Unwarranted Fear of Wolves May Fuel Their Extermination

Gray wolf. Credit: U.S. Dept. of Fish and Wildlife
Gray wolf. (Image credit: U.S. Dept. of Fish and Wildlife)

Last week, a policy rider attached to the budget bill stripped federal protection from gray wolves in the northern Rockies, handing over management of the 1,651 wolves in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon and Utah to those states' governments. If a vocal group of Idaho lawmakers get their way, management of the once-endangered wolves in that state will mean mass extermination.

Idaho State Rep. Phil Hart, a Republican, has led the campaign, striking fear in the hearts of his constituents by declaring a state of wolf emergency in Idaho. In a much-publicized outcry, the businessman is urging his fellow legislators to order the species' extermination when Congress next convenes. Idaho Gov. "Butch" Otter, also a Republican, has signed a bill that declares wolves a "disaster emergency" and could give law enforcement agencies power to eradicate the animals.

Otter, Hart and their followers claim that the gray wolf is a non-native species from Canada that was introduced into the state by agents of the federal government. The "federal wolf population," as Hart calls it, has exploded beyond control. The wolves are spreading deadly tapeworms to Idahoans, he says. They are ruthless "killing machines" that kill just for fun, and are extremely dangerous to humans and pets.

According to wolf experts, all of these statements are categorically false.

The nature of the beast

Gray wolves are native to the northern Rocky Mountain region, say experts with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the nonprofit organization Defenders of Wildlife (DW). "The gray wolves currently in the Northern Rockies are the same species (Canis lupis) that once roamed across much of the West before they were eliminated by humans," DW said in a recent report.

"There were tens of thousands of wolves in the northern Rockies at one point of time," said Suzanne Stone, a DW conservationist who has worked with wolves for 22 years; they were wiped out in the first few decades of the 20th century. In Montana alone, from 1883 to 1918, 80,730 wolves were bountied for $342,764.

As for Hart's claim that Idaho wolves are "federal wolves," in 1995, the FWS trapped a small group of Canis lupis wolves in Canada and released them in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. Stone herself was involved in that wildlife re-introduction.

Although it's true that the wolves came from Canada, Stone said, the species that the scientists introduced was the same one that had occupied those U.S. regions up until the 1930s. The wolf introduction was intended to help restore the predator-prey balance in the areas and to help wolves re-colonize parts of their historic range, Stone said. Over the past 17 years, protection and management under the Endangered Species Act has helped the wolf population grow.

"As of 2010, there were 705 wolves in Idaho," Stone said, a population that is 10 to 100 times smaller than what once lived in those parts.

Not a threat to humans

Despite widespread misconceptions, wolves are not dangerous to humans. "In Idaho history, no one has ever been attacked by a wolf," Stone told Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience. Like most wildlife, the creatures are afraid of humans, and human-wolf encounters are rarer than encounters with most other wild species. Over the past 100 years, according to DW records, there have been only two unsubstantiated reports of human deaths caused by wolves in North America. "These attacks, if substantiated, are indeed tragic but are also extremely rare. Far more humans have been killed by bee stings, grizzly bears, mountain lions and pet dogs than by wolves," DW said.

As for tapeworms of the species Echinococcus granulosus, many Idaho gray wolves are infected with them, but "there have been zero cases of tapeworms spreading from wolves to humans," Stone said. "People have a greater chance of contracting tapeworms from domestic dogs than they do from wolves, but even then it's extremely rare." The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife concurs. "Humans are not a natural host of the parasite, but in rare cases can be infected by ingesting eggs from canid feces, usually from a domestic dog," they wrote in a statement.

Furthermore, wolves did not bring tapeworms to Idaho from Canada; they contracted the parasites once they got to the state. "Echinococcus granulosus is prevalent in all wildlife in Idaho. It's nowhere near as rare as people are trying to make it out," Stone said. "We have wolf biologists in the region who have been handling hundreds of these animals and not one has contracted this disease."

The politicians' claims that wolves kill for fun does not withstand scientific scrutiny. In a 2001 study of Idaho wolves, wolf biologist Jason Husseman of Idaho Fish and Game examined the carcasses of wolf prey. He found that 80 percent of carcasses were more than three-fourths eaten, and all kills were fed upon. When in rare cases wolves do make "surplus kills," killing more prey than they can immediately consume, they return later and finish the leftovers.

In summary, wolves are not ruthless "killing machines," and they pose little to no immediate danger to humans. "No one has ever been attacked by a wolf in the state of Idaho and no one's been harmed by a wolf," Stone said. "For [political leaders] to call it a wolf emergency like this is 'crying wolf' in the worst way, and is a terrible abuse of power."

'Our tendency to hate what we fear'

"Of all wild animals, wolves generate more emotions among people than any other species. Both folklore and human nature play into fearful emotions through legends such as werewolves, fairy tales like "Little Red Riding Hood," and our tendency to hate what we fear or do not understand," wolf biologist Jim Lukens of Idaho Fish and Game wrote in a press release.

The effect of the state politicians' fear-mongering has been dramatic, with public demonstrations outside the state capitol and testimonials about rural Idahoans cowering in their homes, afraid to go out and mow their lawns for fear of wolves.

"We hoped that the governor [Otter] would use his power to help calm people's fears but instead he seems to be encouraging it. His stance is that he's publically opposed to wolves," Stone said.

"The state legislature has gone home for the year this year," Stone said. "When they come back next January they will be the ones to determine the fate of wolves in Idaho." If they decide to exterminate them, the decision will be based on false information.

This article was provided by Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience. Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @nattyover.

Natalie Wolchover

Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a senior physics writer and editor for Quanta Magazine. She holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and has studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with the staff of Quanta, Wolchover won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory writing for her work on the building of the James Webb Space Telescope. Her work has also appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science. She was the 2016 winner of the  Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists, as well as the winner of the 2017 Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics.