial has become a cottage industry, the anti-wolf crowd - led by a small group of pseudo scientists, self-proclaimed experts, and anti-government activists – regularly churn out new ones.
Perhaps you didn’t know that wolves are simply the newest tool in a radical United Nations agenda to spread disease and turn rural (or is that “real") America into a playground for latte-sipping liberal elites. Maybe you’d be surprised to learn that wolves made their way to Wallowa County in the back of a government van, a Native American’s motorboat, or a Clinton Administration black helicopter (No joke, these are all stories we’ve heard).
Certainly it should be old news that wolves regularly kill small children for fun after dressing up like their grandmothers.
There are any number of reasons for why such myths exist. Fear generally tops the list – fear of wolves, fear of change, fear of a lack of control. However, recently it’s occurred to me that another factor should be added to the list...
To be clear, there are lots of conservation-minded hunters and ranchers who welcome wolf recovery, value wild places, and care about healthy forests. There are also a few loud voices who are so unabashedly opposed to conservation that they make no bones about their determination to kill wolves and build roads to every grove of trees not lost to the clearcuts that bother them not one bit.
However, most anti-wolf hunters and ranchers face a conundrum. They understand that Americans value wolves and other native wildlife. They understand that turning against those values further marginalizes them from mainstream America. How then can they hate wolves while also pretending to share those values?
A simple – if pained – answer is to pretend wolves are a dangerous, destructive non-native invader.
If you’ve followed the conflict and controversy drummed up by anti-wolf interests, you’re painfully aware of the myth. Having been reintroduced from Canada, today’s western wolves are in fact an invasive exotic species. Coupled with cherry-picked data that show wolves are devastating other, more cuddly - or shootable - native wildlife makes the story even more appealing. A critical component of the Canadian wolf meme is that these new wolves are much larger than those native to Oregon and the rest of the west.
If it helps them sleep at night, these conflicted “conservationists” ignore the lack of credible science to back up the claim or the copious data that debunks it. The non-native wolf bit has fallen apart for all but the most diehard anti-wolf nuts. But you know what they say about a few bad nuts…
The return of wolves to Western Oregon has been greeted by Oregonians and the international press (perhaps this is more evidence of a UN conspiracy) as a conservation success story that stands alongside that of bald eagles and gray whales. However, a few folks can’t help but try to stir the pot and sow conflict.
When he heard of our naming contest for OR-7, a spokesperson for the Oregon Hunters Association suggested “the residents in northeast Oregon who have witnessed their domestic animals being ravaged by wolves can paint you a very different picture…I think the 4-H kids in Wallowa County…should be invited to enter the contests.” Ironically, the first submission came from a 7-year old girl in Northeast Oregon.
Her suggestion? “Whosafraida”.
In another public response, a rancher suggested “In this country, we worked really hard to exterminate wolves 50 years ago or so, and there was a reason”. There was a reason we did a lot of things back then. Some good, some bad. That’s a discussion for another blog, but his story could create problems for a new effort to give the tired old Canadian wolf myth fresh legs...
The Bigger Badder Big Bad Wolf
The new story goes like this: wolves are native to Oregon, but they were never really wiped out. Depending on who you ask, there is either a fragile population that has quietly hung on to assuage historic guilt, or there is a population being covered up by ODFW that numbers somewhere in the low hundreds.
Now in a moment that would challenge even the mind of George Orwell, to be pro-wolf you must be anti-wolf. To save wolves, you must kill them!
What a welcome antidote if you’re trying to reconcile being a conservationist who hates wolves!
After all, these giant non-native Canadian gray wolves are likely to outcompete and exterminate the remnant native population.
Admittedly this begs the question – what stopped the Canadian wolves from doing that in the millennia before humans arrived on the scene and decided the 49th parallel meant something…but no matter.
The Numbers Have It
Let’s go to the tale of the tape. So how big are these new UN wolf terrorists? Up until a few years ago mainstream anti-wolfers in Idaho would have given you some pretty extreme numbers. All that changed once hunters got to shoot them for sport and started weighing them. It turned out that the average weight for females was 86 pounds and males cam in at about 101. The biggest wolf killed (...errr, harvested) was 130 pounds.
That’s a big wolf to be sure, but it falls well in line with historical records and well short of the wild claims and misleading photos that continue to be recycled amongst the most stubborn anti-wolfers.
