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PA: Wolves in Pennsylvania or New Jersey?

John Timpane

The thrilling adventure of OR-7 has captivated the West Coast and Northwest. It’s a saga of courage and the enduring resilience of the wild.

It’s also a saga that will never happen in Pennsylvania or New Jersey.

OR-7 is the gray wolf who left his pack in northwest Oregon and trekked more than 1,000 miles into Stanislaus County, Calif. The first gray wolf in the state since 1924, he has become so famous they had a contest to name him. The winning name, chosen by two separate kids: Journey.

Journey’s journey has reignited debate about wolves, which is really a debate about how we manage our shrinking gift of nature.

Some say California should put gray wolves on the state endangered list. Protective laws and federal reintroduction efforts have succeeded in the Rocky Mountain West and the upper Great Lakes regions – to the point that wolves can be legally hunted in Montana, Minnesota, and Idaho.

In Wyoming, wolves have just been labeled “predators” that can be hunted. Throughout the west, the gray wolf symbolizes, to some, the interference of the federal government, and to others, the right of wild animals to the wild.

Irony: OR-9, a sib of Journey, was shot Feb. 2, proudly, by an Idaho hunter with an expired wolf license.

Could wolves, long gone from these parts, make a comeback in Pennsylvania? A study by Jared G. Beerman of Saint Mary’s University in Minnesota says they could.

Using conservative estimates, Beerman identified areas of Blair, Cameron, Centre, Clearfield, Clinton, Elk, McKean, Monroe, Pike, Potter, and Wyoming Counties that could sustain packs (two or more) of wolves. Each wolf requires an average of 25 square kilometers, or 9.65 square miles, of range, so open country is a must.

Pennsylvania could support only 45 wolves, far below the 200 identified as viable by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Recovery Plan. But it’s still useful to know, says Beerman; we could always have visitors. (Think of Journey.)

To come back around here, wolves would need human help. The way things look, they’re not going to get it.

Jerry Feaser, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, says, “We have not considered, nor will we ever consider, reintroduction of wolves in Pennsylvania, for two reasons: First, there is no part of Pennsylvania remote enough for wolves to be reintroduced where they would not cause conflict with humans; second, because of that, we would not want to have any persecution of the animals, either.”

Larry Hajna, spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, says the idea has never even come up: “New Jersey’s the most populated state in the union. It’s not a good fit.”

Gray wolves once thrived in the Northeast. But, seen as natural foes of people, they were cleared by trappers and hunters. The last gray in Pennsylvania died in 1892. To see wolves outdoors in Pennsylvania, you have to visit the Wolf Sanctuary of Pennsylvania in Lititz. In New Jersey, you can see them at the Lakota Wolf Preserve in Columbia.

“Of course, we believe wolves should be able to live in this world just like we do,” says Jim Stein of the Lakota preserve. “But they need a large territory, and we humans keep destroying more and more open space, leaving no room for other top predators like wolves.”

“We keep taking the habitat away from all the animals. That’s the biggest problem,” says Darin Tompkins, caretaker at the wolf preserve. “People move out to the country, and then they call the Game Commission and complain because they have squirrels and deer. It’s a touchy subject with a lot of people, who don’t want to see wild wolves running around in what they think is their backyards. But Mother Nature was here before we were.”

Another reason wolves aren’t welcome: Both states have their hands full with other big animals.

“Remember,” Feaser says about Pennsylvania, “we already have a top predator canine – the coyote – filling the niche the gray wolf left open. We have a harvest of more than 30,000 coyotes a year. Plus black bear: We have 54 of 67 counties reporting bears.”

Crowded New Jersey is bulging with coyotes, at least 3,000 of them. Pennsylvania is home to as many as 10,000 black bears; there’s no agreed-on number for Jersey, but a 2009 survey of the area north of I-80 and west of I-287 counted an astonishing 3,438.

It’s a wolf year. Much of Jodi Picoult’s novel Lone Wolf takes place at a wolf preserve. In Anne Rice’s The Wolf Gift, man turns wolf: “Deep orgasmic spasms ran through the muscles of his thighs and calves, through his back, his arms.” Actor Liam Neeson got in dutch with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals after saying he ate wolf stew to work up his part in the film Gray, yet another story of man against wolf.

(There it is again, the evil-wolf myth: “Wolves are a lot more afraid of us than we are of them,” Tompkins says. “A dog will bite you a lot sooner than a wolf will.”)

George Gray, senior manager of wildlife conservation programs, Northeast region, for the National Wildlife Federation, says he’d like to see the gray wolf appreciated for its good effects on the environment: “Having a robust natural predator interact with prey populations is really important to the ecosystem.”

But in our culture, the wolf has ever been more than an animal. “The wolf is a symbol of how man’s actions are hurting the environment and have almost wiped out an animal that once thrived in the United States,” says Stein.

Respect wolves for what they are, he says – “a very close family unit much like a human family; a skilled hunter; very intelligent, not wasteful; and they work together as a pack. Unlike humans.”