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Wolf conservation and negative media portrayals: A panel discussion about “The Grey” with wolf experts

A red wolf. Photo credit: DeLene Beland

The recently-released movie “The Grey” tells the story of a pack of wolves that hunts the survivors of a plane crash. In addition to both being the subject of inaccurate and negative media portrayals, wolves and sharks share many ecological similarities (sharks have been called “the wolves of the sea”). A panel of wolf scientists and conservation experts agreed to answer my questions about these animals and their thoughts on how “The Grey”  might impact their conservation.

Dr. Sylvia Fallon  is a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. She has worked for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Park Service.

DeLene Beland is an independent science writer whose work has been featured by the Charlotte Observer, Earth Magazine, and Wildlife in North Carolina. She blogs at Wild Muse, and  is the author of an upcoming book about wolves in the Eastern United States.

Cristina Eisenberg is a Ph.D. student at Oregon State University. Her dissertation focuses on the ecological effects of the loss of wolves from forest ecosystems.

WhySharksMatter: Why are wolves important? 

Delene Beland:  Oh boy, these questions encompass entire bodies of literature! I’ll try to answer as broadly as I can without getting too down in the weeds. Wolves matter a great deal to ecosystems, as Cristina poetically detailed in her book, The Wolf’s Tooth. And Sylvia too blogs about some of these interactions on the NRDC Switchboard blog. At the broadest level, they are thought to enact a top-down regulatory role in trophic levels (food webs) by directly affecting the behavior and feeding patterns of the herbivores they prey upon. This has been dubbed “the ecology of fear.” A deer or elk herd with wolves on its edges is much less likely to stay in one place and graze endlessly. Endless grazing causes habitat to lose resilience and function, because the plants and woody growth are hammered by over browsing and don’t have a chance to regrow. But when herbivores know they are at risk of falling prey they are more likely to graze on the move and shift their feeding patterns away from areas where there is high risk of a predator attack (such as the flat river bottom areas of Yellowstone), and not eat plants and shoots down to their nubs. Many plants do well when grazed upon, but too much grazing leads to stunted growth, outright death, or a lack of recruitment of future generations. And when herbivores overgraze an area, they are not just destroying the plants, they are also wiping out or altering habitat for other species too, such as songbirds, small mammals and even fish. There is literally an entire body of literature devoted to the ecological effects of wolves; this little summary is barley covering the basics!

But what I’ve written about so far is the wolf of science. I’d argue that another wolf exists. It’s a symbolic animal with different meanings for different social groups. You could ask one social group what wolves mean to them—let’s say livestock producers—and you may get a negative earful about how wolves are the worst thing to have ever walked the earth, and how the government forced these wretched animals on helpless communities. Then ask another social group–let’s say environmentalists—and you may get an earful about how wolves are the best species in the world because they make ecosystems healthy, embody the wild essence of wilderness, and are an umbrella species whose protection in turn protects vast landscapes. To some social groups, loving or hating wolves is like a litmus test as to whether you “belong.” In this way, being anti- or pro- wolf can actually help form community ties among people that may not otherwise agree on much. I don’t think wolves are inherently good or bad—just like I don’t think bears or cougars are inherently good or bad. I think it’s simply a matter of how we perceive the behavior and actions of these animals. And, unfortunately, wolves have a bad rap throughout history for being evil creatures. That sort of stigma casts a long shadow, and I think it still colors people’s perceptions of them today. Wolves have become wrapped up in symbology in a way that highlights the polarization of our social perceptions of them: evil symbols of government on the one hand, and ecological saviors symbolizing wilderness on the other. So they matter a lot in a social context. They’ve almost become indicators of political/philosophical allegiances, which I think is sad because it detracts the conversation from actual facts about them.

