The Wolf and The Elk

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I rarely cry at movies. But, when the callous Army troops shot “Two Socks”, the wolf who befriended Lt. Dunbar in Kevin Costner’s Academy Award film “Dances With Wolves”, my throat choked up and I cried. Likewise, when a native Alaskan told me how renegade hunters trespassed on her property and killed an aged wolf who had befriended her dog pups, I really got emotional.

MexWolfOrg_3So, I confess to a strong emotional attachment to the wolf and its plight. For me, the wolf symbolizes mankind’s destructive ways as we humans attempt to control Nature. The wolf represents man’s ignorance and lack of consciousness about important connections in Nature.

Recently, I posted a blog  concerning the killing of Elk by the USFWS at the Bosque del Apache migrating bird sanctuary near Socorro, New Mexico.  Shortly after I published this blog, I was able to visit the sanctuary where I had a wonderful talk with some of the staff.

An important point made by a staff member in a subsequent email is that, had the wolf population not been decimated by man, elk would probably not have stayed in the Rio Grande River floodplain year-around due to wolf predation. This person went on to suggest that the elk population in Yellowstone National Park is in balance because of predation by the protected local wolf population.  In short, it seems that the shooting of elk at Bosque del Apache would not be necessary had mankind not tampered with the wolf population in the first place.

This means that by destroying the wolf population, we humans permit the elk population to grow unchecked. This is apparently the case at Bosque del Apache. Everything is connected. Like the coyote, the wolf is an important keystone predator who serves to keep animal populations, like elk and deer, in check. When, through hunting and so-called “wildlife management” by government agencies, the deer and elk populations were reduced, the wolf turned to domestic animals to survive. In turn, mankind has brought the wolf population close to extinction.

The wolf/elk connection is a powerful example of the importance of Nature’s interconnections. In the case of Bosque del Apache,  mankind kills the elk with bullets instead of restoring the wolf population.

WolfElk-8690At the suggestion of the Bosque del Apache staff, I took the time to further explore the relationship between the wolf and the elk. One study reveals that about 75% of the wolf’s diet is elk, 11% of its diet is small mammals, 10% is deer, and only 4% is livestock. With only 4% of the wolf’s predatory diet being domestic livestock, one must wonder why the US government has been so strongly responsive to the arguments of the farmers and ranchers ( who wish to see the extinction of the wolf ) and so reluctant to proceed with strong protection of the wolf in a wider geographic area.

The relationship between Nature and mankind is often defined by the agricultural industry and their powerful influence on government agencies like BLM, the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. A cursory search of the Internet reveals the very loud voice of agriculture calling for the destruction of the wolf. The current fury concerns the protection of the Gray Wolf and the Mexican Gray Wolf. These populations have been decimated by the agriculture industry with full support from our government agencies who are supposed to be stewards of Nature. The rise in the elk population is a strong testament to the fact that our stewards of Nature are either ignorant of or choose to ignore Nature’s connections.

The sad part about all of this is that there are non-lethal ways for the agricultural industry to minimize or prevent predation of their livestock.  Big dogs, llamas and predator fences are viable ways to cut livestock losses and negate the practice of killing wolves and their cubs. Take a look at this web site  which explains why one local government body has now stopped working with the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services (USDAWS) predator control program. This web page portrays a collaborative effort involving local wildlife protection organizations,  ranchers, scientists, and local government officials.

There has been lots of public controversy over the practices of the USDAWS.  According to this source, “USDA Wildlife Services is the only federal program that kills native predators at the request of ranchers and state wildlife management agencies. Changing the barbaric, indiscriminate and wasteful predator control methods used by Wildlife Services is a primary focus of our legislative work.” Much of this outcry has come from the efforts of Pulitzer Prize Journalist Tom Knudson’s expose in the Sacramento Bee .

Humanity’s destructive response to our wolf population and the subsequent increase in the elk population is a story WolfElk-8705of insensitivity and a lack of consciousness regarding connections in Nature. In this case, man destroyed a vital natural connection, the wolf, by using a short term, and short sighted solution – killing the predator. A keystone species was brought to near extinction by mankind without any regard for how the  balance within an ecosystem might be affected. The USFWS at Bosque del Apache is now in the position of a one-armed paper hanger trying to juggle the consequences of past actions. But, instead of the USFWS killing the elk, there are good ecological choices that can be made. Some of these choices involve going back to what caused the problem in the first place – mankind’s killing of a keystone species, the wolf.

