Our childhood fairytales got wolves wrong
We are all familiar with the stories of The Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood. In every childhood tale, wolves were depicted as deceitful and threatening – creatures that would devour our livestock and grandparents. As a child, I had chills when wolves howled in films.
All it took to change this perception was taking one step into Wolf Park, a research and education facility in Battle Ground, Indiana. As a visitor, intern, volunteer, and now staff member, I’ve observed the wolves at Wolf Park mourning packmates who have crossed the rainbow bridge, gently tending to pups, and spending afternoons playing chase on frozen lakes or grassy meadows. Studying wolves at such a close distance is enough to alter anyone’s perceptions of this apex predator.
One of the things I always tell the more than 20,000 visitors that come through our facility each year is, “Disney got wolves wrong.” The deeply rooted misconceptions about wolves, reinforced by film and media, that prevent people from understanding the essential role of wolves in our environment are the same misconceptions that existed 50 years ago when Wolf Park was founded.
While many may think wolves live in every thick forest across the country, they’ve become functionally extinct in 90% of the lands they once lived in. Wolves historically lived throughout the country for thousands of years, but systematic killings by humans, falsely justified by these age-old misconceptions, have almost erased them from their historic habitats.
One key misconception is that predatory wolf packs are killing large numbers of ranchers’ livestock. However, data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that only about 1% of unwanted livestock deaths are connected to wolves.
This misconception stems from the false notion that wolves wipe out other animals in an ecosystem. In fact, wolves are considered a keystone species, meaning that they actually regulate other prey populations. This, in turn, allows plant and other animal populations to grow and thrive.
Another misbelief is that gray wolves’ position on the food chain as apex predators will cause their population to balloon without human regulation. However, by living in packs, wolves are able to self-regulate and control their own populations by only letting certain members of the pack breed.
I believe my job became even more important after the US Fish and Wildlife Service removed gray wolves from the endangered species list in January of 2021. This controversial decision stripped wolves’ federal protections and brought back brutal hunting tactics, causing key wolf populations to plummet.
Since the delisting, multiple states have introduced aggressive wolf management plans that have been nothing short of death sentences for the remaining wolves in those states. Idaho’s plan, for instance, allows for up to 90% of the wolf population to be killed. Wisconsin was even forced to halt its hunting season after hunters slaughtered 119 wolves over the target in the first weekend of the season.
Officials claimed the decision to delist had been made after data showed that gray wolf populations had made a successful recovery, but multiple peer-reviewed commissions found the initial proposal misrepresented population data and contained “substantial errors.” It is clear that the decision to delist wolves was not made based on scientific evidence, but a legacy of hatred and misunderstanding wolves.
That’s why the campaign to relist gray wolves on the endangered species list has found support across the country and been championed by a coalition of conservationists, environmental nonprofit organizations, wildlife advocates, and scientists. Although federal protections were restored in a majority of the continental United States earlier this year, wolves remain vulnerable to hunts in the Northern Rockies where a majority of the slaughter occurs.
At Wolf Park, we’ve hosted summer camps where participants, having learned the legal status of wolves, have joined thousands of Americans across the country to advocate for federally relisting gray wolves on the endangered species list as part of the national #RelistWolves campaign. We must continue our calls on legislators to protect this iconic species.
But to truly protect wolves for generations to come, we must rid ourselves of the misconceptions that we’ve been exposed to since childhood. We must create a society that is not worried about the Big Bad Wolf coming to blow our houses down and instead sees the animal as protectors of our delicate ecosystem. Wolves deserve a place on our planet just as much as we do.
Christopher Lile is the Education & Advocacy Director at Wolf Park in Indiana and a member of the #RelistWolves campaign.
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