This interview was with Spencer Wilhelm, the Volunteer Coordinator and Operations Manager for the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, New York. http://nywolf.org/
I have a pretty good feeling I know what the answer to this is but, just from your experience interacting with the public and whatever, what’s the most common misconception people have about wolves?
The most common misconception… (chuckle) Someone calls every week, “There’s a wolf in my back yard.” Now, most of the time it’s going to be that coyot. You know, when you’re living in the Bronx you can be pretty sure that’s not a wolf. We get that a lot. Out here with the eastern coyot being larger because of some of that wolf DNA, you know, I can understand. I remember seeing my first coy-wolf, I really had to stop and take a second look and realized, oh, I should stop poking fun at some of those people that, you know, “There’s definitely a wolf in my yard. It’s five feet tall and weighs 300 pounds.” Our eyes can play tricks on us.
But, you know other than that, there are two things that are important that people realize. One is the Little Red Riding Hood lie. That is not factual. Only one person has been killed in our country due to a healthy wild wolf that we know of. I believe, in all 100 something years only 11 people have been killed by a wolf. Roughly half of that was in captivity. The others in North America were diseased and had issues or they had issues such as habituation. There was a gentleman killed in Sascatuon several years ago, that was a case where there was a dump. People were throwing their garbage and animals were starting to come and feed off of that and people would come and watch them. And as the story goes this gentleman went to go out to watch the animals one evening and he started to bring his own food and the next thing you know he didn’t come home. That’s not a case of a healthy
individual animal. They’re habituated because of something we did to change that.
So it’s important to know that people don’t get hurt by wolves and it’s also important to know that yes wolves kill livestock, but it’s not with the great numbers that you hear about. It’s not as big of an issue as portrayed. There are a lot of husbandry practices that can be made to even decrease those numbers. It’s just an effort has to be put in to doing that. And fortunately they are.
That’s good at least. They need it.
Yeah. We… One of the first people that shot a wolf this year they actually shot two tags and showed the photographs. One is an adult wolf maybe two years or older. The other photo looks like a plasma adult, like our little puppies. Now why did that animal have to be shot? Why would you hunt a five month old? It… it doesn’t give credit to the sport. Sad. Sad.
Well, I know you have multiple enclosures. What are the size ranges of those?
We have ten enclosures. Nine of them range from about an acre to about two and a half, two three quarter acres. Our smallest is about 7/10ths of an acre. It all depends on what tree and rock we have to build around and things like that. Now it’s not fifty square miles to two hundred fifty square miles that a wolf typically gets but we couldn’t manage these wolves if their enclosures were too large. Cause every time there’s a call, “there goes a wolf in my back yard,” especially if it’s in this area we go up there, we want to get a visual. And if it was those fifty acres it would be tough for a lot of these animals to make sure that we’re getting an idea. Something we would look for the most is in spots that they could
potentially dig out or if a tree fell on a fence. But it’s tough to manage them when they’re in such a large enclosure. But we are happy to say that we have some of the largest enclosures in the country for the Mexican wolf project.
I’ve heard them mention breeding. How successful has the breeding program been so far?
The breeding program has been pretty successful. The red wolf program has been much more successful as far as breeding. One, they had a larger foundation, more founders to start from. You know, there was seventeen of them. The Mexican wolf, five out of the seven were used. So, it’s been a little bit harder to… pick the best pair and put them together and then successfully breed. You know, wolves have that natural desire to have pups but there’s something to be said about mate selection. Maybe they’re just not getting along. Maybe due to genetics there might be a possibility of not sterilization but probably maybe a low sperm count or something of that matter. Maybe the eggs’ just not completely viable. Might have some conflict with some breeding there. There might be some issues with people. You know, wolves are kind of private and some time to be romantic they’re just not feeling super comfortable.
Now we’ve had two litters born here, but we’ve had many many breeding attempts. We have one red wolf, this next winter will be her fifth attempt at breeding. She’s never produced any pups. This could be one of those fertility issues. We have four breeding pairs this year. She and a male that will be coming in from North Carolina will be put together. We have our pair that gave birth a year ago. The red wolves had two pups; they were allowed to breed last year. Don’t really know why. We actually saw them in a tie on video; making some wolf porn (laugh). But we took that info, 63 day gestation, we kinda guestimated when the pups could arrive, so a few days before and several days after we would walk in there and see if we could find any pups, but nothing. Hopefully it will be much more successful this year.
Last year was a really weird year in captive breeding all over the country both for the reds and the Mexican wolves. We had some still-born issues; we had just a lot of females not becoming pregnant. Hopefully this year will be better. Now, one of the big issues we have is, has nothing to do with the wolves, it all has to do with the facilities and space. If we don’t have enough space we can’t just make these pairs and move wolves and everything because you still have to plan for the future. Eventually those wolves that are born are going to want to separate, move apart. We’ll try to keep them together for as long as possible. It’s nice to have multi-generational packs if we can. But, it’s pretty tough with the facilities, there are limitations everywhere.
I know you’ve had at least a couple of the wolves released into the wild in select areas. Is the Center ever given information on how they’re faring or is it just, you released them and you did your part?
