Edwin Wollert / Wolf Song of Alaska / Education Coordinator
Previous versions of this article have appeared on the Wolf Song of Alaska web site, and also been submitted to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
I tell my philosophy students on the first day of each semester in every course I teach that my job consists of helping them to become better thinkers. And in my studies of philosophy, I am often returning to the ancient Greeks, the creators of the first systematic rational philosophies as well as of the world’s earliest known democratic society, and there are some basic considerations in that part of history which are really the topic of this latest summary about wolf and wildlife education.
Democracy does not merely thrive and benefit from participation. It actually requires participation. And it must be active and ongoing. Apathy is precisely what kills a democratic organization, far more effectively than a hostile competitor or differing ideology could ever hope for. And this applies to all aspects of a democratic group: politics, policies, beliefs, and economics.
On the topic of economic interests, consider this: eleven years ago I went on a wildlife safari to the equatorial African nation of Kenya. Now I will not compare that ecosystem to Alaska’s, nor its wildlife to Alaska’s: vastly different climates, topographies, and species occupy each region. But what really stuck out, as we eagerly took to the field twice a day to look for the larger creatures, was the fact that during that trip I learned about a policy of the KWS, the Kenyan Wildlife Service, which is that country’s national agency for protecting and managing wildlife.
Field agents of the KWS are allowed to shoot poachers: on sight, without offering any warning. And when they shoot, it is not to scare or intimidate, but to kill. It is actually humans hunting other humans, legally. Poachers and rangers alike have been slain since Kenya first put its wildlife under such protection. The KWS would prefer to arrest and prosecute poachers, and frequently does, though more extreme measures have been deemed justifiable on some occasions.
How could a policy like this possibly be justified? you might wonder. This strong policy is based on Kenyans reaching a simple realization, in two parts: first, that Kenyan elephants, zebras, giraffes, lions, leopards, cheetahs, crocodiles, wildebeests, warthogs, rhinoceri, buffalo, hippopotami, various species of antelopes, and other “game” species are literally worth more, financially, alive than dead, and second, that the reason they are worth more is because people from other countries are willing to pay to visit Kenya for the specific purpose of seeing these creatures in their own habitats, bringing much needed wealth into the country by doing so.
Thus, there is no more legal trade in that nation in animal pelts, or horns, or, in the case of the elephants, in ivory. When the poaching policy was first instituted, the KWS invited CNN, the BBC, and the other major international news media to broadcast a live burning of millions of dollars worth of elephant tusks, to show that the organization was serious. That ivory could have been sold through illicit markets. It could have been turned into a hard currency, like dollars or euros or yen, which might have gone quite a long way in a country which is considered part of the “third world.”
So why would I share such a story with those of you who have already indicated at least a passing interest in Alaska’s wolves? I am not actually recommending that Alaska adopt a similar no-holds-barred approach to poaching intervention (although one might imagine that poaching would dry up rather quickly if we did, and yes, poaching does occur in Alaska). The reason for such an extreme measure is that a nation like Kenya is rather financially poor, and it needs the hard currencies brought in by visitors who are able to spare their disposable income on wildlife interests, while Alaska is instead part of the world’s wealthiest nation.
Rather, I relate the background of the KWS to point out one key detail: in Alaska, “our” wildlife is likewise worth more alive than dead. And this means all of it, not just the bears, or the moose, or the caribou, or the marine mammals, or the eagles and fish, but the wolves as well. With that in mind, there is an essential principle at work here which must be reiterated, since it keeps being ignored or glossed over by politics and the taking of sides, and which is non-economic even though it has economic considerations. The principle is this: an ecosystem must have predators.
No, it is not inherently desirable or undesirable to have predators, whether you happen to love or hate the individual species which hunt. Our individual wishes are wholly irrelevant here, so it bears repeating one more time: an ecosystem must have predators. They exist to keep prey species healthy. Prey species outnumber predators by huge ratios, typically about 400 to 1 among the larger animals, and when their populations are unchecked, they have a troubling propensity to reproduce at extreme rates, whether they are hares, fish, moose, or caribou.
