Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Alaska Kills Wolves! (And Some Basic Wildlife Biology Lessons)
I once had a single bumper stick that emblazoned my first car, a beat-up smurf-blue Chevy, that simply stated, "Little Red Riding Hood LIED."
I grew up in an inner-city area. The only wild animals I ever saw were squirrels, pigeons and the occasional rat, and their wildness was in question. I never saw a deer or raccoon other than behind bars until I went away to college in a more rural and mountainous setting. My eyes opened up...
Before that, at my first university, I took a class in environmental and bio-medical ethics. I was assigned a project about wolves, which was the beginning of me embarking on some path I still haven't quite finished traveling on. At the end of the semester, the professor, an animal biologist with a compassionate streak for his subjects, bought me a book on wolves as a gift to foster my new passion. As he put it in my hands, he said, "When you understand the wolves, the rest kind of all comes together...it's like coming home to yourself."
Wolves are not the only subject of my fascination with nature, but they definitely marked the beginning and the pinnacle of it. Because of them, I put aside my poetry and my dreams of writing to pursue a path as a wildlife biologist and natural resource scientist. I couldn't underscore the significance of this enough even if I spent a whole book writing on it. I do not possess a naturally scientific mind; numbers scare me, and though I love nature, I still have a city girl's stubborn fear at being in it alone or for too long. Yet despite this, I went down this path, bringing with me a poet's perspective of our endangered wild world and marrying it to the science I learned over the course of the next several years...
ABRUPT BUT RELEVANT SUBJECT CHANGE:
Sometimes, I have to say, I find myself a bit putoff by the plague of ecological illiteracy that pervades our society.
The other day at an open reading, someone read a poem she wrote. At one point, she speaks of a family of ducks, describing the father duck and its role in the group. Something in me cringed because I know ducks by nature to be a promiscuous species. That is, the daddy duck doesn't stick around much after he's planted his seed, and he definitely doesn't invest in his children.
Geese, on the other hand, are monogamous and both genders work together to raise their young. I know this from my schooling. I also know a general rule of thumb for figuring out the sexual proclivities of many species: among animals, the species in which it's hard to differentiate gender because the two look nearly identical are usually monogamous and raise young together. However, when the colors differentiate wildly among an animal of the same species, this indicates the males are generally gigolos.
This is particularly true of the majority of bird species: consider the emerald green of a mallard's neck as compared to the dull, drab brown of the female, or the multi-eyed tail of a male peacock next to his intended. Now, think of the little brown sparrows that are everywhere, or the geese, and how you can never tell one from another, think of the lack of bright crisp colors among them all.
BUT GETTING BACK TO WOLVES....
Wolves, whose physical differences as accorded by are slight (some males tend to be slightly bigger than the females), usually mate for life.
Okay, so some of you may be finding my depiction of wolves as over-romantic, a case of the goggle-eyes for some specimen of charismatic megafauna.
I'll admit, yes, maybe I am romanticizing a bit. But when I lived in Alaska I never feared a wolf attack while walking through the woods (ask me about bears, and get a different answer). In all of our recorded North American history, there has only been ONE case of a healthy wolf killing a human being. I have often had to correct a zoogoer as she instructs her child of a wolf's man-eating nature. So, perhaps my romanticism is a backlash against the severe and overindulgent (and undeserved) hatred, fear and persecution we have subjected them to, as often begun in the cradle when our toddler ears first hear the words, "the Big Bad Wolf."
Our ignorance about wolves, runs deep and brings with it bloody consequences. Even in our supposedly civilized modern world, wolves are still shot from planes and helicopters and the mothers wolves followed home to the den of pups who are then gassed. In Alaska, this is known as an aerial hunting and predator program, and it claims the lives of hundreds of wolves every year.
In Alaska, and other places out West where similar programs are being considered, the politicians prey on people's basic ignorance of wildlife population dynamics. We are told the wolves overpopulate, that they are eating all of our livestock and wild prey, that they are a danger. That, even though it may sound sad, killing them off is an tragic necessity to ensure our race's own well-being and survival.