It is my view that a solution lies through a cooperative effort between three groups:

The tools for creating a non-lethal solution and the ultimate recovery of the wolf population are:

  • The installation of non-lethal predator control technology such as fladry (flagged) fences, large dogs, and llama. 
  • Conservation through education of the ranchers and farmers. Provide information on the benefits of a healthy ecosystem and the use of non-lethal predator control methods.
  • Financial compensation of the farmers and ranchers for livestock losses while the wolf reintroduction program is being put in place.

fladryfencingMuch of the work can be accomplished with the guidance of the USFWS with the actual work performed by the volunteer groups. This video portrays such a program taking place in the White Mountains of Arizona where there are:

” … volunteer efforts to manage the reintroduction of the Mexican Gray Wolf. The video summarizes the recent history of the wolf, its relationship to the human population, the wolf’s effect on the Rocky Mountain Elk and sheep and the practice of fladry fencing. Included are interviews with volunteers stating their purpose and perspectives as well as an interview with a representative from the Arizona Game and Fish.

Read more:

Here are some web sites that offer more information non-lethal predator control:

Ways to Prevent Wolves From Killing Livestock  .
This web site makes an interesting point. “The use of lethal force to control wolf populations should be a last resort. If an alpha pair learns to avoid fences and steer clear of the sheep population, they will pass this lesson down for generations. However, if you kill them, new wolves will have to learn themselves, which can cause unnecessary wolf and livestock death.”

Fladry at the Wood River Wolf Project – July 2012
Controlling Predation on Goats – Some Ideas

Alternative Methods Of Predator Control 

Here is some more information on the Mexican gray wolf provided by the USFWS

“The Mexican wolf is the smallest, southern-most occurring, rarest, and most genetically distinct subspecies of gray wolf in North America. Once common throughout portions of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico, Mexican wolf populations were all but eliminated from the United States and Mexico by the 1970s as a result of increasing conflicts with livestock operations and other human activities. The Mexican wolf, a subspecies of gray wolf, was listed as endangered in 1976, and the following year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated efforts to conserve the Mexican wolf. A captive breeding program was established to save the species from absolute extinction and to provide animals for future reintroduction to the wild. The Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Plan was approved by the Service 1982, and in March 1998, Mexican wolves were released to the wild for the first time in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area. Missing from the landscape for more than 30 years, the howl of the Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi), can once again be heard in the mountains of the southwestern United States. The Southwest Region of the Service invites you to join us on the historic journey of Mexican wolf recovery. Our Mexican Wolf Recovery Program website provides detailed information on all aspects of the program. Please contact us with any questions, ideas, or concerns you have about Mexican wolf recovery. The Service would like to recognize and thank our Federal, State, and Tribal partners, as well as every member of the public who contributes time, energy, and information to the Mexican Wolf Recovery Program. “

Please note that the images of wolves and fences were produced by authors of the web sites noted above. The elk pictures are mine.

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My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.

10 thoughts on “The Wolf and The Elk”

  1. Bill, as always you are concise, detailed, and passionately eloquent about an issue that has raged for so long. Thank you for your research and your words. I only hope that people will come together and realize what an imbalance in any animal population does in the long term. Nature knows better than we do how to keep the checks and balances even.

    1. Thanks for the kind words Joan. I am particularly taken by your last sentence: “Nature knows better than we do how to keep the checks and balances even.”

      The whole issue with the wolf and the elk sits squarely with our professional stewards of Nature who fail to respect the importance of Nature’s connections while caving into the cries of self interest groups like the farmers and ranchers. As a result, This group is the recipient of one of America’s largest welfare packages both through financial subsidies and in getting their way with those agencies who are supposed to be protected OUR natural treasures.

      I must add that much of the wolf predation happens on public land that is used by ranchers. Why isn’t our government simply REQUIRING non-lethal predation control rather than bowing to the ranchers by holding all of these public hearings.

  2. Hello,
    You certainly have your heart in the right place. I live in Australia where in one of our states (Tasmania the so called farmers persuaded the government to destroy all the Tasmanian Devils( an animal similar to a dog) and now it seems that this animal did not have the ability to kill sheep or cattle, however this animal is now extinct. All over Australia we had a Hugh bird called a Wedge Tail Eagle which have a span of approximately 6 feet. In the 1950’s they were shot and hung on farmers fences and now they are a very rare sight. Recently there was a report that the Department of Sustainability and Environment shot a Wedge Tail Eagle under the pretext that it could attack a rare Kangaroo. The truth is the farmers are a blood thirsty mob and like shooting. The only way to stop this murderers is to close down the meat industry.
    There is Mega bucks in the slaughter of animals and the farmers know no boundary to greed and blood shedding. They are ruthless and have no compassion .
    Again thank you for your interesting blog.
    p.s. officially over 90 million Kangaroos have been exterminated to appease the farmers in the last 20 years .
    The true figure is more like 450 million. As meat is the cause of all disease and most of the Vandalism on this planet it simply makes no sense except for farmers filling their pocket. @Joan Sanaker