Is that principle proving difficult to believe? Here is another case in point, from America’s own Yellowstone National Park, which became famous (again) in late 1995 for the reintroduction of gray wolves, which had been captured in various parts of northwestern Canada. This was an attempt to reintroduce an extirpated species, and the problem was that the Park had a history of poor decisions. This was the first national park, in any nation, and no one was really quite sure of how to proceed. The only general mandate was to preserve its natural beauty for human visitors, but no one really understood how to accomplish this.
People liked seeing the elk and bison, so the park managers opted to kill off the wolves and bears, as well as disallow Native American hunting rights. But then the elk increased in such numbers, with no checks, that they consumed all the vegetation they could reach, including the trees used by the beavers. The beavers, in turn, were the ones managing the lakes and streams in the park, and when their trees were gone, so were they. And when these water managers were gone, the native fish populations dried up. Then there were problems with trying to reintroduce fish, as non-indigenous species were sometimes used, which competed with native species.
And finally, there was also a policy of total fire prevention, before park managers comprehended that occasional fires are actually necessary to wooded ecosystems, and if they are not allowed to burn periodically, they will eventually burn anyway and then burn so hot that the ground is likely to be sterilized, turning the area into a wasteland which can last for centuries.
Even this more recent Yellowstone wolf project has not been without its difficulties and controversies. Rabies afflicted one pack and its remaining members had to be killed. The state of Wyoming came close to deciding the project was more trouble than it could ever be worth, but Canada would not have the wolves returned, so the wolves would have all been hunted down and exterminated. Fortunately for the wolves, public outcry was sufficient to let them remain, where they have continued to thrive, as well as bring in visitors and their money who wish to specifically try and see them. And the other Yellowstone species have also thrived since the wolves were reintroduced. Raptors and coyotes often finish off the remains of wolf kills, and the weak, old, sick, and injured members of the bison and elk and deer herds are being thinned out, which is precisely how an ecosystem is supposed to work.
This example of Yellowstone Park reveals something else, which some are likely to find disturbing or frustrating. I’m entitled to hate wolves, you might say, or equally entitled to love them. Are you indeed? After all, in a democratic tradition, do we not all have the right to our own opinions? Actually, the truth is, no, we do not. Opinions must be earned, else they are empty, meaningless, illogical, and mere ego defenses. If you truly have a right to an opinion, then you are able to give plausible reasons for holding it. It does not mean you are automatically right or wrong; it simply means you have done your homework about the information leading to that opinion. That is what having a right means: that you have traded something in order to receive the object of that right. Opinions in fact entail responsibilities.
So, if you are going to institute a plan which kills wolves, then you are logically, legally, and morally required to supply plausible reasons for doing so, else your policy is based on nothing but empty words. Prior to the wolf reintroduction, the misguided policies described above in reference to Yellowstone were examples of such empty words. The park managers felt they had the right to their opinions, which led them to believe they had the right to behave in certain ways pertaining to the park. They may not have intended to do wrong; indeed, they may have genuinely believed their decisions would help, but you can assess the effects and consequences for yourself.
And finally, we reach the Alaskan wolves themselves, and those who both love and hate them. And it’s essential to remember here that loving, like democracy, requires active participation, while hating, though simple, is always destructive, as well as an interference with long-term plans. Simply put, hunting creatures which are not even responsible for the problems they are accused of perpetuating is an act of cowardice as well as unfounded hatred. However, it is equally cowardly to sit at home and pretend that problems do not exist when they in fact do.
Strong words, these are: fightin’ words. And that is the point: there is a time for diplomacy and education, and another time when you might have to yell and express anger. There is no such thing as “balance” in the natural world, any more than there is within human societies. Species thrive, evolve, and get replaced by other species. So do societies. Individuals attempt to thrive on a smaller scale. But the conflict never ends. There is no perfect hunter’s paradise, in Alaska or anywhere else. The moose and caribou do not sit around waiting to be shot; they go about their lives, and the survival struggle continues. And what affects the populations of prey species, everywhere in the world, are, in order: weather, human interference, andpredation.