Here's a quick ecology lesson: in natural conditions (like Alaska), top-food chain predators such as wolves self-regulate their populations. It hits a threshold and levels off. Through some sheer miracle of biological intuition the wolves themselves are not conscious of, their breeding and birthing cycles are dependent upon availability of food, the amount of territory they have, and the harshness of the season, among other factors. A female wolf's body will literally self-abort fertilized eggs under strained conditions. Also, with wolves, it is usually only the alpha pair in a given pack that has puppies, further restricting population growth. Prey species on the other hand, do not self-regulate, and in the absence of top-chain predators will grow unrestrained, overbrowsing their territory and eventually committing a collective suicide.
Now, here's what happens in Alaska: wolves are blamed for killing off moose populations--nevermind that most studies on the subject show that wolves actually have a relatively low success rate in killing an adult moose (Have you ever seen a moose up close? They are mighty big MF'ers; one quick kick of their hind legs to a wolf's head will crack its skull open).
Now, we are told that the people of Alaska need to hunt moose for subsistence, especially indigenous people, and that the wolves are competing too much with people for basic food(again, a moose stands a much better chance with a wolf pack than a single well-aimed hunting rifle). What politicians like ex-governors Frank Murkowski and Palin won't tell you is this: out-of-state hunting tourists bring in a nice revenue, and the state wants to keep them coming. Essentially, Alaska is harvesting more moose by instituting mass culls on their predators in select areas (often areas that get a lot of out-of-state tourists looking to bag the biggest bull moose they can find) to keep to money flowing (though I don't think it's all money, some deap-seated stereotypes and hatred is also playing a part).
Here's what happens with the wolf culls: they kill a bunch of them willy-nilly, shooting them from the air like it's a video game target. In the absence of the wolves, moose populations EXPLODE. Then either one of two things happen, which is that the sportshunters have a field day picking off the vast abundance of moose, or the moose now overbrowse their territories and so eat themselves out of their own food supply. Their populations then crash. This usually happens right around the time wolf populations are recovering. Then we get to blame the wolves again, and authorize more killings, and so the cycle goes on. And on. And on.
When I lived in Alaska, I worked with the Alaska Wildlife Alliance (AWA), on this issue. I collected signatures for a ballot to overturn the program (the state's people voted twice to get rid of it by ballot, though by an admittedly small majority). First observation: individuals of inidigenous origin were resoundingly against the program (perhaps because, like biologists, their rich heritage gives them a deeper understanding of the predator-prey relationship than the rest of us).
Second observation: People in favor of the program liked to pin on the opposition hyperbolic assumptions--that we are crazy, PETA-loving vegans. This was ironic because even though they called us the zealots, they were the ones often pelting rocks at our table and screaming things like, "The only good wolf is a dead wolf." Now, almost everyone in Alaska, even in the cities, either hunt, fish, or has someone in the family who does it. The people of the AWA are no different. They have buck hides drying in their garages, too. But there's a difference, in both biology and ethics, between hunting an ungulate (often shot at close range in a clean kill) for the purpose of food, and killing a predator by gunning it down in a plane because it threatens our sense of the heirarchy. A lot of the predator control proponent will say the science is on their side. It's not, as my basic biology lesson up above illustrates, as well as the fact that the state of AK never bothered really to take many censuses of wolf and moose populations to back up their claims.
Don't believe me? Well, then I defer to the findings of the National Academies of Science NRC, the foremost scientific authority in the country (and one of the biggest in the world), which also concluded in an extensive study that such programs can rarely be justified scientifically, and in fact, may inflict longer-term damage on both the predator and prey species and the larger ecosystem.
If you want to put an end to Alaska's egregious predator control program, please call the Governor's office to express your dismay. Also, consider becoming a member and contributing to the Alaska Wildlife Alliance.