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 Commentary: Wolves Bring Ecological And Economic B, December 14, 2006
Elffster
Posted: Dec 15 2006, 04:29 PM


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By Amaroq Weiss

Recent reports of one or more wolves potentially sighted in eastern Oregon are promising signs both for the wolf's continued recovery and for Oregon's future as a home for wolves. It's been six years since the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife confirmed a wolf sighting in our state. The first was in 1999 and there were two others in 2000. None of those wolves lasted long enough here to provide a hint of the ecological and economic benefits wolves provide to the states in which they live. But with the reported sighting of a live wolf at Zumwalt Prairie, near the town of Enterprise, our state may yet have the chance to play a role in the continued recovery of this beautiful creature and sample all the benefits that wolves have to offer.

Wolves provide tremendous ecological benefits. They are the top predator in most environments in which they live and the trickledown effect of their presence is astounding.

In Yellowstone, prior to the wolves' reintroduction in 1995, elk basically roamed wherever they chose and tended to spend most of their time in the river valleys. This excessive streamside grazing prevented willow and cottonwood tree growth along the riverbanks. But when the wolves returned, the elk quickly learned they couldn't set up permanent housekeeping in the valleys and they moved on to make a living in other areas. This, in turn, allowed young trees to grow along the riverbeds. The new trees shaded the river water, creating improved habitat for trout, which thrive in cooler, darker waters. The new willows and cottonwoods attract additional migratory birds and provided new food sources and building materials for beavers. The beavers then built dams, which created new marshes and wetlands that in turn attracted otters, ducks and other species.

Wolf kills also provided an abundant and reliable source of food for scavengers. And to be sure, wolf predations on old and sick elk have had a positive effect on the viability of the elk population itself.

Multi-year research conducted by two Oregon State University department of forestry professors in Yellowstone National Park and by local park biologists has sparked widespread agreement that returning the top dog to its native habitat yields far-ranging positive consequences.

Wolves provide tremendous economic benefits. Ecotourism is quickly moving to the forefront of family recreational activities. The longing to see animals in their natural habitat has created an economic boom throughout the United States.

In Yellowstone, fishing has always been a big industry and the improved environment along the river caused by the wolf's presence has improved fishing opportunities. The wolves themselves are also a huge tourist draw, with many people making Yellowstone their vacation destination expressly for the purpose of seeing wolves. Indeed, most sunrises in Yellowstone are accompanied by rows and rows of nature lovers with spotting scopes, all straining for a glimpse of the elusive wolf.

A two-year study conducted by a Montana economist, and presented at a conference in April 2006. reports that each year tourists visiting Yellowstone hoping to see a wolf spend around $35 million in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, and that these dollars then turn over in local communities, boosting the regional economic impact to about $70 million a year. On the other side of the country, a recent study, commissioned by Defenders of Wildlife and funded by the Alex C. Walker Educational and Charitable Foundation, investigated the potential contribution of wolf based ecotourism to local economic development in North Carolina and found that 89 percent of tourists showed an interest in visiting a proposed Red Wolf Center, an educational facility housing live red wolves. If only 10 percent of those Outer Banks tourists who say they will visit the Center and pay a $5 admission fee actually made the journey, then it would be possible to generate more than $1 million in gate receipts and food/gift purchases over a single summer season. A similar interest in eastern Oregon wolves could also attract tourism to this region.

Wolves pose little threat to livestock and humans. In fact, their prey of choice has been wild game like deer and elk for centuries.

Although wolf predation on livestock is often highly touted in the media, it accounts for less than 0.2 percent of cattle and calf losses, and less than 2.5 percent of sheep and lamb losses in areas where wolves live. According to figures from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, and from the individual state agricultural statistics services in states with wolves, respiratory and digestive problems, weather, and other natural events account for the vast majority of livestock losses.

In fact, in all areas where wolves live in the United States, far more livestock is lost to domestic dogs than to wolves. The notion that ranchers are suddenly going to start losing massive amounts of livestock because of the arrival of wolves is simply not backed up by the statistics.

The same is true for human/wolf interactions. Despite claims by wolf opponents, the fact remains that aggression by wolves against humans is a very rare event.

A study published in 2002 found that, in 80 cases of reported wolf-human encounters occurring from 1900-2000 in Alaska and Canada (and also including two in Minnesota), sixty-nine percent of the incidents involved wolves that either had or were suspected of having rabies, were acting in self-defense, or showed interest but no aggression. Many of the instances involved wolves that had become habituated to humans by being fed or having access to human food sources, such as garbage dumps, which is a recipe for disaster with any wildlife. And several of the cases involved altercations between wolves and dogs (which wolves view as territorial competitors) in which humans intervened or got in the way and were bitten in the process. By way of comparison, each year in the United States an average of 17-20 people are killed by domestic dogs, and more than 1.2 million dog bites are reported.

In British Columbia, which has a wolf population numbering in the tens of thousands, the most dangerous animal humans encounter is the horse, followed by the moose, each of which is responsible for multiple fatalities each year.

Overall, the return of wolves to Oregon offers a unique opportunity to welcome back a returning native species. Folks in Oregon need accurate information about wolves, long saddled with the baggage of myth, speculation and fear mongering. I urge you to inform your readers about the true nature of wolves and the benefits they provide to the regions they inhabit.
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