By Tom Corwin
Far from being the fearsome beasts of myths and fairy tales, wolves are scared of humans and avoid them in the wild while serving as “engineers of biodiversity” by playing a vital role in the ecosystem, an official with the California Wolf Center said.
Speaking Tuesday night in Augusta to the Sierra Club Savannah River Group, Outreach Coordinator Frank Capolupo said humans have long feared wolves and created unfortunate myths about them over the centuries.
“There’s evidence in Greek and Roman mythology about the Big Bad Wolf,” he said. But a lot of what people think and what has been portrayed in stories is wrong, Capolupo said.
“Wolves don’t howl at the moon,” he said. And the Three Little Pigs is flat-out wrong, Capolupo said.
“Ladies and gentlemen, wolves don’t eat pork,” he said as the audience laughed. Nor do they want anything thing to do with people, Capolupo added.
“They will not come near humans,” he said. “They are skittish, they will stay away.”
But the humans also wanted to hunt the wolves’ primary prey of deer, elk and buffalo, leading to wolves being killed by the “tens of thousands” until they disappeared from many areas of the country. The last wolves left Yellowstone Park in the mid-1920s and the park’s ecosystem changed in some terrible ways.
The coyote population “exploded,” driving out competitors like foxes, deer and elk that normally would have stayed on the move, he said. Because predators stripped bare vegetation in many areas, beavers left and no longer dammed streams, and others that fed on wolf kill carcasses, such as bears and bald eagles, also disappeared from the park, Capolupo said.
But when 31 wolves were reintroduced into the park in 1995, and 35 more into nearby Idaho, things began to change quickly, Capolupo said.
“The grizzlies came back when the wolves came back,” and the eagles as well, he said. The entire ecosystem became more in-balance with the reintroduction of the apex predator, which is why Capolupo dubbed them “engineers of biodiversity” for restoring the balance.
“It took seven years,” he said. “That’s how fast scientists saw a return to the old days in Yellowstone.”
There has been more signs of success. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently removed Wyoming’s gray wolves from the Endangered Species List in response to a ruling from the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that the “delisting” could proceed and places those wolves under that state’s regulation, joining similar status for gray wolves throughout the Northern Rockies, the agency said. The state’s annual count showed 377 wolves in 52 packs with 25 breeding pairs, according to the wildlife service, which it called an “enduring healthy population” that would be “self-sustaining.” Overall, it estimated the number of gray wolves in the U.S. outside of Alaska at 5,691, which it called “robust, stable and self-sustaining.”
That is a success story, Capolupo said. But closer to home, the red wolf that used to roam across the Southeast is now down to one area in North Carolina and is down to about 45 wolves, he said.
“A lot of scientists are concerned about the longterm survival of this animal,” Capolupo said, in part because the smaller wolf has taken to cross-breeding with coyotes.