Why should we be concerned about wolves? Well, there are many reasons. Wolves are an evolutionary success. In the course of their natural history, they spread to every major continent except Antarctica and Australia. (I think that’s correct? Asia, Europe, northern Africa, North America, the Arctic, and the maned wolf (not a true wolf) is in South America while the dire wolf used to be there before it went extinct.) That’s a feat that pretty much no species other than man has achieved. I mean, we’re talking about a species that has adapted to sub-zero weather in the Arctic but also to the arid deserts of Mexico. Their plasticity and adaptability is amazing. Yet in North America, wolves were nearly wiped off the map of the lower-48 states in a geological blink of the eye. I’m not convinced we fully understand yet what our eradication actions did to this species in terms of the genetic diversity that was lost. (And it’s the same story in Europe.) There have definitely been a lot of advancements with reintroducing and recovering wolves, and the fact that we have them in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming is amazing. (I’m sure Sylvia has a lot to say about this.) But I think it’s important to pull back and look at the wide-angle view from history, to look at these gains in the context of what was previously lost: an entire half a continent’s worth of wolves. So I’m glad for the recent progress, but it is still but a small step in relation to the historic populations that were once here. So that’s one reason I’m concerned for wolves. Like large mammals and predators everywhere, they are simply dwindling from Earth.

Sylvia Fallon: DeLene has covered all the bases.  As a scientist at an environmental advocacy organization, my primary interest has been with the ecological role of wolves which, as with sharks, we have only recently really begun to recognize all of the numerous and complex ways these top predators affect their ecosystems.  For the most part we have been piecing these relationships together as we watch entire ecosystems unravel with the loss of top predators (as we have seen with the shark/skate/scallop situation, for example), but in the case of wolves in the Northern Rockies we have had a unique opportunity to watch the return of a top predator and the changes that the wolves have brought to the landscape has been nothing short of astonishing. DeLene seems to argue that there may not be anything inherently good or bad about wolves including the ecological role that they play, but from a biological standpoint we know that ecosystems with wolves are much more complex than ecosystems in which wolves have been removed and that complexity translates into greater productivity and overall resilience.  At a time when conservation biologists are struggling with how to best manage our wildlife and landscapes for maintaining ecosystem function (which benefits us all) in the face of stressors such as climate change, restoring the presence of top predators may be one strategy that could help.  However, restoring predators is something that is largely overlooked or even opposed due to another point that DeLene raises about the symbolism, myths and misinformation about wolves (and other predators) which is reflected in our complex history of persecuting predators.

Cristina Eisenberg:  My dissertation is specifically about why wolves matter. I quantify the effects of wolves via statistical analyses and multivariate models (240 of them), based on 4 years of field data I  collected, which involved walking a thousand miles per year in the northern Rockies (Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes National Park), measuring the impacts of wolves. My master’s thesis was about the science, but also about the broader social/cultural aspect of these issues. Our relationship with wolves is so tangled. It has to do with our deepest fears.  Fears that are the subject of fairy tales and nightmares, but which don’t actually play out in reality, given my experience.


WhySharksMatter: Are wolves a threat to humans?

DeLene Beland:  Quite simply, no. But the thought of being attacked and eaten by a wolf dredges up humanity’s worst fears about becoming prey to wild animals. What fate is worse than to become meat? However, it’s important to keep in perspective the animals we view as “safe” that also cause harm on a regular basis. More than eight hundred thousand people in the United States seek treatment for domestic dog bites each year, and of these about sixteen die according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There are two documented deaths of humans from wolves in North America, and I think the second one is somewhat controversial because it involved wolves that were clearly habituated to people. This second, most recent case, occurred in 2005 when Kenton Joel Carnegie set out for a walk from the mining surveyor’s camp where he worked in Saskatchewan and never returned. His partially eaten body was later found near to where several gray wolves had been spotted repeatedly feeding on human garbage. The coroner’s report attributed his death to wolves according to the Canadian Broadcasting Company, although wolf researcher Paul Paquet disagreed and said the evidence pointed to a bear attack and then wolf scavenging. This was a case that very likely involved wolves that had become habituated to people. And any kind of habituated wild animal is dangerous, whether it’s a bear, alligator, coyote, wolf or even a raccoon. In a third case, an inconclusive case, a female jogger died in Alaska in 2010, possibly due to a bear or wolf attack, but the coroner’s report could not pin down which animal actually killed her. Gray wolves may have attacked and killed Candice Berner, a 4’-11” female, 32 years old, who was jogging in rural Alaska near Chignik Lake. But then again, a bear may have attacked her initially. Her autopsy was not conclusive for cause of death, but wolves did feed upon her after she died, according to the Anchorage Daily News. (It should be noted that it’s not unusual for wolves to steal a bear’s kill and vice versa.) Wolves, probably red wolves or it may have even been feral dogs, were also said to feed upon the bodies of the fallen after the Tuscarora Indian War in the 1700s.  But considering the several hundred years of history since European contact that we have written records for, the fact that there are but two confirmed cases of wolves killing humans reveals a remarkably sparse record—one that speaks more toward the fact that wolves rarely if ever kill people. For the average American, there is a much greater chance of being seriously injured in a car accident caused by deer darting across the road than there is a chance of having even an aggressive encounter with a wild wolf.