Yeah, we released a female Mexican wolf back in July of 2006. She had left here the previous fall to go to Fish and Wildlife in New Mexico to be observed a little bit more. They introduced her to a male. She had a couple pups, and they were then released as a pack. I was fortunate, I got to go and be part of that release, so it was wonderful. And then in November of 2008 this female’s sister was released with a male. No pups but a male. And unfortunately they both shared the same fate; after about two and a half, three months they were both illegally shot. These wolves were doing everything they were supposed to do. They were not getting into trouble; they were staying away from people for the most part, obviously close enough to be shot. They were hunting the elk and the smaller critters out there. But it just takes that wrong person to be in the… I guess I want to say the right place to do something terrible. The investigations are still pending; most of the time they never going to catch the people that do these things.
Now, it’s sad but you kind of want to look at it also as, can you imagine what it was like for those wolves to be coming from a small, captive space of an acre or two, to millions of acres? No fences. And being able to do what you’re supposed to do. Be it only two months, three months. Probably an exciting time for them. I hope it was exciting. But we have to keep going. Fish and Wildlife Service (http://www.fws.gov/) is planning on releasing some wolves here in… they release them in Arizona, not in New Mexico, but they can travel to certain parts of New Mexico. Hopefully they’ll be releasing them pretty soon. And Mexico is planning on releasing five, I believe, in the northern state of Sanora, just south of Arizona. They told us that a couple years ago, but they have the same problems we do. You know, politics, ranching, other industries that kind of get in the way. But let’s hope. If they do get released in Mexico, if they cross the border, they won’t be seen as illegal aliens I guess. They’ll get right of passage. They’ll be able to be protected under the Endangered Species Act and intermingle with the wolves in the Blue Range of Arizona and New Mexico. So that could be a good thing genetically for the species. So we’ll hope.
All right, now this is your opinion here. This could go either way given several of the people I’ve spoken to kind of get a range of ideas. What’s your opinion on the idea of trying to reintroduce wolves into New York State?
Wolves in New York State… Well, I’d say more New England because there’s habitable space. Now, just the Adirondacks alone, I believe there’s roughly 20 million habitable acres for the wolves, so plenty of space, the food source is there. But, I doubt we are ever going to reintroduce wolves. The money behind it, the politics, the controversy that it can stir up. You know, Fish and Wildlife did test the waters and see if the space is there and get some public opinion and for some reason it just kind of stopped.
Now, they can come on their own. There’s wolves in Canada. If they can get across the Saint Lawrence and through the urban areas along the coast of parts of Canada and stuff they can make their way. If they just come in and then establish a territory and start breeding then you get full protection under the Endangered Species Act. Now, if we were to put them there then most likely they’d be classified as a nonessential, experimental population. So they might be defined to a certain boundary like the Mexican wolf is. They leave the boundary they have to be trapped and brought back in, which again is management problems. It costs money to do all of that stuff. It wouldn’t be as good for the wolves as if they naturally recovered. So, I really doubt wolves are ever going to be reintroduced. However, there’s another issue. What wolf was it? Now, there’s some debate: how far north did the red wolf go? Now basically we can imagine drawing a line from northern Connecticut to Texas and then go to the southeast. That’s where the red wolf historically was. But could they have gone a little further north? If it was a gray wolf, which gray wolf was it? Right now there’s the eastern gray wolf, which is in debate itself because due to genetics analysis as recent it’s proven that eastern wolf, which looks like just about every other wolf in North America, is genetically more distantly related to those gray wolves than previously thought. So it could be our third species of wolf in North America. And how are federal protections going to be placed on them verses the gray wolf?
That’s a really tricky situation because we have the eastern wolves in places like Minnesota. Then you also have, you know, a variety of other wolves and you cannot tell the difference if you just physically look at them. So taxonomically they want to get the right wolf back into that area, which most likely would be that eastern wolf, especially that far north. They’re in Algonquin National Park and also in Canada. But, we want them to do it on their own. And you know what, because of the elusiveness of the wolf, who says they’re not there?
That’s an interesting question.
I had a colleague who worked with some biologists in Idaho for a summer and they were using radio telemetry. They knew wolves were around but they saw wolves for a total of 47 seconds. But they knew they were there. We’ve been contacted by some groups to possibly come up into Maine and go out at night in the woods and howl and see if you get any sort of responses. Unfortunately we’ve never been able to participate but who knows what’s up there? There is a hodgepodge of canine genes in that area with the eastern coyot coy-wolf and those possible dispersals coming from Canada, and they might come down, they might spend the week and they might go back. It’s kind of like the cougar, the mountain lion, puma, whatever you want to call it. So many people say they’re there, but all the professionals, they know there’s no confirmed evidence. They’re not finding paw prints; they’re not finding cached food or anything that is suggestive of a wild cougar population. And these are in the areas that are in the tens and twenties of sightings. Who knows?
I think it would be really interesting for, somehow, we realize that there was, even if it was a small breeding population up there. Everybody has been saying that New York is too populated, there are too many roads, people wouldn’t like it, and it to turn out that they’re there all along.
Yeah, in southern New York it is that way. You’d never have a wolf that wants to come down and live in Westchester. Except these guys, you know, they’ve got a pretty cushy life. But yeah, there’s too many roads, there’s too many people, if they did make it down this way they’re probably not mentally healthy. They’d probably get hit by a car, something like that. But you know they do travel, they’re in search of something. I don’ t know. I honestly don’t believe we have wolves in the northeast. Most sightings are probably this coy-wolf, but again, we just don’t know. Fish and Wildlife says no. If we’re going to go off of anybody I guess go off of them. DEC (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, http://www.dec.ny.gov/) says no. CREW, Coalition for the Restoration of the Eastern Wolf (http://www.easternwolf.org/) , they say no.
You never know what’s going to happen though, they do move.
They do move.
Come back next week for the conclusion of this interview!