Wolf Advocates Make Their Case
BY ALEXANDER LANE
It was odd behavior, even for college kids.
Several hundred Rutgers University students, gathered inside a campus
gymnasium, pitched their heads back and let loose with full- throated,
mournful howls one evening last week.
The goal — to get four wolves in the center of the gym to howl back. The
wolves seemed unimpressed, staring at the students as if to say, “Do we
look that stupid?”
Minutes later, the wolves were off, whisked back onto an old coach to
finish off a Northeast tour before heading back to their home — a
449-acre privately owned sanctuary called Mission: Wolf, 9,000 feet up in
the mountains in Silver Cliff, Colo.
Mission: Wolf’s founder, Kent Weber, schlepped Luna, Magpie, Raven and
Rami on this five-week, 10-state tour to entertain and educate the 30,000
people who showed up at his talks for a close look at live wolves. But he
had another agenda — to drum up support for the reintroduction of wolves
to the northeastern United States.
“We have more wolves living in cages
than we do in the wild,” Weber told the Rutgers students. “And not
coincidentally, we have more deer, elk and moose than ever before.”
Weber’s traveling road show is part of a large, loosely organized
campaign to return wolves to the Northeast. Bringing wild wolves to New
Jersey is more than Weber and other pro-wolf types dare dream of –
federal land is too scarce and subdivisions too plenti ful. But the
Adirondack Mountains are a different story.
Encouraged by the successful reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone
National Park in the mid- 1990s, groups such as Defenders of Wildlife and
the National Wildlife Federation have been pressing the idea of bringing
the howls back to New York’s Adirondack State Park, which is about three
times the size of Yellowstone.
“Wolves play an essential role in ecosystems they inhabit,” said Nina
Fascione, vice president of species conservation at the Washington
D.C.-based Defenders of Wildlife. “As the top predator, they help regulate
the populations of ungulates — the deer, and moose they prey on — and
smaller carni vores like coyotes.”
That’s just the obvious benefit, Fascione said. She said that in
Yellowstone, aspen and cottonwood trees staged a resurgence after wolves
returned. It seems elk, who were accustomed to lazily foraging on the
trees, now move along faster and eat in less obvious spots.
“Every species impacts several other ones in various ways,” she said.
A Northeast reintroduction could work, said Matthew Gomp per, a
University of Missouri conservation biologist who has studied carnivores
in the Adirondacks for years. There is ample protected land and a
substantial supply of prey. However, he’s not sure he’s for it.
“The main factor one would have to deal with would be to keep people and
wolves separated,” Gompper said.
That’s for the protection of wolves, not people. Though there have been
infrequent maulings in Europe, a wolf has never been known to kill a
person in North America. But humans haven’t been so kind in return.
Settlers concerned for their livestock extermi nated wolves from the East
Coast by the late 1800s. By 1973, there were just 650 wolves left in the
country, virtually all in Minnesota.
Thanks to three reintroductions — the one in Yellowstone and oth ers in
Arizona and North Carolina — and other federal measures, the American
wolf population has grown to about 3,500 and spread to nine states, said
L. David Mech, a wildlife research biologist with the U.S. Geological
Survey who has studied wolves and their prey since 1958.
However, federal support for a Northeast wolf program has been
lackluster, and a reintroduction is at least 10 years away, experts
said. It took about 25 years for advo cates to overcome ranchers’
objections to the Yellowstone reintro duction.
Leading the opposition in these parts are groups such as the Sportsmen’s
Alliance of Maine, which is determined to beat back efforts to reintroduce
the wolf to Maine’s Northern Woods.
“We don’t feel our game animals can stand another predator,” said
executive director George Smith. “The moose is a huge tourist at
traction up here.”
If the wolf came along, curbs on hunting, trapping and snowmobil ing
would surely follow, Smith said. “Our favorite activities are going to be
challenged and probably cur tailed in areas that have wolves.”
Smith seems to be succeeding. Last year, the Maine legislature passed a
law discouraging reintro duction, as New Hampshire had previously. It’s
unlikely the federal government will push the issue without local support,
activists on both sides said. And the push for a reintroduction in New
York seems hopelessly stalled, said Fascione, the Defenders of Wildlife
“There’s certainly an active grass roots movement, but there’s no
movement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” Fascione said.
But Weber and company push on. He has driven more than 2.5 million miles
in his modified wolf- ready buses since he started presenting his
“ambassador wolves” to crowds in 1986, two years after he founded Mission:
They rarely fail to enchant. At Rutgers’ Cook College campus in New
Brunswick last week, the stu dents sat on the floor, leaving a large
rectangular space for the wolves. Luna, Magpie, Raven and Rami made
their way around the room, sniffing faces, licking the lucky ones,
biting no one. Like the 50 or so other wolves at Mission: Wolf, they
were raised in cages, thus unable to survive in the wild and — now that
Weber has repaired whatever psychological damage was inflicted by their
original owners — no danger to humans.
They moved fast, with that distinctive gangly gait. They stopped at the
occasional student and stared at them for a moment or two with those
entrancing yellow eyes.
“Just the way they looked at you was so cool,” said animal-science major
Catherine Riggleman, who was lucky enough to be licked on the chin. “It
was much better than seeing them in a cage.” Alas, these wolves didn’t
howl. Some tricks, it seems, are reserved for the wild.