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 A Step Backward In Relationship With The Wolf, December 1, 2006
Elffster
Posted: Dec 2 2006, 02:00 AM


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By ERIC BAERREN
Sun Columnist


Perhaps no relationship between man and a specific animal is as complex as the one with the wolf.

For most of our time together, it has been a competition between two top-tier predators. We often competed for the same food, even after we learned to domesticate certain animals - the dynamics of the competition merely changed.

We - people that is - eventually started to compete not just as adversaries for the same food, but as blood enemies. We hunted the wolf for the express purpose of killing it, and we engaged it with propaganda. Like a wartime enemy, it was accused of the most horrific, savage crimes. It was said to lurk in the deep forest, waiting for unsuspecting children; and according to legend it stole into our cities to waylay passersby in the dark. For the sole crime of eating our livestock (and the rare attack on people), we accused it of having malevolent motivations.

Wherever people have gone, they have waged war on the big predators, and when European migration to the New World started, the war on the wolf was part of the baggage. We killed it, and we also killed mountain lions and grizzly bears (as today, we kill the shark). Wolves, because they ate livestock and hunted deer, were wiped out nearly everywhere (as was the bear and the lion).

Luckily, before it was too late, we had a change in heart. The wolf does occasionally kill and eat livestock, as do the other big predators, but it's not because the wolf is evil. Killing and eating other animals are to it as natural as the rising and setting of the sun. We came to recognize that, and even understand the natural benefits of a healthy population of big predators.

Today, the wolf - like other predators - is making a slow comeback. The federal government has suggested removing Michigan's grey wolf population from the endangered list. It has re-established itself in the Upper Peninsula, and there are questions about whether it has migrated into the Lower Peninsula. It fills its old niche of hunting deer, elk and, yes, sometimes livestock.

The state's board reviewing the wolf is apparently split on the wolf's future. Although no one has argued that its return is a bad thing, some members of the board have argued that the when the wolf is out of danger, that we should be able to hunt them.

It's not for protection of home and livestock that they want to hunt wolves, because that is already permitted. They wish to hunt wolves for sport, and to see them managed as a game species.

It is with deep irony that they argue this. The father of modern American wildlife management, Aldo Leopold, was a lifelong hunter and fisherman who was prompted by personal experience to oppose hunting wolves.

Sitting on some rocks out West, Leopold and fellow hunters shot a wolf shortly after it'd forded a river. His change of heart took place when he watched the light of life extinguish in the animal's eyes and realized that the wolf and mountain had their own kind of relationship.

It would prompt him to write this poetic reflection: "Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf." Leopold's words helped inspire a new way of thinking about predators, one that turned them into symbols of strength and majesty, rather than enemies. To manage the wolf as a game species would be to place Leopold's ideas in conflict with his personal beliefs.

Because our change of heart occurred so recently in terms of our relationship, there is still much that we don't know about them, and they remain a source of mystery. Today, we learn from their complex social arrangement and singular habits things about the world in which they live and, by extension, ourselves.

But, it would be a shame if, in the end, the only practical lesson we took from nearly wiping out the wolf is the knowledge of how to kill it without causing the species to go extinct.

Eric Baerren is a Morning Sun columnist. He maintains a Web log at www.baerrenblog.blogspot.com and can be reached at ebaerren@gmail.com
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