The Economics of Wolves

A piece by Ralph Maughn back in 2006 with a letter by Jim Halphpenny discussing the economic impacts of wolves.


Corruption in Colorado?

Jim gave us a talk after dinner one night regarding some of his experiences as a master tracker. The first thing that he made sure we knew was that sixty-percent of wolf deaths are human caused. Forty percent of those human caused wolf deaths are from management removal.

Jim spoke about a wolf death that he was called down to Colorado to investigate. The wolf was found dead on the side of a highway in Colorado. It was presumed to have been hit by a large truck. This was the first wolf to be found in Colorado and caused much social concern ultimately demanding wolf management. High Country News even covered a related story entitled “Prodigal Dogs”, suggesting that wolves had returned to Colorado and were there to stay. Upon investigation, Jim and his partner Sue found that the wolf’s injuries did not match those of being hit by a truck. This had been a collared wolf but the collar was nowhere to be found. Jim and his partner hypothesized that the wolf had been shot in a different state, and the poacher dumped it on the side of the highway where it was found in Colorado.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife told Jim and his partner that they were not to discuss this case for a year. They complied. Why did Colorado Division of Wildlife require Jim and Sue not to discuss this? I don’t know. However, it undoubtedly has to do with people and not wolves. This was a human created problem when someone dumped a poached wolf carcass on the side of a highway. The problem was then escalated by humans when some Colorado citizens reverted to fear because of a lack of management for a species that probably didn’t even live in the state. Then, the human created lie was covered up, instead of addressed in an honest fashion, by the Colorado Division of Wildlife. This entire scenario was a human created mess surrounding an illegally poached endangered species which was strewn to the side of a highway in order to avoid lawful prosecution. When are we going to start looking at our own fear and how it escalates out of control instead of displacing it onto something else?

Someone illegally poached an endangered species and left it on the side of a highway with what appears to be a complete disregard for life. People do this to animals and people. This lack of respect for life is the true crime but when we are so caught up in our own human created dramas, it takes a while to peel back the layers to see things clearly, especially if the public does not have access to accurate information.

Jim Halfpenny

After getting our fill of wolves for the day, Jim Halfpenny PhD, one of the most highly regarded trackers in the U.S., decided to teach the group some basics about tracking. He took us about 10 yards off of the road and gave the group the story behind some wolf tracks. My idea of tracking had been to take a guess at what type of animal the track belonged to. After about ten minutes with Jim we knew how big the wolf was, how fast it was traveling, when it slowed down, and the direction in which it was looking. Very cool. After that he taught us how to make a cast of the print.

Then, we hiked into the site of a possible wolf kill. It was a dead cow elk. He rolled out his satchel of probably 15 elk jaws depicting different ages and stages of dental health. He estimated this particular cow to be around 5 or 6 years old and in relatively good dental health at the time of her death, which is not a thing to underestimate. As Jim put it, elk eat glass, not grass, all year long. Grass, as a means of protection, has evolved to incorporate some very sharp particles in it and can often lodge itself under the gum line causing all sorts of dental issues in ungulates that are unable to heal. Unfortunately I think Jim is as close to a dentist as the elk are going to get.

We weren’t sure what the cause of death was but we did see that she had a broken leg and her body was located in a bit of drainage at a patch of deep snow. This location implies that she could have broken her leg while trying to outrun her pursuer. It looked as if multiple animals had taken from the carcass which is very common for wolf kills. All and all this had been a very educational day!

“The Fierce and the Furry”

Today we got a peak at a pack of wolves first thing in the morning. I can’t remember which pack it was, but we did get to watch the pups play which was pretty fun. Actually, it made me miss my dog. I saw no difference between how dogs play and how wolves play.

I had heard about the mass following of wolf soap operas prior to my trip to Yellowstone. I find it interesting but just don’t have the time to keep up with it all. Regardless, the wolfy version of “The Young and the Restless” has gained quite the following, and rightly so. First off, the information is credible and gathered by the public, for the public. People who are independently motivated to learn more about the lives of Yellowstone wolves gather and disperse information, usually in the form of wolf sittings. The information is pooled together, via word of mouth and/or publications, and builds collectively amongst people interested in learning more about wolves. People begin to see the personalities of individual wolves and can relate these traits to the wolf’s lineage. Have you ever wondered where your dog came from and what his or her parents are like? Well following Yellowstone wolves gives people a glimpse at things like that. These wolf sagas simply grow as the lives of the wolves change. However, these creatures do continue to remain quite elusive, which is one of the things that keeps people coming back for more.

