Demonizing the Wolf

by Kathryn McCann


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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon




'The world needs an embodiment of the frontier mythology, the sense of horizons unexplored, the mystery of uninhabited miles. It needs a place where wolves stalk the strand lines in the dark, because a land that can produce a wolf is a healthy, robust and perfect land.'

Dr Robert Weeden, Man in Nature: A Strategy for Alaskan Living, 1970

Wolves and humans have a difficult history. At one time the Grey Wolf (Canis lupus) was distributed more widely than any other land mammal, with territory stretching across Europe, Asia and North America. Today it is listed in Appendix II of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) as a 'vulnerable' species.

Man is the wolf's sole enemy, and it is largely due to prejudice and misunderstanding that we have all but driven it to extinction. This feeling of mistrust is a legacy passed down to us from the first humans to domesticate animals. Of course wolves did represent a risk to their livestock, but the perceived danger was far greater than the reality. Then, as now, wolves were a scapegoat for damage ultimately wreaked by man.

The Bible contains analogies equating wolves with evil: 'For I know this, that after my departure, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock' (Acts, 20: 29) and 'Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves' (Matthew, 7: 15). Literature is full of demonic wolves and we are brought up with fairy stories depicting them as the ultimate baddies.

Ironically the domestic dog, Canis familiaris, is now known to be a subspecies of the Grey Wolf: they are able to interbreed, producing fertile young. Some scientists argue that 'man's best friend' should rightly be renamed Canis lupus familiaris.

The wolf and its ecological niche

The presence of a viable population of wolves is a valuable indicator of a healthy ecosystem as they require large areas of suitable habitat with plentiful prey to survive.

Almost without exception wolves and their prey species are able to co-exist sustainably. In fact wolves are recognized as 'keystone' species, meaning that they actively contribute to the maintenance of the ecosystems in which they live. They help to keep caribou, elk, moose and deer numbers to within the carrying capacity of the land, removing the risk of soil erosion and over-grazing. By killing old, sick and weak animals they reduce the spread of parasites and infections and help to ensure the genetic health of the species they prey upon by leaving the healthiest and strongest to breed. They also help provide food for other creatures, including bears, foxes, eagles, ravens and insects, which scavenge the remains of the carcasses they eat.

The human influence

The balance is only upset when humans enter the equation. In Europe between the Iron Age and the Middle Ages, huge tracts of forest were cleared to make way for farmland and people began to keep livestock. Relatively small and isolated pockets of forest were left and wolves, deprived of their natural habitat and the abundance of prey that went with it, were forced to kill livestock. Because of this, for centuries wolves were slain throughout Europe. They are now extinct in Great Britain, Ireland, Switzerland, The Netherlands and Belgium and survive only in limited numbers throughout most of the remainder of their European range. The exceptions are Spain, where 1,000 still exist, and Eastern Europe, where huge swathes of ancient forest survive. In both these areas wolves are still subjected to illegal hunting.

The last 20 years have seen a natural recovery in wolf numbers in some areas and limited deliberate re-colonization programmes, but the future for wolves in Europe is still far from certain. They are becoming more at risk from the steady encroachment of humans into their domain, bringing the dangers of roads, forest clearance and logging, which fragment their territories and disturb their prey, as well as hunting and poaching.

In 1607 when Europeans first settled in what is now the United States, they found themselves in confronted by an old enemy - the wolf.

Native American tribes had always respected the wolf as a natural part of life. In fact many tribes attribute their origin to wolves and there are numerous mythological stories of wolves coming to the aid of tribal people. Several Inuit tribes tell tales of the first snowshoes and bow and arrow being given to a member of their tribe by a wolf, who was somehow also his brother-in-law. The story illustrates the kinship the people feel with the wolf and also the respect they have for it. Certainly the earliest Inuit could have learnt many valuable lessons from the wolf about how to live in the inhospitable conditions of the Arctic.

However, soon after they arrived the settlers in the Northeast noticed the deer population dropping, making it harder to hunt for food. Rather than correctly attributing the loss of deer to over-hunting, they blamed wolves. Before long so many of the wolves' natural prey species had been killed that they had little choice other than to target the livestock the settlers had brought with them. Seeing this confirmed for the settlers, with their European, Christian attitudes, that the wolf was an evil predator that needed to be destroyed.

In 1630 the first bounty was offered, in Massachusetts Bay, for every wolf killed. The feelings of the Massachusetts colonists towards both wolves, and the native people, are well summed up in a law passed in 1638 stating 'whoever shall [within the town] shoot off a gun on any unnecessary occasion, or at any game except at an Indian or a wolf, shall forfeit 5 shillings for every shot'.