It is virtually always in that order. A colder winter in Alaska will automatically kill off the weaker, sicker, older, and injured caribou and moose, which in turn will automatically reduce wolf numbers, since those are precisely the prey animals the wolves are able to catch; carrion itself occurs for typically one half to two thirds of the diets of wolves. And when environmental factors improve, so will birth rates, of all species within an ecosystem. Human interference is likewise the second most influential factor: development and hunting and trapping make the lives of wildlife that much trickier. And finally, predation enters the arena, and the predators account for fewer kills than either weather or human encroachment. These fundamental rules apply regardless of individual regions or carrying capacities.
In other words, it is illogical, unfair, and unscientific to blame wolves or any other species for recent drops in prey populations in certain Alaskan Game Management Units when it is actually a combination of weather and over-hunting by humans which has caused the drops. To blame anyone other than the guilty for a problem is part of what leads to the charge of cowardice. The other part of that charge comes from the simple fact that it takes no courage at all to fire a gun at a creature which cannot fire a gun back, or to poison it or trap it. Hunting is not a “sport;” it can be done responsibly, it can be done for legitimate subsistence reasons, or it can be done to simply satisfy a human ego or as a method of finding a convenient scapegoat. Only the first two of these four reasons can ever be reasonably judged as acceptable.
It can be argued that Alaskans tend to oppose the hunting of wolves when they are targeted from aircraft, and that they are also tend to voice opposition to the trapping of wolves and other species, for reasons ranging from social to moral to economic to political. Twice now, Alaskan voters have specifically voted against aerial hunting, for example, though the last time this issue appeared on a local ballot measure things might have changed somewhat (though I shall consider the exact wording of this most recent proposal a bit later). So on the surface, this seems a healthy indication of the requisite democratic participation referred to earlier. Regardless of potential political involvement and ballot measures, however, there is a highly disturbing question in the wake of this thought: what do the participants do when their democratic participation is thwarted, and when their interests and preferences and wishes are nullified by selfishness and mismanagement?
The answer is: they make noise. They protest and they write and communicate and they become a sufficient nuisance until better actions and policies are adopted. And the price of living in a democratic nation is the simple recognition that this never ends. It is analogous to the lack of balance and harmony in the wilderness: a democratic group does not just thrive on conflict, it actually needs it for its very survival. Think back to the backlash from around the world when folks started boycotting Alaska, largely for how its wolf population was being treated. Then consider that you are quite misinformed if you believe Alaska does not depend on outside money for its continued economic survival.
Yes, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could be drilled, and yes, there is still gold in those hills, and Alaska’s resources have tremendous potential in terms of buying power. But the human world has drastically shrunk, and the economic interrelatedness within our own nation and among all nations has correspondingly increased. In other words, boycotts and “buycotts” matter, and they are once again lurking beyond our borders. The latter is a newer term, specifying that rather than simply disdain a region or state or country, morally minded shoppers might instead opt to patronize only those local businesses engaged in what the shoppers regard as justifiable practices. Recent Alaskan examples include pilots offering “flightseeing” trips but refusing to transport trophy hunters, or cruise ship companies which can document cleaner practices regarding their handling of waste, dealing with it in a manner other than dumping into local waters. Despite the economic and social stereotypes, there are in fact very few Alaskan human residents who genuinely live off the land; we have supermarkets and shopping centers just like the rest of the wealthy nations. Granted, Alaska is not so desperate for cash that it will have to resort to practices like the wildlife managers in Kenya, but the world is still watching nonetheless. What is shared in common with Kenya, however, is that the wildlife in Alaska is literally worth more alive than dead. Our actions and decisions do have consequences.
