I must start with a story about a country that took its culture from wolf respect to wolf hatred - the opposite direction of where we must go. Buried in that tragic tale are lessons we can use to build acceptance of wolves.
The story, told well by Brett Walker in his book, "The Lost Wolves of Japan," begins around 1600 when the Japanese regarded wolves as deities and worshipped them at shrines. Farmers accepted the wolf as a partner that killed the boar and deer that ate the grain crops that were the cornerstones of Japanese agriculture. The country had no large scale livestock industry.
During the 1700s, Japan's population swelled and people encroached on wolf territory. Rabid wolves killed some Japanese. Hatred stirred; bounties were placed, but the Japanese still held the animal in high esteem.
All that changed in 1868 when a new Japanese government vowed to modernize the country's economy. As part of that modernization, the government would create a livestock industry similar to that in the US. The government wrote policy that demoted grain farming and promoted livestock production on huge new ranches carved from more wolf territory. Walker writes that modernization was built into the Japanese education system, workplace, political values, and attitudes about agriculture.
Five years later, the Japanese government took another step and hired an American rancher, Edwin Dun, to help build that livestock industry and to destroy wolves. Dun knew about industrial poisoning with strychnine, and when he stepped off the boat, the war on wolves erupted. The government helped by portraying wolves as monstrous killers that preyed on almighty livestock. They even used taxidermy - stuffed snarling specimens - to transform reverence to fear. The government helped by creating a bounty system that provided financial incentive to kill animals once seen as partners.
In only 32 years - by 1905 - wolves were extinct in Japan. The key was the government-sponsored campaign to shift the cultural image of the wolf from deity to demon.
This story reveals how a government has the power to convince citizens to do the unthinkable: to wipe out an animal they once worshiped. Our government might use such power to do something as unthinkable: to convince those who hate wolves to respect them. What did Japan use for the bad that the US can use for the good?
The Japanese government used bounties to overwhelm centuries-old reverence and to motivate citizens to kill wolves.
Our government must value wolves in a way that encourages us to protect them. Right now the opposite happens. Not so long ago in Michigan, for example, legislators introduced two bills that dealt with restitution and fines for poaching. The bills valued relatively rare wolves less than abundant prey animals. Restitution for killing a moose or elk, for example, was $5,000. For killing a protected wolf: $100. The fine for poaching an elk was $500 to $2,000. For poaching a wolf: $200 to $1,000. Bills such as these demonstrate with dollars that wolves - even though endangered - have less value than other animals.
Incentives have been used elsewhere to actually improve attitudes about wolves. In a part of Sweden where livestock producers received subsidies for installing predator-proof fencing, scientists found that those who received subsidies tolerated wolves better than those who had not, regardless of the number of wolf attacks on sheep or dogs.
Nonlethal deterrents have improved attitudes toward predators in other countries. In Kenya, for example, scientists reported that the killing of lions by livestock herders declined when community members were paid to protect livestock, monitor lion movements, and warn villagers of the presence of lions. The herders accepted predators when trusted people helped them protect their livestock. Using human presence as a nonlethal deterrent reminds me of Idaho's successful Wood River Wolf Project.
Given the power of nonlethal deterrents to protect wolves and livestock and improve attitudes toward predators, all wolf states should subsidize nonlethal deterrents and require their use as a primary part of the process of reimbursing ranchers for losses due to wolves.
Japan's government wrote polices that led to the eradication of wolves in only 32 years.
Policies impact wolves in the US as well. There exists, for example, a little-known Department of Justice guideline referred to as the McKittrick Policy. This policy evolved from a Montana case in which Chad McKittrick was convicted under the Endangered Species Act for killing Wolf Number 10 - one of the first wolves released into nearby Yellowstone National Park one month earlier in 1995. McKittrick argued that he was not guilty because he thought he was shooting a wild dog. He appealed the conviction and lost. Even though the Justice Department prevailed, administrators still adopted the McKittrick policy which directs their attorneys to not prosecute unless they can prove that the individual knowingly killed a protected species. A 2013 lawsuit challenging this policy reported that following the policy has prevented the criminal prosecution of individuals who killed a total of 48 endangered Mexican wolves.
This McKittrick Policy tells hunters that wolves don't matter, that even though they are endangered there are no consequences for killing them. Policies such as these must be abolished if we are to say that wolves matter, that wolves deserve to live.
The Japanese government hammered home to its citizens the message that wolves were demons, not deities, that wolves should be killed. Citizens complied.
Federal and state governments in the US also send important - and deadly - messages. Some states have federally approved wolf management plans that define protecting wolves as keeping a certain number of wolves alive, while surplus wolves can be and should be legally killed. Those plans endanger wolves in two ways. First, the animals die in legal hunts. Second, government-sanctioned killing influences the intention to poach. If the government says it's acceptable to hunt wolves, then citizens figure it's also acceptable to poach them.
Events in Wisconsin exemplify this. There, the state killed wolves implicated in livestock attacks, believing that taking out "bad wolves" would foster greater tolerance for wolves in general. But a study found the opposite: Wisconsin residents who lived in wolf areas showed a decline in tolerance and an increase in intention to poach wolves. Tolerance fell even further after the state's first legal wolf hunt.
Our government should write policy and enact legislation which sends the message that killing wolves should be the last resort, not the first.
The Japanese government built modernization - and the need to abolish wolves - into the country's education system. Today, more than a century after their eradication, wolves are still vilified in Japan.
Education changes how people view predators one mind at a time. One study found that the acceptance of bears, for example, increased when people were given two pieces of information: how bears benefit the ecosystem and how to reduce risks posed by bears. But if people were told only about how to reduce risks and not about how bears benefit, acceptance decreased.
Our government should develop and implement a curriculum to teach how little risk wolves present and how much ecological benefit they provide.
A national wolf recovery plan
In a previous blog I wrote about the framework of a national wolf recovery plan. That framework could include legally enforceable means to:
- Set restitution and fines for poaching so that both reflect the actual value and scarcity of wolves across the US.
- Mandate federal and state governments to subsidize nonlethal deterrents as a required and primary part of the process of reimbursing ranchers for losses due to wolves.
- Abolish the McKittrick policy and prosecute those who kill protected wolves.
- Make government-sanctioned killing of wolves the last resort in all wolf management plans.
- Develop and implement a nationwide curriculum that realistically teaches the risks and ecological benefits of wolves.
A national wolf recovery plan that uses financial incentives, education, policies, and laws to reduce intolerance is the way to change our country's culture from one of wolf hatred to one of respect.