This attitude quickly spread across the colonies and before long the native people were thoroughly suppressed and wolves under serious threat. By the end of the eighteenth century, Grey Wolves had been nearly wiped out in the Northeast and soon met a similar fate in the West. In the latter half of the nineteenth century perhaps as many as two million wolves were killed in the western territories. By the end of the 1970s, North American wolves were living in only 3 per cent of their original range and barely survived outside of Canada and Alaska.

Despite reintroduction programmes the wolf is still a protected species in all states except Alaska, classified by the Endangered Species Act 1973 as either threatened or endangered and exempt from hunting. In Alaska, due to the sheer expanse of land and tiny human population, wolves have continued to flourish despite being hunted with fairly limited restrictions.

Polar wolves and the threats against them

The Grey Wolf is particularly suited to life in a cold climate. Hollow guard hairs protect its coat from damp and help keep in body heat, large paws help it run on snow and the bristly hairs between the pads provide insulation as well as increased traction. There are several subspecies of Grey Wolves that live in the Arctic, including the famed white Arctic Wolf (which lives only on certain islands, far from human habitation). However, in colder areas many wolves have paler coats, regardless of species. White or off-white fur serves a dual purpose, providing camouflage as well as increased insulation as the hair shafts contain air spaces where pigment would otherwise have been.

Due to the comparative scarcity of prey in the arctic climate, wolves here often travel more than 20 miles in a day in their hunt. A pack of wolves in the arctic can use a territory of around 1,000 square miles, so they may still come into contact with humans despite living in such unpopulated areas.

Two places where particular controversy has surrounded wolves in recent times have been in Polar regions - Norway and Alaska.


In Norway, as in many parts of Europe, agriculture took the place of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle many centuries ago. Farmers, blaming wolves for deaths of their animals, hunted them almost to extinction. In 1860, 260 wolves were recorded as having been killed in Norway. In 1960 none were reported killed - they had all but died out. In 1994 officials from the Norwegian Ministry of the Environment feasted on cutlets from the body of what was believed to be the country's last wolf!

Since then, the wolf population has recovered somewhat, largely thanks to packs and individuals moving across the border from Sweden, and a 1998 bi-lateral agreement to allow them to breed in certain areas. Norwegian farmers leave their flocks to roam free and untended for much of the year and by 2000 they were claiming 600 sheep deaths due to wolves.

In 2001 the beleaguered sheep farmers joined with the Norwegian Forest Owners' Federation (who claimed wolves were having a detrimental effect on the moose population of over 100,000 animals) to call for measures to rid Norway of all its breeding wolves. In 1997 experts from the Centre for Biological Diversity had advised that at least 200, preferably 500, wolves were needed to maintain a balanced ecosystem in Norway. Ignoring this, and despite considerable international protest, particularly from Sweden, the Government consented. A cull was organised at a cost of nearly £500,000 with the aim of killing 10 of Norway's estimated population of 25 wolves, chasing them down with helicopters and snowmobiles.

In 2002, with about 15 wolves left in Norway, the Government again organised a cull, resulting in the death of a further 7.

The WWF now classify Norwegian wolves as 'specially threatened' and there are concerns amongst environmentalists that there are no longer any intact wolf packs in Norway. As only the alpha pair usually breed, if one or both have been killed, the packs are, for now at least, not viable. Thankfully the Government announced that a cull was not required in 2003.


Alaska now has a population of wolves estimated at between 6,000- and 15,000-strong in a territory covering 85 per cent of the state. There is a huge culture of hunting in Alaska and as wolves are not protected there they may be killed each year between August and April for sport and for their fur. Hundreds more are caught illegally by trappers out of season. The cancellation of a $50 bounty on wolf kills in 1970 and the cessation of aerial hunting in 1972 resulted in increasing wolf numbers; however, between 1996 and 2002 at least 7,000 wolves were still killed.

In Alaska the problem is not predation of livestock by wolves, but rather humans competing with wolves for their natural prey. According to Alaska's Department of Fish and Game, 'in most of Alaska, humans also rely on the same species for food'.

'We can't convince wolves to be vegetarians,' joked State Senator Ralph Seekins, 'we have to eliminate the competition … to feed Alaskans'.

With this in mind, on 18 June 2003 Governor Frank Murkowski controversially reinstated the law allowing aerial and land-and-shoot hunting of wolves. The Government has planned to lift the ban on two previous occasions, in 1996 and 2000, but due to massive public opposition and threatened tourism boycotts the ban has, until now, remained in place. This time it seems the pro-cull fraternity is more determined than ever.