Earlier versions of this article have been sent on prior occasions to the Alaska Governor’s Office, as well as to the Board of Game, and have received nothing more than generic electronic acknowledgement of receipt. And now, in addition to economic concerns, the Board of Game has also the responsibility to face up to the fact that both their plans are of highly dubious legality and morality. It is that simple: Alaska’s voters have repeatedly said no to aerial wolf hunts, and people outside have repeatedly expressed their outrage over our misguided policies, including injunctions against some of them. So how exactly does the Board of Game expect the rest of us to follow its rules and to respect it as an organization when it continually refuses to listen to anyone else? Are the Board’s members ever bothered by questions of legality, morality, finance, and obligation to the public? Those of us on the outside have no reason to believe so. Their ambiguous claims within their own literature confirm this. Their brochure, published in June, 2008, at “$0.08” per copy, contains numerous logical concerns. The opening page mentions “predator control” itself: what exactly is this practice? Are predators expected to alter their behavior to please humans? Are their populations allegedly being controlled somehow, even this is a biologically impossibility, as all species seek to reproduce. A vague idea can hardly serve as the foundation of a public policy.
The second paragraph, explaining “different strategies” of predator control, commits a fallacy known as rationalization: telling readers that “it is not expected that one single management approach will satisfy everyone” is a hopeless attempt to justify whatever claim comes next, and is also patronizing.
The next paragraph is no better: if the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is dedicated to “healthy caribou and moose populations and healthy wolf and bear populations,” (italics theirs), then how does the organization plan to accomplish this? Based on the rest of the brochure, this can only be interpreted as a contradiction, since nowhere is there any explanation of what “healthy populations” of any of these four species entails. What numbers are involved in such a detailed question, and how much do such data vary in different parts of Alaska, depending upon key issues like carrying capacity?
The brochure folds out to reveal numerous other faulty claims. “Reducing hunting” cites the possibility of “hunting pressure” perhaps being “the cause of the decline” (of a prey species), but nowhere is it explained how such hunting pressure is determined, and whether or not it is therefore justifiable. Also within the interior of the brochure are more vague terms: “increased numbers of moose or caribou,increased harvest by humans, and viable populations of wolves and bears” (italics again theirs) may sound emotionally appealing, but are in fact ambiguous. What constitutes increased or viable numbers, and how do such data vary among different parts of the state? The Department indicates also that one of the ways for “control” to succeed includes the criterion that “harvest by humans must be reduced or eliminated,” but is this human harvest of prey species or predators? If it refers to prey species, then the message contradicts the rest of the tone of the brochure, since the object is allegedly to in fact increase harvesting by humans. If it instead refers to predators, then how are predators being “controlled” if their harvest by humans must be lessened?
A tradition is not an argument; when used as part of an argument, it is always and automatically a fallacy, be definition, nullifying the argument itself. Harvesting wild game within Alaska, as the brochure also mentions, is indeed a strong tradition, but citing it as such misses the point: defining anything as a tradition is an attempt to justify its continuance under any circumstances, essentially claiming that the ends justify the means. If a tradition entails undesirable or irrational behaviors and decisions, then there exists a logical obligation to modify the tradition.
On the final page of this highly dubious brochure, it is explained that wolves and bears “may kill up to 80% of the moose and caribou that die each year.” This ignores some facts which are at least as important in understanding predator-prey relationships. First, those prey species so killed are the weak, old, infirm, or ill individuals whose culling helps to keep the overall population of a prey species healthy; this is in fact, again, why predators exist and are necessary. Also, this passage fails to point out that the single biggest affecting factors of prey species are, to review, weather, human interference, and predation.
Finally, in the most disturbing passage of all, the Board claims on this final page that “predator control is not hunting.” This is clearly untrue. It might not qualify as recreational hunting or subsistence hunting or trophy hunting, but hunting it is, since its purpose is to pursue and kill (and it is definitely trophy hunting when bounties are involved, since trophy evidence must be collected and presented to redeem the bounties). Even worse, the claim that “fair chase ethics do not apply” gives the distinct impression that the Board is somehow qualified to determine what is and what is not ethical. Do any of the board members possess ethical training? Have they taken ethics courses? The University of Alaska at Anchorage offers ethics certification through the philosophy department; perhaps the board members would benefit from such education. Simply claiming that a person somehow knows what is right or wrong is an extremely dangerous precedent, with moral nihilism the only likely logical implication.
