The Wolf Conservation Center Cries out for Understanding and the Wolf's Importance to the Environment
South Salem Center Educates and Conserves
The Grey with Liam Neeson is a very entertaining film in which a group of plane crash survivors find themselves stranded in the territorial hunting grounds of a large, ferocious wolf pack. Ruthlessly and mindfully stalked, only Liam Neeson remains as the human alpha to face a canine counterpart that puts species supremacy above its own survival. Leaving the viewer looking into the determined eyes of the two combatants, the lack of an onscreen outcome still amounts to pure movie magic. But the reality of the entire scenario is as likely as a great white shark jumping on a boat to eat its aggressors. More troubling, this type of broad misconception leaves Maggie Howell of the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem with her work cut out with her.
Promoting wolf conservation is the first order. But restoring the animal to a healthy nationwide standing goes hand and hand with educating people on the true nature and crucial importance of this very social creature.
Staff members receive lesson one whenever they enter the fenced enclosure to encounter the wolves. "They are really frightened of us," says WCC’s executive director.
On the other hand, the walls definitely come down whenever she howls. This has any of the 20 ambassador wolves or the endangered Red Wolf or Mexican Gray Wolf joining in a little dialogue. “I have no idea what I’m saying, but I know it can evoke a response or maybe even a conversation among all 22 wolves,” said Howell.
Wolf and Human History
That said, founder Hélène Grimaud didn’t cordon off 26 acres of pristine Northern Westchester real estate in 1999 to spark idle chatter or solely rectify the tragedy of having a species go extinct. “They can often be the missing piece in mother nature’s puzzle,” said Howell.
Yellowstone Park serves as the primary example for her. Beginning in the 1920s, wolves were hunted out of the national park’s existence. As a result, the elk population exploded, and they decimated the plant life. “The ecosystem fell apart,” says the Somers resident. Not until the wolf was reintroduced in 1995 did Yellowstone start to recover.
Of course, there had long been an understanding where humans and wolves peacefully coexisted throughout history. But when Europeans arrived and started raising livestock, it’s no coincidence that stories like Little Red Riding Hood emerged. This marked the beginnings of hostilities. “I think our treaty was broken between human families and wolf packs,” says Howell.
Fiction Becomes an Extinction Policy
One-sided as the aggression was, misconception eventually morphed into policy. Around the turn of the 20th century, she says, “there was a campaign to rid a lot of the large predators from the country. They feared that wolves might have a negative impact on the economy or recreation.”
It reached a point where less than a thousand wolves survived nationwide and all in the state of Minnesota. “We pretty much wiped them out,” she said.
Ironically, the wolves’ reprieve began when the man who shot one of the last Mexican Grey Wolves in Arizona had a revelation. Conservationist Aldo Leopold realized where the wolf fit into the natural landscape and the bio-diversified balance they provide.
The Beginning of Wildlife Management
Founder of the science of wildlife management, the approach to predators began to change. The wolf would gain federal protection by the 70s and are well on the road to recovery. Now populating the central great lake states, they’ve been reacquainted with Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Washington, and Oregon.
Nonetheless, when a news report comes in of a local wolf sighting, she knows the truth is closer to a coyote. In fact, there are officially no wolves in New York State — save some that crossover from Canada.
No language or cultural barrier to consider, Howell wouldn’t be the only one to answer the call for more of the same. “We have an ecosystem up in the Adirondacks that is just screaming for a predator like the wolf,” she says.
In actually, upping the ante of existing wolf populations is done quietly, with much less fanfare. For instance, once a pup is born here, the species survival plan allows the 7-10 day old to be transferred to a location where a wild litter has just been born. “The mom and dad embrace them and raise them as their own,” she says. “So it’s a really sneaky way to get them into the wild but really effective.”
Educating Humans about Wolves
The least we can do, the wolf doesn’t stop giving – especially in terms of what WCC offers educationally. “We teach the broader message of ecology and conservation through wolves,” she said.
And that’s not the only language the wolf speaks for educational purposes. “You could be talking about history or culture or literature, and the wolf is actually a really good subject across many topics,” she said.
Home to a number of onsite interns and offering numerous programs to the public, WCC is not really a walk through where there’s a constant flow of people. A semi-seclusion she’s sure the wolves approve of. “They’d get very bored and probably annoyed,” said Howell.
Still, the wolves do get a look at about 9,000 learners every year. Surprisingly, if it’s a summer education program, the canines seem a bit slight in comparison to the images often found in magazines or on TV. Absent their big winter coat, the lanky, lean frame is what remains and might make pet owners put their dogs on a diet.
Wolves and Dogs
Either way, she hopes humans are never compelled to turn a stray wolf pup into the family dog. Howell points to long time resident Atka to make her point. Brought to WCC at 8 days old, he had never seen a wolf or a dog and only knew the people who raised him. “Under no circumstances would he sit under my dining room table and politely let me eat dinner,” she says.
Putting aside the original breeding done over thousands of years to produce dogs, it’s not beyond people trying it today. Unfortunately, if the attempt ended in someone being bitten or attacked, their injury wouldn’t be the only problem. “It’s going to be another strike against the wild wolf, and they already have a reputation they don’t deserve,” she says.
No matter, the low probability of this scenario, wolves will take a kind word wherever they can get it. “They really need a good PR person – I guess maybe that’s what I am,” Howell concluded.
For more info, visit WCC's website.