BOOKS: Wolves & The Last Wild Wolves

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November/December 2007:

The Last Wild Wolves: Ghosts of the Rain Forest by Ian McAllister
University of California Press (2120 Berkeley
Way, Berkeley, CA 94704), 2007. 192 pages,
hardcover. Illustrated, with DVD. $39.95.

Wolves: Behavior, Ecology & Conservation
Edited by L. David Mech & Luigi Boitani
University of Chicago Press (1427 E. 60th St.,
Chicago, IL 60637), 2007. 472 pages,
paperback. Illustrated, with DVD. $30.00.

Appearing about six months after Wolves:
Behavior, Ecology, and Conserv-ation, The
Last Wild Wolves: Ghosts of the Rain Forest
variously supports, reverently cites, and
indirectly disputes key arguments put forward by
the authors of the former. Author Ian McAllister
passionately believes, as a scientist, that the
British Columbia coastal habitat of the two wolf
subspecies he studies should not be logged
because the wolves might not survive the
transformation of their territory.
McAllister is infuriated by the attitudes
of humans who hunt and trap wolves, especially
trophy hunters and those who blame wolves for
depleting “game” after disrupting the habitat for
economic exploitation.

McAllister also uncovers archaeological
evidence suggesting that the First Nations people
of the region are basically right in remembering
that wolves and humans once shared the habitat
without conflict. Observing that wolves roust or
kill bears who approach their dens, McAllister
contrasts this to their response toward a human
interloper: edgy, but inclined to withdraw and
give the human every chance to retreat. Humans,
McAllister sees, are simply not on the wolf hit
list, let alone the menu.
But this is not because wolves are
unfamiliar with humans. On the contrary,
McAllister time and again finds that wolf dens
are located amid the ruins of ancient First
Nations settlements. Partly, this is because
wolves and humans have similar needs. But there
are also hints of an ancient symbiotic
relationship. Wolves feed from stone fish traps
built long ago by humans, and in those times,
when salmon runs were abundant enough for all,
the presence of wolves might have kept bears off
the humans’ backs.
The Last Wild Wolves compares and
contrasts the behavior of a seldom-seen mainland
rainforest pack with that of an island pack who
feed heavily on seafood, including beached
squid. First Nations observers identified them
to McAllister as different kinds of wolf.
Initially skeptical, McAllister eventually
learned that the two packs last had a common
ancestor as long as 6,000 years ago, and have
diverged significantly.
The Last Wild Wolves, unlike most “coffee table” books, is a page-turner.
Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and
Conservation is by contrast a scientific
encyclopedia of wolves, which practically begs
to be matched with a companion volume covering
wolves in human culture. Each chapter is a
summary of scientific papers; relatively few
readers will get through them all.
After preliminary discussion of “Wolf
Social Ecology,” “Wolf Behavior,” and “Wolf
Communication,” an intensive section covering
“The Wolf as a Carnivore,” “Wolf-Prey
Relations,” and “Wolf Population Dynamics”
addresses the persistent belief of hunters in
Alaska and the northern Rocky Mountains that
healthy wolf populations are causing declines in
elk, moose, and caribou.
The science demonstrates that the numbers
of wolves are governed by the availability of
prey, as with all predators, and that killing
enough wolves in a given area to cause a
significant population decline tends mainly to
open habitat to dispersing young from neighboring
areas–who rapidly replenish the vacant habitat,
reproducing at a faster rate than if the
territory had been occupied by the natural
carrying capacity of wolves all along.
Science also demonstrates that about a
third of the wolves in any given area can be
hunted without adverse effects on the population,
chiefly because hunting at this level tends to
replace natural mortality, rather than adding to
it. At this level, whether to hunt or not hunt
wolves is more a cultural issue than a
conservation issue.
In a concluding essay, editors L. David
Mech and Luigi Boitani call for “the abandonment
of the old prejudice that wolves are denizens of
the wilderness and need wilderness to
surviveĊ Wolves appear to cope well with extreme
wilderness, but they also inhabit crowded
agricultural lands at the outskirts of towns and
villages. The concept that wolves living near
human settlements have a ‘degraded’ life is
strongly anthropocentric and the product of a
stereotyped view of nature. This concept is
often used to justify removing wolves from
human-inhabited areas, as if to save them from a
degenerate life, but it thus prevents wolves
from exploiting another niche. We must forget
about wolves being only beasts of the
wilderness,” Mech and Boitani assert, “and
focus on the wolf/human interface: this is the
real challenge for conservation and is where wolf
conservation most benefits overall biodiversity.”
In particular, Mech and Boitani believe,
“We need a shift in our long-standing
conservation paradigm, from measuring success in
terms of wolf numbers toward new goals in which
success means expanding wolf ranges.”
Mech and Boitani favor culling wolves who
prey upon livestock or otherwise interfere with
human interests, as the inevitable price of
allowing wolves to reclaim larger portions of
their historic territory.
“In the end,” say Mech and Boitani,
“this approach probably will yield many more
wolves than we could afford to keep in a few
fully protected areas, no matter how large.”
In the present political environment,
particularly in the U.S. west, Mech and Boitani
are probably right. Yet since killing wolves at
low levels does not reduce populations on a
year-round basis, and serves mainly to placate
people who ignorantly and often erroneously blame
wolves for lost livestock and depleted “game,”
one might respond that improving public knowledge
of wolf ecology and behavior could accomplish at
least as much toward reducing wolf/human conflict.
A chapter on “Wolf Evolution and
Taxonomy,” by Ronald M. Nowak, outlines the
prevailing scientific belief that jackals
branched off the Canis family tree before
coyotes, and that the ancestors of almost all
domestic dogs separated relatively recently from
wolves in Southeast Asia. Acknowledging that
some genetic evidence points to domestic dogs
having differentiated from wolves as long as
135,000 years ago, Nowak would dispute the idea
that Neanderthals domesticated dogs, as
envisioned in the November/December 2007 ANIMAL
PEOPLE editorial.
With due respect to the weight of
scientific opinion, ANIMAL PEOPLE suspects that
the genetic record has been read upside down and
backward. Highly specialized species like wolves
usually evolve from broadly distributed
generalists, like dogs, who can survive almost
anywhere, but find themselves in habitat that
favors specialization. As successful as wolves
were in occupying most of the Northern
Hemisphere, dogs occupied most of the Southern
Hemisphere as well as the Northern Hemisphere,
and still do.
An alternate explanation for the genetic
evidence would be that wolves are dogs who became
specialized large carnivores in response to the
ice ages, and like many highly specialized
species then hit an evolutionary dead end,
albeit in a broadly distributed and long enduring
habitat niche. Ancestral dogs persisted in the
Southern Hemisphere and as their survival
strategy adapted to living with humans. When
living with humans became their main way of life,
they rapidly diverged not from wolves but from
the proto-dog ancestors of both wolves and
domestic dogs.

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