So how about here in Oregon? Admittedly any data put out by ODFW may be suspect as emanating from the UN Agenda 21 Conspiracy, but we must trudge bravely on - with a few caveats; With only 23 wolves confirmed in the state, the sample size is small. As wolves swing between feast and famine even the weights of individual animals can vary widely. Still, the history-making wolf OR-7 weighed in at 90 pounds last February. His father, the biggest, baddest wolf according to some members of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association is in fact the biggest wolf known in the state. He weighs in at 115 pounds.
For the six adult wolves in Oregon for which we have weights, they range from 74 to 115 pounds and average in at 92 – about the size of a largish German Shepherd.
A Little History Goes a Long Way
That fits pretty well with the historic record of Oregon’s native wolves and wolves currently living elsewhere in the west. However, prompting this blog post, our friends at the Crater Lake Institute passed a gem on to us last month. In a 1947 article of the Crater Lake Nature Notes publication, the Assistant Park Supervisor reports seeing a 125 pound wolf. Admittedly, wolves tend to look larger than they really are, but it’s a pretty interesting story (the sketch is his).
Volume 13, October 1947
Dr. G. C. Ruhle, Ranger-Naturalist
Reports frequently come to the office about wolves being seen within the boundaries of Crater Lake National Park. These are always subject to skepticism and questioning, so no effort is spared if there is opportunity to authenticate, confirm, or disprove the observation.
On Friday, January 10, Assistant Superintendent Parker reported that he had seen a huge timber wolf along the road near the old south boundary. The description passed on to me averred that his estimate of the size of the animal included: 125 pounds of weight and 18 inches high at the shoulder. On Saturday, January 11, I went down to the site of the observation to investigate. There were tracts of a canine animal which measured 3-/12 inches long, exclusive of the claw marks; the distance between tracks was 10-1/2 inches. A very light snow had fallen, so they could not be described as "fresh" tracks.
It is worthy to mention that I assisted in making a survey for a park waterline near this site last October. At that time the caretaker of Crater Lake Lodge, William E. Armstrong, told the naturalist that he and George Hopper, surveyor and former park engineer, had seen a large police dog within the park which apparently had gone wild. The location of this observation was not far to the south from the old boundary. It is possible that the animals in the two instances are identical.
Notably this piece came 8 months after the last wolf bounty was collected for a wolf shot in the neighboring Umpqua National Forest. Dead wolves were confirmed in Baker and Douglas County in the 1970s and other credible reports have surfaced from time to time (we’re looking into one right now from Curry County in 1981). Those wolves were may have been domesticated animals. However, given the story of OR-7 and other dispersing wolves, it’s certainly possible that Oregon has been home to other dispersing wolves from as far away as (gasp!) Canada. And, even if it’s unlikely (genetic testing on Oregon’s current wolves have shown no signs of interbreeding with indigenous wolves), it’s not entirely impossible that a few wolves always hung on in the state.
Still, however inconvenient it may be for some, there are a few irrefutable facts. Wolves are native to Oregon and were once part of a population contiguous with Canada. Thanks in large part to a government-sponsored eradication campaign; wolves were functionally extirpated from the state. Wolves that now reside in the Pacific Northwest come primarily from wolves that were reintroduced from Canada as well as a few that made it back on their own.
It may not help conflicted wolf haters sleep well at night, but even if a few wolves hung on in Oregon, these “new” wolves aren’t notably different and aren’t a threat to their survival. Quite the contrary.
They’re also not a threat to us or our way of life. The unabashed conservationist (and reformed wolf hunter) Aldo Leopold once said, “the key to intelligent tinkering is to first keep all the parts.” Whether driven by fear, hatred, inconvenience, or misunderstanding, when it came to the big predators of the west, we took our tinkering too far.
To most folks, wolves are a symbol of freedom, wilderness and the American West. Their return represents an opportunity for redemption for a society that’s come a long ways since the buffalo hunting and Indian killing days of Wild West.
As they did in Yellowstone, with another piece back in place, the presence of wolves has the potential to put a landscape back in balance. Just like in Yellowstone, Ely Minnesota, and other communities that have embraced the return of the charismatic animal, wolves also have the potential to be a boon to local businesses.
Now that’s something that will help me sleep soundly and guilt-free tonight!