Cristina Eisenberg: Not once, in the hundreds of chance meetings I had with wolves, did one behave aggressively toward me. Indeed, they were curious about me, and often snuck up behind me, stole my field equipment, and then brought it back a day or two later slightly chewed and covered with wolf drool and wolf fur. This from a creature who can easily bite through steel. These were not habituated wolves, and I made no effort to approach them or encourage them. Sometimes the wolves would take naps near us while we worked. Other times they would visit with their pups.

I raised my kids in a cabin in the wolves, in a place that wolves recolonized in the 1990s. Our cabin backs up to the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the largest wilderness area in the lower 48 states. Our daughters would camp out in the woods when they were 9 and 10. The wolves would visit in the night, in the mid-summer, and have their pups with them. Our daughters found the sound of the pack teaching their pups to howl comforting. We never felt threatened by them.


WhySharksMatter: What are some current conservation challenges facing wolves?

Sylvia Fallon:  In the US, gray wolves used to be found across most of the country and numbered in the hundreds of thousands.  By the 1930s, however, wolves had been all but exterminated from the lower 48 except for a small population that hung on in the woods of Minnesota.  Now, 80 years later and 40 years after the Endangered Species Act was passed, only two populations of gray wolves exist –  one in the Great Lakes region (MN, WI, MI) that numbers in the several thousands and one in the Northern Rocky Mountains (ID, MT, WY) that numbers around 2000 with a handful of wolves beginning to establish in WA and OR.  There is also a small and struggling population of 58 Mexican gray wolves in NM and AZ.  Although recovery efforts continue for the Mexican wolf, the other two populations of gray wolves have recently been removed from the endangered species list (with the exception of Wyoming which is proposed for delisting) and it is clear that the US Fish and Wildlife Service is ready to declare wolves recovered in the US despite the fact that they still only represent a small fraction of their historic numbers and range. While wolves are still technically considered endangered in the rest of the country, the US Fish and Wildlife Service plans on declaring the rest of this historical range as “unrealistic and unnecessary” for recovery.

The biggest conservation issue facing wolves has always been public opposition –  primarily from the livestock industry  and sportsmen’ s communities. Now that wolves have been removed from the endangered species list there is intense public pressure on the states to reduce the wolf population through hunting, trapping and other forms of removal.  Both state and federal regulations on wolves have shown themselves to be influenced much more by politics than by science.  So the challenges for conserving wolves are largely about building public tolerance and acceptance and promoting non-lethal conflict prevention practices to reduce conflicts between wolves and livestock and support coexistence.

Cristina Eisenberg: It is impossible to have 250,000 wolves ever again in the lower 48 coterminous United States, due to the human footprint. When there were 250,000 wolves, the human population was several orders of magnitude lower than it is today. Our challenge lies in figuring out, using best science, how many wolves are enough to ensure the ecological benefits that can accrue from their presence, then coming up with a higher number than that to ensure that stochastic effects (e.g., disease, light winters) that can negatively impact wolf populations, are accounted for. In the Northern Rockies, many conservation biologists feel that a wolf population of 10,000 would be adequate to allow for wolf expansion into areas not populated by humans, to ensure ecological effectiveness (ability to drive a trophic cascade), and to be sufficiently resilient to stochastic effects.

DeLene Beland:  I am concerned because their fate is lashed firmly to our politics. Biologically, wolves are doing just fine. But when we institute hunts and policies that allow them to be shot or trapped or whatnot, it’s a huge detriment to their social ecology. When wolves are shot randomly, there is a somewhat unknown effect upon their pack mates. Some studies show there is an additive effect, meaning that when a wolf dies from a hunter’s bullet, more than that one felled wolf’s fate is affected. That wolf’s mate may now be unable to provide adequately for all their pups, putting the whole pack’s fate at risk. Or, a neighboring pack may sense one of the breeders is now missing, and attack or take over the territory–expelling or killing the packmates that are left. It’s like a butterfly effect really, and I don’t think we as a society have given nearly enough thought to how our policies (hunts especially) can affect wolves at the population level. I’m sure the others will have more to say about this.


