Gray Wolf Comeback Triggers Debate
Gray wolves now number in the thousands after being almost exterminated in the contiguous United States. The species’ growing numbers prompted the Trump administration to propose taking it off the endangered list.
Conservationists estimate there were once about a half million gray wolves (also called timber wolves) in North America. But as human populations grew and spread west, the predatory pack animals threatened ranchers’ livestock. Cows, sheep, and chickens made easy prey, so ranchers and hunters targeted the wolves. Over time, wolf numbers dropped so low that the creature was almost wiped out in the North American wild.
President Theodore Roosevelt was an outdoorsman who loved the wilderness. But even he saw wolves as a threat. He referred in 1902 to the wolf as “the beast of waste and desolation.”
Today, Roosevelt might temper his condemnation. Predators are needed in a balanced ecosystem. Without some wolves in the wild, deer and elk populations can explode. Those herbivores devour too much plant life, leaving land barren. This leads to starvation and soil and water problems. Insect habitat is lost, so fish and birds suffer. God gave the wolf a role, but managing the human and ecological balance is challenging.
Washington state agrees with the proposal to remove the wolf from the endangered species list and lift hunting restrictions. California opposes delisting. Lawmakers in Oregon are divided.
At the center of the debate is the question: Do wolves need more help? Though numbers aren’t large, they may be adequate to sustain the species. Currently, an estimated 6,500 wolves roam Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, the Rocky Mountains, and the Pacific Northwest. Additional wolves inhabit Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maine, Missouri, Ohio, Utah, and Vermont. Oregon had 137 documented wolves at the end of 2018—up 10% over the previous year.
Preserved Ice Age Wolf Head
Scientists in Russia reported in June that they had found the perfectly preserved head of an Ice Age wolf. It was discovered in the Siberian permafrost in the Russian Arctic region of Yakutia. The deep-freeze there kept the head from decaying for thousands of years.
Valery Plotnikov is a researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences. He says the animal lived at the same time as the mammoths. The sub-species, which was about 25% bigger than today’s wolves, became extinct alongside the mammoths.
In the past, scientists had found only Ice Age wolf skulls without tissues or fur remaining. But this head has ears, a tongue, and a perfectly preserved brain.
Wolves in Words
The Apostle Paul long ago warned the Ephesian church, “Fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.” (Acts 20:29) Paul wasn’t talking about canine wolves. He was talking about humans working for the evil one. Real wolves were part of almost everyone’s experience then, since they once inhabited most of the northern hemisphere. That’s not the case today, but still—you don’t have to go far to find a wolf. You’ll likely find one on your bookshelf or in your movie collection.
Writers use wolves as characters that help tell stories or illustrate points. Sometimes in stories, wolves are just wolves. But other times, they represent something larger than themselves.
Wolves in the Word
Throughout scripture, wolves are used symbolically. They help us better understand important Bible themes.
In Matthew 7:15 Christ calls false prophets “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” That’s a vivid picture! Wolves eat sheep. So pretending to be one is a deception—with an evil intent.
Most often, wolves suggest danger. In the Old Testament, enemies described as wolves are fierce and devouring. (Ezekiel 22:27, Zephaniah 3:3) In the New Testament, wolves represent spiritual danger. Christians are lambs “in the midst of wolves” (Matthew 10:16, Luke 10:3) and are warned to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
But after Christ’s return, the world will be sinless. All harm and evil will end. In that day of completed redemption, the wolf will no longer hunt the lamb; the two will graze side by side and even lie down together. (Isaiah 11:6, Isaiah 65:25)
Fictional Wolves in Tales Old and New
In a myth used to explain the founding of Rome, twin brothers Romulus and Remus are royal heirs in a kingdom. They are left to die in the woods by their uncle. He then becomes king. A mother wolf saves the twins who eventually grow up to kill the evil uncle.
This myth shows a positive side of wolves—the careful rearing they give their pups and their loyalty to their pack. That same trait is shown in The Jungle Book. A pack of wolves raises the boy Mowgli. Rather than being depicted as merely bloodthirsty, the wolves’ aggression comes out only when the pack is threatened.
Run into a fairy tale wolf and you know you’re in trouble. Frequently these wolves are tricksters. For instance, in “Little Red Riding Hood,” the wolf deceives Red by dressing up in her grandmother’s clothing. (Sound familiar?)
In Jack London’s novel White Fang, a wolf-dog hybrid is the central character. The dog’s nature—which is mostly wolf—fights against his training. White Fang embodies a big question people always try to answer: Which has more influence, our inborn nature or what we are taught?
As in novels, movie wolves exist to help advance stories. In Old Yeller, a poor family in 19th-century Texas adopts a yellow, thieving dog. Old Yeller becomes a hero after saving the family from a rabid wolf. But Old Yeller gets bitten in the fight. He contracts rabies.
The wolf in Old Yeller acts authentically, but its purpose is to force the family’s oldest son, Travis, into a choice. Travis loves Old Yeller but must shoot him to protect his family. In this act, Travis makes a very hard, mature, and necessary decision.
C.S. Lewis’ book-turned-movie, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, features wolves that side clearly with the White Witch. She represents deep evil in the story. Maugrim the wolf is captain of her secret police. His death at the end of Peter’s sword represents good overcoming evil.
The children’s symphony Peter and the Wolf features a bloodthirsty wolf seeking prey. A narrator tells how brave young Peter catches the wolf before it can eat his friends. Each character is represented by a different musical instrument. French horns sound out the wolf parts. You can listen to Peter and the Wolf online at http://www.archive.org/details/PeterAndTheWolf_753.
Why do you think the composer chose French horns to represent the wolf?