The plan was conceived by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and approved by the Board of Game (a panel made up entirely of hunters). If is carried out, around 200 wolves will be killed over three designated areas with a combination of shooting from aircraft and tracking wolves from the air and then landing to shoot, to be carried out by licensed members of the public. The idea is to cut the risk of wolf predation in those areas, allowing ungulates (hoofed animals) to breed unhindered.

In addition to improved hunting for the sustenance of local people, the State of Alaska hopes the growing moose and caribou populations will increase its attractiveness to tourists as a hunting destination. The Government defends its decision by stating that wolves 'are very effective and efficient predators'. This is contrary to the findings of studies which have shown that wolves are only successful in bringing down ungulate prey around 3 per cent of the time, and, significantly, that they, unlike humans, target sick, weak and old animals.

The first stage of the programme, the killing of all 40-45 wolves in the McGrath area, was due to begin in November 2003. Members of the local community, in conjunction with the charity Friends of Animals, managed to delay it by taking the issue to court, but the case was not successful. As soon as weather conditions allow, the three teams which have already received their permits are free to begin the cull.

Hope for the future?

Human attitudes are still the biggest threat facing wolves today. However, there are some people working towards possible solutions in the hope that we can learn to live alongside each other:

  • In a positive step backwards, the Nez Perce tribe of Idaho in the United States have resumed their guardianship of their natural environment, monitoring the wellbeing of the local wolf population and helping settle conflicts between wolves and ranchers.
  • The US charity Defenders of Wildlife have helped support the wolves reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming by offering compensation to farmers for any livestock taken. The fact that the compensation is offered by a charity, as opposed to the national or local government, is beneficial in the public perception of the scheme because the anti-wolf fraternity cannot complain that their taxes are being used to protect wolves.
  • Sabina Nowak of The Association for Nature 'Wolf' in Poland set up a study in 1996 to find ways for wolves and humans to co-exist. She organised local women in the Polish Carpathian region to make fladry, a kind of red bunting, which was traditionally used by Polish wolf-hunters to channel their quarry towards their guns. It is not understood why, but wolves are very reluctant to cross a fladry line. Nowak supplied the bunting to farmers, who strung it around their sheep pens. This implausibly simple technique proved to be effective - the wolves no longer bothered the sheep.

'To celebrate wilderness was to celebrate the wolf,' wrote Barry Holstun Lopez in his book Of Wolves and Men, and 'to want an end to wilderness and all it stood for was to want the wolf's head'.

As development pushes on apace it is becoming ever more important to preserve what remains of the world's untamed land in its natural state. The wolf is not only a symbol of threatened wilderness, but also an integral part of the environments in which it lives. Instead of killing wolves to prevent them from attacking livestock, or to increase the numbers of their prey species for humans to hunt, we should protect livestock better and limit hunting to sustainable levels.

Man must learn once again to respect the wolf, to appreciate its value and to admire its power, preferably from afar.

You can register your objection to future culls of wolves in Norway and aerial hunting of wolves in Alaska at The Petition Site:

Stop Slaughtering Wolves In Norway

Stop the Aerial Slaughter of Alaska's Wolves!




Charles Phillips (1999) 'The Soul of the Wild' in Myth and Mankind - Spirits of the Snow - Arctic Myth. Amsterdam: Duncan Baird with Time Life Books Amsterdam.

Dr Robert Weeden (1970) Man in Nature: A Strategy for Alaskan Living, quoted in Bryan L. Sage (1973) Alaska and its Wildlife. Feltham: Hamlyn.

John Dyson (2003) 'Return of the Wolf', Reader's Digest, London, December.

Barry Holstun Lopez (1978) Of Wolves and Men. New York: Scribner's.


Text © Kathryn McCann 2004. Kathryn is a freelance writer with a particular interest in environmental issues. Her client list includes IT Power (renewable energy consultancy), Bill Dunster Architects (creators of zero fossil energy development, BedZED), and Manu Guides Association (campaigning against unsustainable tourism development in the Peruvian rainforest). She has written magazine articles and press releases as well as advertisements and marketing material for print, radio and the Web. Tel: +44 1276 471998 Mobile: 07956 426821 E-mail:

Illustrations © Angela E. Barker 2004. Angela Barker, BA (Hons) Illustration, is a freelance artist and illustrator, based in the UK. Her past projects include designing environmental posters, flyers and butterfly gardens for conservation organization BTCV, illustrating children's books and teaching art and environmental appreciation to children and special needs groups. E-mail: Mobile: 07960 389209.



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