I also mentioned I would return to the words of the most recent ballot measure, appearing also in 2008 among three other contentious issues facing Alaska voters. The measure was to permit same-day aerial hunting of wolves (and brown bears) when the “Commissioner of Fish and Game” (no other individuals or agencies are mentioned) finds an “emergency,” defined in the electoral literature as either (or both) species “causing a decline in prey.” It also emphasizes that only the “minimum number” of either species are to be killed in order to “stop the emergency.” In the subsequent explanatory sections, the emergency is clarified as a “biological emergency” (as opposed to non-biological ones, readers may suppose), in which a lack of “correction” (sufficient numbers of wolves or bears are killed) may lead to an “irreversible” decline in such prey species.
As with the Fish and Game brochure, this seemingly simple ballot paragraph and its supporting pages have serious problems. First, the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game may or may not be a biologist, or ethicist, or envirionmental planner, but in fact has the job due to a political appointment. Consequently, granting such powers to a person who may wholly lack the expertise to make the best judgment in this case is inherently concerning.
Second, while the power to implement the policy may appear to rest in this one individual, how exactly is a “biological emergency” determined, both to exist and, perhaps even more importantly in this case, to have ended? Human hunters complaining about difficulty in finding prey targets cannot claim there is a biological emergency; there may be other reasons why prey was more challenging to secure, including timing, location, weather, and the abilities of the hunters themselves. Are biologists then to determine such a state? This might seem the case, since this is after all an alleged “biological” emergency, but even then, when are the scientists consulted, and under what circumstances, and how are even they to determine when the alarm has sounded long enough? That there is no mention of such critical topics in the ballot measure is even more troubling.
Third, it is extremely arrogant to proclaim that anyone can know, regardless of their own background, experience, and education, exactly when a biological change, such as an “irreversible decline” in prey species, has in fact taken place. At the very least, the species would need to be specified, and then, if it lives in multiple locations, then each would have to be considered, since such a seemingly drastic decline in one area may or may not be correlated with declines in the others. It is known that some species, including moose and brown bears, are slower to recover depleted numbers, simply due to their social structure and fewer numbers of offspring. Pack and herd animals, meanwhile, including wolves and caribou and humans, are capable of recovering depleted numbers quickly. Yet the question still must be addressed: how do we ever know when a depletion is “irreversible?” Perhaps it was supposed to be so in the case of Yellowtone National Park again and its wolf population, yet that alleged irreversibility has in fact been reversed. Whether it happens artificially due to human intervention (as with the Yellowstone wolves) or naturally due to species displacement, describing anything of biological significance as permanent presumes a tremendous wealth of information that human decision-makers cannot hope to possess at any one time. The issue is even further complicated by the problem of trying to determine what the “minimum number” of wolves or bears or both to be killed has to be to try and prevent this allegedly irreversable problem. How much of a population of any species should exist in a given area anyway? Should carrying capacity for that species in that area always be maximized, even though such capacites vary seasonally and it is even more difficult to ascertain in the case of species which are highly mobile? Again, the superficiality of the proposed ballot measure leaves major questions unanswered, and it is the intent of this essay to point out that there is far more to this issue than personal feelings or voting records.
An overall argument, then, building from several premises and leading to an inescapable conclusion, runs as follows, and it stands on its own merit with or without any consideration of the various errors contained within the Board of Fish and Game’s recent efforts to justify their highly dubious actions. Alaskan voters have already indicated a lack of interest in what is loosely known as predator control. Voices from the outside have similarly indicated displeasure with such actions, and despite emotional local cries telling the “outsiders” to keep their views to themselves, it is truly wishful thinking (another logical fallacy) to believe that Alaska can survive without external revenue, and potential visitors remain free to take their travel money elsewhere. The third premise is the scientific one: the aforementioned biological necessity (as opposed to desirability either way) of predators. A fourth premise simply states that shifting the blame to predators in cases where humans have in fact been the primary responsible parties for declines in prey availability is not just unfair but also logically contradictory, a cheap effort to keep our own hands proverbially (and perhaps literally) clean. And finally, the moral component would remind readers that using a scapegoat in such a manner amounts to unjustified revenge, a reminder of the earlier charge of cowardice within this essay.
