Op-Ed: What We Learned From Living With Wolves for 6 Years

Documentarians Jim and Jamie Dutcher say that America’s renewed wolf hunts must end.

In this 1996 photograph, Jamie Dutcher socializes with the alpha male of The Sawtooth Pack in the Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho. (Photo: Jim & Jamie Dutcher/National Geographic/Getty Images)


Feb 4, 2013· 2 MIN READ

A war on wolves is raging in the American West.

From a population that stood at 1,700 wolves just 17 months ago, hunters and trappers have killed over 1,000 wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. A person with a hunting and a trapping license can kill up to 16 wolves in a single season. At this rate the vast majority of the wolves of the American West will be wiped out within two years.

Why should we treat wolves, the wild brothers of our dogs, with such hostility?

It was less than two years ago that most of the wolves in the West lost their federal protection. The U.S. Congress allowed one senator from Montana to attach language to the national budget bill that stripped wolves of their endangered species status. For the first time ever, a species was removed from the list of endangered species by lawmakers. Politics trumped science and the management of wolves was turned over to the individual states.

After their successful reintroduction to the American West as an endangered species 18 years ago, scientific studies in Yellowstone Park have shown wolves to be widely beneficial to ecosystems, revitalizing the landscape in ways never imagined.

Genetically and emotionally, these are the same animals as our own family dogs. Wolves depend on each other for survival and companionship. They live in “packs,” which are families usually consisting of parents, brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles. Wolves are intelligent and highly social animals, very much like elephants, dolphins, gorillas and whales. We have altered our treatment of these other animals in recognition of their intelligence and their highly social nature. Why should we treat wolves, the wild brothers of our dogs, with such hostility?

We lived among a wolf pack for six years, studied them, produced television documentaries and wrote books about them. Over the six years of the Sawtooth Wolf Project, we observed a broad range of personalities, each wolf filling a different familial niche. Each relationship between two wolves was unique and every personality lent itself to a different role: leader, pup sitter, pup playmate, bully, clown, scapegoat.

Some relationships were contentious and challenging with regular displays of dominance. But alliances and cooperation were just as common. One wolf took it upon himself to protect the omega, frequently stepping in to disrupt aggression being directed at the pack’s most submissive member. There were surrogate parents that would care for the alpha female—the breeding female’s—pups as if they were their own. When a pack member died, all the wolves were visibly affected, seemingly mourning the death of a family member for six weeks, before returning to normal pack behavior. All of these are examples of a highly social animal. Compassion, affection, play and competition were part of their daily interactions.

But wolves once again face persecution, supported by false claims and blatant lies of those who want to eradicate wolves as if they were vermin. Brutal steel jaw traps and noose-like snares are allowed. In Idaho, wolf trappers have been given access to the wolf’s Achilles Heel. Trappers can bait their traps with the skinned out carcass of a wolf to lure in the remaining pack members. This approach uses the animal’s strongest social attribute against them: Their innate and undeniable compassion for the members of their family. And even the gassing of pups in their dens has been proposed.

Unfortunately, at the state level, politically entrenched, vocal and powerful hunting and ranching interest groups have had everything to do with influencing state management. Locally, where wolves were reintroduced, an aggressive multifaceted misinformation campaign has been raging. Wolves became the enemy.

For the last five years, we have dedicated our lives to building a nonprofit organization, Living with Wolves. Our work is dedicated to the specific subject where we know we can make a real difference: the protection of wolves.

We work to combat false claims with science, personal experience and facts that lead to effective, strategic achievements. Our timely and powerful new book, The Hidden Life of Wolves, will be published by National Geographic on February 5, 2013. It looks at wolves through a new lens and it sets the record straight.