These wolf soap operas do seem to be one of the best ways to truly learn about this animal. Yellowstone Reports, run by Nathan and Linda, is probably the best way to get involved with, or keep up on, all of the new developments regarding the Yellowstone wolves, as well as issues pertaining to other animals in and around the park. Bison have actually taken the spotlight over wolves lately. Their massive, boney bodies are being captured and/or slaughtered as they leave the park in search of winter food sources at lower ground. Michael Leach, who spent the day with our group, wrote a short article about the bison issue in New West called Is Gardiner, Montana, the Selma, Alabama, of Wildlife Conservation?


A Shift in Outfitters


For the past few decades guided hunting trips have served to boost local economies in the greater Yellowstone area. Elk populations were at a record high, and thus, the hunting was good, really good. Hunting trips provide bonding experiences in, and with, the great outdoors in a capacity that many people no longer have the skills to facilitate on their own. Also, if it’s a good trip, you come back with a freezer full of wild meat and maybe some sort of preserved memento for a wall. With the repopulation of wolves in and around Yellowstone Park there has been a shift in the types of guided services that people are now interested in and have access to.

Wolf watching tours offer a different type of experience. People are not interested in making the kill themselves. Instead, they choose to quietly line the side of a cold wintery road with spotting scopes to watch the wolves do the killing, as well as anything else that a pack of wolves may do. These two groups of people, hunters and wildlife voyeurs, are not so different; both ultimately thrive on the lost lives of ungulates and many have an insatiable desire to learn more about wildlife. However, not being a hunter, I do wonder what human/animal connection is lost in not making the kill ourselves.

Outfitters are still around in the greater Yellowstone area but the nature of the guided experience that people are looking for may be shifting with the resurgence of wolves. One man in our group was on his sixth tour with the Wild Side. Another couple was from England on their third tour. The only reason they have ever come to the U.S. is to watch wolves. There was another woman from Scotland and multiple other people, in a group of sixteen, who were on their third wolf tour. Amidst this economic downturn, there are still people making money.






Off to Yellowstone

I got into Bozeman around midnight, the air was cool and the streets were slick with fresh snow. The hotel that I was staying at welcomed me with a lively bar and a buy-one-get-one-free drink voucher. I had indeed come here for a “wild” experience, but of a different nature, so I was off to bed. I had a long week ahead of me full of early mornings and long days packed full of unforeseen wolf adventures.

At some point last year I had decided that I was going to go on a guided wolf tour in Yellowstone. For two years I had been studying human conflict surrounding wolf reintroduction in Idaho for my master’s thesis. I decided to go out and get a glimpse of the beast in the wild for myself. I had no idea how much I would learn, and, the scope of the experts that I was about to be surrounded by. Yellowstone is undoubtedly the world’s hub for cutting-edge, biological and ecological, wolf research.

I choose a tour with The Wild Side run by Nathan Varley and Linda Thurston. Nathan is a Yellowstone native with his PhD in Biology. Linda has her MS in Biology. The two have worked on Yellowstone’s wolf reintroduction since its inception, and eventually got married. They seem to know everyone in the park, especially those who know where the wolves are at. Linda has done wolf outreach work with ranchers through Defenders of Wildlife and you cannot stump Nathan on any wildlife question, no matter how hard you try. Yellowstone wolf guru Doug Smith said that “he considers what these two are doing to be one of his biggest accomplishments” in a small intimate talk he gave our group one night.






Mom got me a book for Christmas full of gorgeous photos of wolves and quotes that are just as stunning. Thanks mom!

“Throughout the centuries we have projected onto the wolf the qualities we most despise and fear in ourselves.” – Barry Lopez

“The caribou feeds the wolf, but it is the wolf who keeps the caribou strong.” – Inuit Proverb

“The greatest threat to people is ignorance. The greatest threat to wolves is ignorant people.” – Anonymous

“We humans fear the beast within the wolf because we do not understand the beast within ourselves.” – Gerald Hausman

“If you live among wolves you have to act like a wolf.” – Nikita Khrushchev

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.” – Aldo Leopold

“Ridicule is like a wolf: it only destroys those who fear it.” – Anonymous

“In wildness is the salvation of the world.” – Henry David Thoreau

“Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.” – Aldo Leopold’s Response to Thoreau