Not only human mothers love their families. Many animals also share deep bonds with their young. Among the most extraordinary is the bond of mother wolves to their pups. Wolves only bear their young in the springtime just as bison and elk are birthing their calves and deer their fawns. It’s the way of Nature that the youngsters are born in the spring giving them time to mature over the summer, so they are large and strong enough to survive the following winter. It is also the way of Nature that the wild herds produce far more young than the land can sustain. As the strongest and fittest survive, they pass on their genes and strengthen the overall long-term health of the herds. And it is the wolf’s role to cull the weak, diseased, injured, and some of the young from the herds. This ritual of Nature has taken place long before humans used fire to cook their food and warm themselves. It is an ancient system that is deeply woven into the instincts of the wild ones.
Today, our planet is losing its ancient systems because of the dramatic loss of wild flora and fauna around the world. We are losing species at a rate faster than any time since humans have walked the earth. And as we study the impacts of losing species, we are beginning to finally understand the value of wolves. As many indigenous people have known all along, the wolves’ instinctual culling of their prey helps keep not only the prey, but the habitat around them, healthy. Specifically, as wolves test their herds looking for the most vulnerable, they are also moving elk deer and bison across their habitat and preventing them from overgrazing and destroying essential grasses, bushes, and trees that support beaver, songbirds, native fish and even the rivers themselves.
Yet in some areas of our country, there is still a deep misunderstanding of wolves. For some, they only see a dead elk as or deer as fewer to shoot during the fall hunts. They believe that Nature must be managed by humans, or it will “run wild,” which they cannot fathom. In their world, the wolf is seen as a personal threat that must be controlled or destroyed. There is no true respect for the role that Nature has given the wolf. Wolves are simply a threat to their right to manage (control) Nature.
This was never so clear to me as when the Idaho Department of Fish and Game Commission voted unanimously last week to cap the number of wolves in Idaho at only 500 by the year’s end. There were once tens of thousands of wolves in our region before European settlers destroyed the bison, killed most of the elk and deer, and poisoned or trapped all the wolves here. A century ago, the wolf had been completely eradicated. They were wiped out because wolves have a weakness that many other species do not have: they love their families so much that they will not leave them even in the presence of danger. It was reported during the first wolf eradication campaigns that trappers would raid a wolf’s den and pull out the pups, wrap them in barbed wire so that every time the pups struggled, they would cry out in pain. This brought the parents and older brothers and sisters out of hiding from fear of the trapper but driven by their desire rescue the terrified pups. Compelled to protect their young and not themselves allowed the trapper to shoot the adults one at a time until the last one was killed. Then he would kill the pups. He often turned in their heads or tails for bounties paid by the government or local ranchers.
But in the mid-1970s, the American people realized that prior generations had gone too far destroying our native wildlife. There was broad public support in both political parties for the creation of Endangered Species Act and the wolf was one of the first species protected by the Act. In the 1990s, wolves were restored to the American West in one of the most significant acts of rewilding our country has ever achieved. Wolves once again played their roles while scientists studied their influence on places like Yellowstone National Park, where they transformed elk and bison use of the land almost immediately.
However, there were still those who resented the Endangered Species Act and the wolves it protected. They were angered by wolves “running amuck” again and worked hard to remove them from the protection of the Act. Today, they are working to eliminate the Act altogether so that no one can stop them from killing any wildlife in their way.
We only have to look as far as the wolves in Idaho to understand what happens when ESA protection is stripped from a species that is vulnerable to the whims of politics. Today, the state allows trophy hunters and trappers to kill as many wolves as they want anytime of the year. Unlike elk, deer, and moose, whose young are protected, newborn wolves are included in this open hunt. But that wasn’t enough to satisfy the political leaders in Idaho. They brought back the Old West bounty system to reimburse wolf trophy hunters and trappers thousands of dollars for each dead wolf or pup.
This spring, mother wolves are nursing their pups in their dens as the circle of life unfolds in Nature. But the state of Idaho is working with the wolf killers by not only providing them bounties to kill the wolves and their pups but also conducting aerial gunning of entire packs. Whole families are gunned down simply because they are wolves and are targeted by those who resent sharing elk and deer with them. In some of these very same places, deer and elk now carry diseases that can have devastating impacts on herds. It is a threat to all deer and elk throughout the region. The wolf offers a natural means to cull diseased animals from the herds but those whose hearts are hardened against the wolf would rather kill every deer, healthy ones included, in areas of known outbreaks than allow the wolves to live and do the job that Nature gave them.
We, the American people restored wolves to Yellowstone and Idaho in the 1990s. We are ultimately responsible for the fate of these wolves, yet we are allowing state governments, trophy hunters, and trappers to destroy nearly all the wolves again. President Biden and his administration under DOI Secretary Deb Haaland appear to be too insulated or too distracted to care what happens to one of the greatest rewilding efforts ever achieved in our country. What is rewilding if we won’t even try to coexist with the species that we restored?
This Mothers’ Day, consider these wild mothers who will give their lives to protect their young, those that survive to mourn the loss of their family, and those innocent lives of the wild ones who are persecuted for simply fulfilling their essential role in Nature. What should be a sacred time for all wild ones – the birth of their young – is when wolves are their most vulnerable now to those who are driven to harm them.