Wolves As Spirit Guides
by John Bullaro, Lead Evaluator
San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Search & Rescue Unit
The Central Coast no longer has wolves, yet to know them is to enhance our love of nature. In the Northeastern part of the United States, wolves and coyote have crossed, producing an animal that is not as stable in its dealings with human as is a pure wolf. Coyotes do live in coastal communities in SLO County and we should be cautious around them. However, wolves are quintessential American icons. They are anxious to avoid us, yet we should understand and appreciate them even if they don't live in our back yard - yet.
In early 2007, Sarah Palin's administration in Alaska approved an initiative to pay a $150 bounty to hunters who killed a wolf from an airplane, hacked off the left foreleg, and brought in the appendage. Ruling that the Palin administration didn't have the authority to offer payments, a state judge quickly put a halt to that practice, but not to the shooting of wolves from aircraft. The slaughter continues, albeit curtailed.
Wolves are powerful, aggressive, territorial, and predatory. Modern philosophers and scientists today hold that these descriptors also easily apply to us. Further, wolves, like us, exert a profound influence on the ecosystem they inhabit. Hunter's claim wolves decimate elk herds (a false claim), kill livestock with impunity, and threaten hikers and backpackers (wrong). Whatever the case, thanks to the movies, myth, and misguided politicians, humans are at war with wolves.
Palin advocated flying around in small aircraft killing wolves - she calls it sport. If killing wolves from aircraft is sport, then going to a zoo and killing big game caged animals is sport. Both instances are animal slaughter and, at best, animal abuse.
In 2008, wildlife agents confirmed 569 cattle and sheep deaths from wolves throughout the west. These figures represent less than 1 percent of livestock death in the region. The federal Government reimburses all documented livestock losses. That same year, 264 wolves were killed for attacking livestock in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. This from a population of just 1,600 wolves roaming the region.
On the other side of the ledger, tourists in Yellowstone alone generate $35 million to the area's economy because many of these tourists want to experience the wildness of wolves. Before wolves were re-introduced into Yellowstone Park, elk overbrowned the streamside willows, cottonwoods, and shrubs that contain erosion. The presence of wolves has stabilized the ecosystem and protected the natural environment.
Wolf packs have a well-defined social structure. The alpha male and female are the only ones who breed. Once the pups are weaned, they're looked after by nannies because the alpha mother and father are usually busy protecting the pack. When it comes to the hunt, the smaller, faster female wolves can run down the prey, and then the males take over, particularly with larger prey such as elk, moose, and bison. Pack members take an active role in raising orphaned pups, even it they are not biologically related.
Are wolves a danger to humans? All animals have the potential to harm us, even our fellow humans. The easy answer is, wolves do not pose a danger to humans, unless certain variables are present. Wolves are easy to habituate to humans by sharing our food with them. When someone has food and does not share with a wolf who, in the past, was given food, expect some "crowding" - sniffing around the food larder with light bites of the hand (scary, yes?). If you travel in wild country with a domestic dog, be prepared for the wolf's curiosity. Wolves are not benign animals.
While camping, do not cook or store excess food in your tent area. Cook away from your sleeping area and stash food high in the trees; precautions to take in bear country. Just know that wolves prefer to avoid human contact. Never tempt the animal with food or approach them to show affection. Wolves are not dogs.
One more thing wolves teach us. Even with adequate food supplies, they limit their population numbers to what the environment can sustain. Native Americans respected, among their may other qualities, the wolf's strong family values . These animals have little or no instances of "child" abuse and the male and female stay bonded for life. Are not these novel practices.
Someday wolves may be our neighbor, like the black bear - if we're lucky. Stay tuned.
John is an Emeritus Professor in Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Studies from California State University, Northridge, and a retired Lecturer from Cal Poly. For thirty-four years he has taught classes in Commercial Recreation, Tourism Planning, Management and Leadership, and Wilderness Survival. He earned his Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate University in Organizational Development and Curriculum Design in Higher Education.
John joined SLO search and rescue team in 1994. He moved to Los Osos in 1993 from Southern California, and now lives in Atascadero with wife, Cynthia. He completed California's Managing The Search Function and the Air Force's Inland Search & Rescue Planning. He is a National SAR trainer, and an EMT. John is a current member of the Atascadero Writer's Club and can be contacted by calling 805-440-9529 or at JohnBullaro@slocoastjournal.com.
Wolf image on banner by Don Joseph.