Greater Than. Less Than.
Recent media reports on wolves continue to lack context. They also tend to lack basic math.
Oregon's wolf population grew in 2012. But pups like these from the Wenaha Pack are less than a year old and represent nearly half the population. (photo by ODFW)
I'm a big fan of public radio.
When I want to hear one-sided grandstanding I go to MSNBC, Fox News, or Comedy Central. If I want weather and videos of water-skiing squirrels I watch local TV.
When I want information and intelligent discussion I tune in to NPR and PBS. That's why I was so disappointed by recent coverage of what should have been a great wolf news story.
With an ongoing campaign of misinformation and fear targeting wolves, we've said over and over again how important it is to put numbers in context (here). Not doing so inflames anti-wolf hysteria and has serious consequences.
When it comes to recent wolf news here are some important basic mathematical truths:
57 < 220,000
When Oregon released its official wolf population estimate for 2012, conservationists expressed optimism that recovery was getting back on track. However, with only 53 wolves known statewide, we also noted it was a stark reminder of how tenuous recovery remains. [ODFW later revised this number down to 46]
Oddly, in the OPB story, an ODFW spokesperson chose to cite the number of livestock lost to wolves since 2008 and ignore what happened in 2012. It was a notable omission. In 2012, while Oregon's known wolf population nearly doubled, livestock losses dropped by nearly half.
Why? With the state's wolf killing program on hold, responsible ranchers stepped up, conflict went down, and recovery got back on track. That seems like a win for everyone.
Incidentally, the number of livestock losses blamed on wolves since 2008 – 57 – is exactly the same since 1947 when the last wolf bounty was paid by the state. It’s also the same since 1998 when wolves began returning to Oregon.
Another number notable in its absence is 220,000. In the time that 57 livestock losses have been blamed on wolves, 220,000 were lost to weather, disease, domestic dogs, human thieves, poisonous plants and other causes before they were sent to the slaughterhouse by their owners. 220,000 is greater than 57.
1,300,000 > 53
So how big is Oregon's wolf population? According to the state, there are now 53 [Update - 46] known wolves in the entire state. That's a great improvement from the 29 making their home here in 2011. However nearly half that number are pups less than a year old. Many won’t survive the winter. By comparison, Oregon is home to over 1.3 million cows.
24 is not a big number
North of the Columbia River, Washington state also announced their population estimate. Rising from 27 to 51, the population there would have surpassed Oregon had it not been for the state killing an entire pack by helicopter last fall. Public radio reported a Washington official breathlessly stating
"This is unprecedented population growth. You don't see this in elk herds, you don't see this in orcas, you don't see this in bald eagles."
Really? The Washington elk herd has never grown by 24 animals in a single year?
Nearly doubling the population of wolves is certainly a big deal. However, doubling a small number usually produces another small number. The relatively rapid expansion of wolf populations is simply a testament to how small the numbers are and how much good habitat there is.
Not surprisingly such comments from game officials provide great fodder for those already fearful of wolves. A representative of the livestock industry admitted to the reporter he wished there were no wolves in Washington and proceeded to say
"When you consider the population explosion that was on the charts in there, it's going to be incredible. They're going to move all over the state"
Maybe. There's lots of great habitat for wolves and their prey in Washington and Oregon, but there are places where we've altered the landscape enough that neither wolves or their prey are able to thrive. But Washington isn't going to be knee deep in wolf pups anytime soon.
We once thought wolves were a species dependent on pristine wilderness. Protecting habitat for animals like elk and deer that are prized by four and two-legged hunters alike is good for everyone. However we've since learned that so long as wolves have a healthy prey base and aren’t being shot, trapped, and poisoned, they can do pretty well.
That leads to rapid recovery in its early stages. However, as we’ve seen in places like Yellowstone National Park, where wolf populations weren't persecuted, populations eventually level off and fluctuate along with their prey.
That's how it's worked for millennia before the oxymoron of modern "wildlife management" came into being. Recovery of native species is a great thing - and though 24 is greater than zero, it's not a big number.
55% of 1,700 is a big number
Sadly, even wolves in National Parks are now being killed. Since wolves were de-listed by an act of congress in 2011, over 940 wolves in the western United States have been killed for recreation. That's over 55% of an estimated population of 1,700 wolves.
Among the grisly death toll are all the collared wolves of Yellowstone National Park, Journey's brother (seen here), and the alpha female of the Lamar Canyon Pack (a wolf my wife and I, along with hundreds of other wildlife appreciators were privileged to see last summer).
Nine-hundred-forty-three is more than 55% of 1,700 - and that's a big number.
When state game officials stoke anti-wolf hysteria and reporters don’t provide context, there are consequences.
The Washington official was right about one comparison. Wolves and bald eagles may be equal in their symbolic appeal to those who value freedom and the American West. They both represent tremendous success stories of native wildlife retaking their place on the American landscape. But they are very different.
Bald eagles haven't been used by anti-wildlife interests and cynical politicians to provide a wedge issue and whip up anti-government fervor. When bald eagles and gray whales were de-listed from the Endangered Species Act, state game agencies didn't set up recreational hunts aimed at killing off most of them.
It took a legal challenge from conservationists, but in the last year, Oregon has shown that killing wolves isn't necessary. Other states continue to show it only feeds conflict. That's the real news story.
As Oregon's 2013 legislative session gears up and anti-wildlife interests work with their political allies to ready the next round of wolf kill bills, let’s hope we won't repeat the mistakes of the past.
No matter how many facts and figures show that wolves belong in Oregon and have positive benefits, there will always be interests who see wildlife conservation as an impediment to quick profits. They will always find a small fearful choir of loud voices with lots of spare time willing to help spread their misinformation.
But like most Americans, Oregonians value native wildlife. They want to see wolf recovery that works for everyone.
Idaho and Wyoming may want to go back to the days of cleansing the western landscape of native hunters. But we tend to do things differently here. We tend to do them better.
In 2012 we did.
In 2013, we'll have to keep fighting to keep it that way.
Cow and Fladry photo by Steve Pedery
Eagle photo by H. Nickla