The Magical, Mystical Music Of Wolf-Song
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
The haunting, almost surrealistic song arose from somewhere deep inside the Superior National Forest on that chilly night beneath the Harvest Moon of September. Our group consisted of eight wolf enthusiasts and two guides. I had feared that the long drive from Ohio to The International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota, would go unappreciated by our lupine friends. At first, our attempts to communicate with wild wolves earned us only the sound of the wind whispering through the aspen boughs overhead.
Then, a distant yipping followed by longer ululations rising to a crescendo, as two wild wolf packs sang into the night. My wife LaVon said, “My Lakota Sioux ancestry felt them call even before we heard them.”
I do not know what the wolves were saying, and I am unaware of what message they were hearing from us. Wolves howl to communicate over long distances or for the sheer joy of it, never at the moon. As the packs neared our position, their calls increased in magnitude. Then, the howling abruptly ceased. In the starry vastness overhead, Cassiopeia gazed vainly into her mirror and Orion continued his pursuit of the pristine Pleiades. Once again, there was only the wind in the aspens.
I had long dreamed of visiting the wolf center. Wolves have received a bad rap from mankind, fueled by tales of The Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood and outrageous portrayals by the entertainment industry. The history of man/wolf relations is a tale of cruelty and destruction, all instigated by man.
Wolf attacks upon humans have been vastly exaggerated. Healthy wolves are terrified of humans and flee from them. Nearly all reported wolf attacks involve either wolf/dog hybrids or animals infected with rabies.
John Muir said, “The web of life consists of many strands. Remove one, and all suffer.”
Mankind’s destruction of wolves by means of traps, poison, firing from aircraft and other abominable practices has had dire consequences, causing elk and deer populations to soar, leading to overgrazing and disease. Coyotes grew in numbers and expanded their ranges as wolves have disappeared.
Livestock predation is a concern to farmers and ranchers in areas where large predators have been reintroduced, but less than 1% of cattle losses can be attributed to wolves. Many times, coyote kills have been blamed on wolves. Improper and illegal disposal of livestock carcasses can attract wolves, as can the practice of pasturing cattle in forest areas, especially when calves are present. Proper management practices can minimize livestock losses to wolves.
The grey wolf subsists primarily on elk, deer, raccoon, beaver and other wildlife. Unlike human hunters, wolves cull the old, weak and sick from a herd, fostering healthier ungulate populations. A gray wolf feeds once every seven days and consumes 20% of his body weight, with a 95% digestion rate.
Today, wolves are making a comeback, thanks to a growing public awareness of their role in the balance of nature and to reintroduction programs. The grey wolf population is estimated at 56,000 in Canada, 6-10,000 in Alaska, 1,600 in the western US, and 3,600 in Minnesota and surrounding states.
The Mexican grey wolf of the Southwest and the Carolina red wolf are hanging on precariously. Presently, there are only an estimated 83 Mexican grey wolves living in New Mexico and Arizona, and a lawsuit by environmentalists is forcing the government to develop a sound management plan. There are a mere 130 Carolina red wolves. Red wolf restoration has benefitted Carolina farmers by diminishing the population of exotic species like nutria. When red wolves cull the raccoon population, endangered sea turtles benefit from fewer raids on their nests.
Increasing numbers of grey wolves in the West have reduced the excess elk population, causing aspen, willow and other trees to flourish and songbirds to return.
We need our wolves, as we need all creatures if we are to foster a healthy and enduring ecosystem. I am overjoyed that I have finally met my wolves.