Forget about the tusked beast in the classic "blind men and the elephant" story. If ever there was a creature that could be described by six people in six completely different ways, it's canis lupus.
The gray wolf—hated, feared, loved, and portrayed on endless coffee mugs—has been a controversial presence in North America for hundreds of years, since the time colonists first heard its howls in the night. Predisposed by centuries of wolf conflicts in the old country, early settlers purely hated the animals; cattlemen liked them even less. Between the 1860s and 1930s, gray wolves in the Lower 48 were baited, trapped, set on fire, drawn and quartered, shot and poisoned to near extinction.
In less lobophobic times 55 million years ago, the carnivore emerged from the same family that spawned raccoons, bears and weasels. It evolved into the world's biggest wild canine and farthest-roaming land mammal, with territories as large as 1,000 square miles. Wolves once thrived across the entire Northern Hemisphere, including the Arabian Peninsula and parts of India.
By the 6th century B.C., the Greeks wanted them dead. The thick-furred predators ate livestock, occasionally killed people, including small children, and in rare cases fed on the human dead. Serfs in 10th century England paid off fines in wolf tongues; the Scottish burned entire forests to eradicate packs. By the 17th century the world had Little Red Riding Hood (a tale about sexual predators, if nothing else). Romulus and Remus may have been raised by wolves; Kevin Costner danced with them, but our ancestors execrated them.
What does this have to do with elephants? The blind men in the parable touch different parts of the pachyderm: The man with the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the man groping a leg says the elephant is like a pillar, and so on. Modern-day wolf researchers describe similar parts of the whole.
Norwegian scientists, for example, investigated wolf attacks on humans over the centuries and found that the incidents were exceedingly rare, chiefly involving wolves that were rabid or had lost their fear of people. A tragic example of the latter happened last March, when a 32-year-old woman jogging in rural Alaska became the nation's first known wild wolf fatality in modern times. And yet wolves are among our least dangerous predators. In India, tigers kill as many as 1,000 people a year—wolves barely killed that many in 200 years worldwide.
The debate closer to home involves not human deaths, but the elk variety. Before the reintroduction of wolves in 1995, about 19,000 elk in northern Yellowstone lazed on riverbanks and ate young willows, aspens, cottonwoods and underbrush, researchers say. They stripped the park of vegetation, robbed other creatures of shade and nesting spots, binged on beaver fodder (preventing beavers from creating wetlands), and caused erosion that clouded streams with sediment. Trout disappeared. So did fly fishermen and tourist dollars.
Wolves restored the eco-balance and the local economy, researchers report. Elk got more vigilant; they grazed for shorter periods, moved more often and hid in forests.
They also lost weight, suffered a hormone imbalance and had fewer calves, a third camp argues. The northern Yellowstone herd last winter numbered about 6,100, a 65 percent decline. Elk numbers in other zones have also plummeted. Hunters have not been happy.
But maybe most people could be, if they stepped back for the panoramic view.
Wolves do love elk, but that's not the only meat on their menu. Last year, a fairly typical one, Yellowstone Wolf Project staffers tracked down 365 wolf kills inside the park and found that 302 were elk, followed by 19 bison, 17 deer, 6 other wolves, 4 antelope, 3 coyotes, 2 red foxes, 1 moose, 1 bighorn sheep, 1 Canada goose, 1 bald eagle, and a few unknowns.
Some elk problems, meanwhile, are the two-footed variety. In August 2010, Idaho Fish and Game released the results of a four-year elk survival study, the agency's largest, in which biologists monitored 500 adult female elk in 11 zones to see which predators were the leading cause of death. Wolves were the biggest killers in three zones; mountain lions matched or bested wolves in two zones. Hunters took top honors in six zones.
Idaho's overall elk population dropped by 20 percent, or from 125,000 to about 100,000, after wolves appeared. But the declines didn't happen everywhere, the report noted. In some spots, elk were so numerous they were "causing trouble for landowners."
Montana elk are similarly beaten down in spots, popping up in others, and stable in between. The wild canids have made an impact, but so have wildfires, harsh weather, noxious weeds, roads and subdivisions, hunting, mountain lions, coyotes and bears.
Wolves aren't invulnerable, either. When they're not killed by people they're wiped out by cars, other wolves, injuries, distemper, mange and malnutrition. Healthy elk, deer and other ungulates can outrun them. Fewer than one in ten moose pursuits end in a kill. Wolves thus like to target the weakest links, and wolf them down. They might howl afterward, but not at the moon. The creatures are not possessed.
But maybe we are.