WhySharksMatter: Do you believe that “The Grey” will negatively impact wolves, as “Jaws” negatively impacted sharks?

Cristina Eisenberg: I think The Grey could set back carnivore conservation by much in some circles. There are many lay persons who are on the fence about predators. This film, given Liam Neeson’s charisma, could tip them to the wrong side.

Sylvia Fallon:  Basically I don’t think that The Grey is harmless fiction – I think it feeds into our already present fear of wolves and perpetuates misinformation about wolves as people-killers.  That’s a real setback for wolves  whose main obstacle continues to be public perception and it’s a setback the conservation community that has worked for decades to dispel these types of myths.

As a mom and a wildlife biologist, I am sensitive to the villainization of wolves and “the wild” which pervades children’s literature and is exemplified in the most ubiquitous of stories such as Little Red Riding Hood, Peter and the wolf, and the Three Little Pigs.  This idea of the ‘big bad wolf’ is ingrained in us at a young age.  These stories instill a sense of fear and distrust of wolves and “The Grey” is like a souped up, modern day version of these fairy tales – for adults.  What the makers of “The Grey” may not realize is that the fear that these stories elicit while also perpetuating the false characterization of wolves as people-killers has real consequences for wolves.   As DeLene points out, wolves are biologically very successful and can survive in all kinds of settings – their only real problem so far has been people. In a matter of only a few decades we were able to almost entirely eliminate wolves from the lower 48.  And one of the biggest struggles with restoring wolves has been public resistance which is largely based on this type of fear and misguided belief that wolves mean harm to people.

Of course that doesn’t mean that wolves don’t harm other things that people care about such as livestock – but statistically wolves account for a very small fraction of livestock losses and fortunately there are a number of options for non-lethal conflict-prevention that are being adopted by more and more ranchers demonstrating that coexistence between wolves and livestock is possible. Still, wolves continue to face a lot of opposition and  restoring wolves successfully requires building public acceptance and tolerance by breaking down misinformation and fear – not feeding it, as “The Grey” does.

DeLene Beland: As a kid, my family vacationed in Key West, Fla. every August where we caught lobsters by skin diving. I remember watching Jaws one year before our summer vacation, and for the two weeks we dove I was petrified each time we slipped into the ocean. Never mind that I’d been diving for five years already and had never even seen a shark in the sleughs and reefs we visited! This little anecdote speaks to the power of myth and suggestion and how it can overrule or short-circuit what we otherwise know to be true. For people who know a little about gray wolves, the move The Grey will surely cause them to at least question what they think they know about wolf behavior. For people who know nothing about gray wolves, I worry what this movie will do to their perspective. Will they accept the misinformation about wolf behavior as true? I don’t know. And for people who are already opposed to wolves, I fear this movie simply reinforces what they think they know: that wolves are bad, evil creatures hell bent on hurting people.

When you begin talking about wolf attacks, facts don’t matter much to some people. The wolf that stalks people in the woods for food is the wolf of legend and myth. The idea of dying at the actions of a pack of wolves is such a frightening thing, such a horrifying thought, that we as a society have pinned this awful expectation upon them. The fact that they are social animals who exhibit cooperation and even strategy in their hunting behaviors worsens the fear of a coordinated attack upon a person, in many people’s minds. It is this fear, legend and myth that the movie, The Grey plays upon. It makes zero attempt to illustrate wolves displaying natural behavior. Instead, it plays on old tropes about how we expect wolves to behave.

Right now, wolves need advocates like Sylvia and Cristina fighting for them, not Hollywood fighting against them. So in the end, I do fear that The Grey will harm the public’s perception of what wolves are all about or perhaps influence some folks to take sides against wolf recovery. But it’s great that conservationists and communicators like you, David, are interested in exposing the difference between what we know about wolves versus how they are portrayed in this movie.

There are so many myths and oodles of misinformation pinned to wolves. Movies like The Grey simply propagate fears of behavior that is largely non-existent (stalking people in the woods with the intent to murder them). When you enter the realm of the wolf, you enter a realm where people argue over the basics of what constitutes a fact. It’s sad, but true. I hope that science can help dispel some of the misinformation, but that will take a lot of time (and a shift in our culture toward one that values and accepts science… but that’s another story).