Now, if one bears in mind that the purpose of an argument is to use logic and reason to prove something, I welcome any and all challengers to undermine the strength and necessary truth of the argument I have hereby detailed. It has plenty of support, in the form of its various premises; even eliminating a single one of them leaves the others intact, and this irrational practice of “predator control” would still have nothing upon which to stand. It fails due to each of these premises: political, economic, scientific, logical, and moral reasons as summarized above. Taken as a whole, the entire question becomes logically meaningless; there is no rational way to justify this practice.
It has never been a question of wolves being able to live near humans. They can do that, and they continue to prove their hardiness and adaptability. They still live in Finland, the Russian Federation, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany, France, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Bulgaria, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Mongolia, China, Iran, Iraq, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Syria, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Canada, and all of the northern United States. This is quite a mix of rich nations and poor, developed and underdeveloped, politically stable and politically questionable, and the wolves manage in all of them.
So it is, instead, a question of how close humans are willing to live to wolves. Thank you for spending a few minutes with me. I do believe that individuals not just can, but actually do, make a difference. Change begins in small doses.
“People do not like to think. If one thinks, one must reach conclusions. Conclusions are not always pleasant.” - activist Helen Keller -
“The greatest service that you can do for mankind is to expose hypocrisy, question authority, and blow the whistle. There are punishments for those who participate in them. But it takes no courage at all to give your name or your money to the symphony orchestra. If you really want to make a difference, stand up for an unpopular cause.” - actor Edward Asner -
“The question is not, can they reason, nor, can they talk, but, can they suffer?”
- philosopher Jeremy Bentham -
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be measured by the way in which its animals are treated.” - activist Mahatma Gandhi -
Edwin Wollert has served as Education Coordinator for Wolf Song of Alaska since April, 2000, and has offered talks and presentations to thousands of audience members of all ages. These listeners have included students as young as five, visitors from other states and other countries, wildlife biologists, teachers, politicians, attorneys, hunters, ecologists, trappers, environmentalists, wolf-lovers and wolf-haters. Mr. Wollert also teaches philosophy at the University of Alaska at Anchorage and Matanuska-Susitna College, and is currently back in graduate school studying history. Within Alaska, he formerly worked as a secretary and technician in the Emergency Department at Alaska Regional Hospital, and also as a CPR and first aid instructor for Respond Systems. He is also the author of the novels Dreamers of the Grail and Packs.
Link, Mike, and Crowley, Kate. Following the Pack: the World of Wolf Research. Stillwater, MN: Voyageur Press, 1994.
McIntyre, Rick, ed. War Against the Wolf: America’s Campaign to Exterminate the Wolf. Stillwater, MN: Voyageur Press, 1995.
Mech, L. David, and Boitani, Luigi. Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Mech, L. David, et. al. The Wolves of Denali. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.
Rearden, Jim. The Wolves of Alaska: a Fact-based Saga. Missoula, MT: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 2002.
“Understanding Intensive Management and Predator Control in Alaska,” Division of Wildlife Conservation of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, June 2008.
Walker, John Frederick. Ivory’s Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2009.
Wolves, Bears, and their Prey in Alaska: Biological and Social Challenges in Wildlife Management. Washington: National Research Council, 1997.
Edwin Wollert teaches philosophy at the University of Alaska at Anchorage. He tells his students on the first day of each semester in every course he teaches that his job through the university consists of helping them to become better thinkers. That's it, he informs them: the full extent of his job description, and the field of philosophy is simply his chosen venue for helping undergraduates acquire the most important skill of them all: the ability to think rationally. And in his studies of philosophy, he is often returning to the ancient Greeks, the creators of the first systematic rational philosophies as well as of the world's earliest known democratic society, and there are some basic considerations in that part of history which are really the topic of this latest work for the Wolf Song of Alaska web site.