    1. George:

      Thank you for your comment. I recently discovered that grazing on public lands in the USA is mandated by law. I talked to a BLM person recently to find that they must follow the enacting legislation and have little room for discretion. While I hate to generalize, my overall impression in talking to ranchers during my summer travels is that they really don’t care about the environment. Their total focus seems to be on meat production. They will oppose anything a government agency does that stands in the way of this. So, it seems that some of our environmental legislation in the USA serves only a special interest group and not our environment.

  3. @Bill Graham – Hello Bill,

    The BLM is actually required by law to monitor livestock grazing and its effects. Any time that grazing is detrimental to local vegetation, the BLM is supposed to require ranchers to move their livestock. In practice, however, the BLM does a poor job and there has been tremendous deterioration of the landscape in the western U. S. Take a look at the repeated photographs at for an example.

    Some of the BLM mandates are given here:

    Section 302(b) of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (1976) directs the BLM to “take any action necessary to prevent unnecessary or undue degradation of the public lands.” In Section 2(b)(2) of the Public Rangelands Improvement Act (1978), Congress directed BLM to “manage, maintain, and improve the condition of the public rangelands so that they become as productive as feasible….” Standard 3 of the BLM Arizona Standards for Rangeland Health and Guidelines for Grazing Administration describes desired resource conditions: “Productive and diverse upland and riparian-wetland plant communities exist and maintained” (BLM 1997: 7). Guideline 3-6 for standard 3 states: “Management practices will target those populations of noxious weeds which can be controlled or eliminated by approved methods” (BLM 1997: 8).

    I apologize for the raw nature of this information. It is from a the draft of a book I am writing about weed management in the western U. S. If you decided to pursue this farther, I can get you the references.


    1. Hi Garry:

      Thank you so much for this information. Lately, I’ve been wanting to get a better definition of the mandate of the BLM, USFS, NPS, and USFWS with respect to grazing and other dealings with ranchers.

      Since you are doing this kind of valuable research, I have some related questions. Of the total amount of grazing land in the USA, how much of it is on public lands ? What is the financial arrangement ? Does the government offer information on the actually accounting ? What is the cost incurred by the US Government to support grazing operations including enforcement ?

      I think grazing and predator (wolf) issues go hand-in-hand because both require much attention by the government agencies in dealing with ranchers and farmers. I see a very strong bias toward favoring the ranchers by government agencies. These agencies seem blind to alternative strategies that might favor the environment. I’ve confronted the BLM on this point only to be told that their bias is mandated by Congress. Any comment?

      Finally, I’m told by people I’m close to on the San Pedro River project that the BLM has little or no enforcement. Cattle are being allowed to graze illegally in riparian areas destroying new growth of Cottonwood trees. Comment?

      Are you interested in doing a guest blog ?

  4. There ia a reference in this blog to Tom Knudsons expose in the Sacxramento Bee. Part 2 of this expose has an interesting comment by a reader that I quote here:

    ” The real scientific studies show that wolves and coyotes have 85% opportunistic scavenging diets in winter – on road kill (aplenty) and winter die-off. Then both wolves and coyotes generally leave livestock alone. In Wisconsin 12 years of study show that VERY FEW WOLVES in a very limited area of the state (about 6% of wolf territory) did any predation of livestock at all – and the study could predict with an amazing 91% accuracy which FEW wolves would predate. Those areas could deal with the challenge by buying several of the many guard dogs (30 breeds from which to choose) or guard llamas or donkeys to protect them in areas more vulnerable. Mostly wolves and coyotes mind their own business, avoiding capricious violent head hunting trophy serial killers. They know we are a violent species – and just want to raise their pups and live. Humans need to share. And yes – the non-hunting public juggernaut of wildlife watching money (10-40 times the tax revenue of hunters) needs to REPLACE killing licenses with general public funding from the huge money (10-40 times the revenue of hunters) to our state tax coffers. Google the U.S. Fish and Wildlife economic impact surveys for hunting and compare them to wildlife watching.”


    I just came across a post ( ) that has helped produce a film on the evils of the wolf eradication program. This post goes on to say:

    “Many ranchers are rejecting the old practice of killing large carnivores to protect livestock. Instead, they are increasingly using new technology and old methods of animal husbandry to coexist with carnivores. “

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