The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to delist gray wolves nationwide is flawed because it's based on the total number of wolves, a statistical approach that, according to wolf biologist Gordon Haber, is "ecological nonsense."
Haber spent over 43 years observing Alaska's wild wolves, mostly in Denali National Park, before dying in a plane crash while tracking wolves. To locate wolves, he snowshoed, skied and flew in winter; he backpacked and hiked in summer. He endured temperatures 50 below zero, blizzards, thunderstorms, mosquitoes, and the risk of grizzly and moose attacks. Few modern biologists have such unassailable experiential authority.
Haber's take-home message was this: You can't manage wolves by the numbers. You can't count the number of wolves in an area and decide whether it's a "healthy" population, because what really counts is the family group, or pack, as some still call it.
"Wolves are perhaps the most social of all nonhuman vertebrates," wrote Haber. "A 'pack' of wolves is not a snarling aggregation of fighting beasts, each bent on fending only for itself, but a highly organized, well-disciplined group of related individuals or family units, all working together in a remarkably amiable, efficient manner."
Haber devoted his career to studying intact family groups, especially the Toklat wolves of Alaska. First made famous by Adolph Murie's 1944 The Wolves of Mount McKinley, the Toklats rank with Jane Goodall's chimpanzees as the two longest-studied mammal social groups in the wild.
Wolves go to great lengths to stay with family; when important members are lost, families can disintegrate and remaining individuals often die. Haber knew this firsthand after an alpha female wolf, who, after her mate was killed in a botched government darting study, died of starvation, alone. Relocated wolves travel hundreds of miles to return home. And the first wolf seen in California in 90 years, OR7, has never stopped moving: He's searching for a mate, for family.
Left unexploited (that is, not killed) by humans, wolves develop societies that are astonishingly complex and beautifully tuned to their precise environment. Once, Haber observed the Toklat wolves moving their den because heavy winter snow had decimated the moose population; a week before pupping, the wolves shifted to another den closer to caribou. He also recorded unique hunting methods, among them moose hunting by the Savage River family that he called "storm-and-circle."
Family groups develop unique and highly cooperative pup-rearing and hunting techniques that amount to cultural traditions, though these take generations to mature and can be lost forever if the family disintegrates. After the entire Savage River family was shot illegally in the winter of 1982-'83, Haber never saw the storm-and-circle technique again.
A healthy wolf population is more than x number of wolves inhabiting y square miles of territory. The notion that we can "harvest" a fixed percentage of a wolf population corresponding to natural mortality rates and still maintain a viable population misses the point. According to Haber, it's not how many wolves you kill, it's which wolves you kill.
Natural losses typically take younger wolves, whereas hunting and trapping take the older and more experienced wolves. These older wolves are essential because they know the territory, prey movements, hunting techniques, denning sites, pup rearing—and because they are the breeders. Haber observed this many times: Whenever an alpha wolf was shot or trapped, it set off a cascade of events that left most of the family dead and the rest scattered, rag-tag orphans.
It happened again in April 2012. A trapper dumped his horse's carcass along the Denali National Park boundary, surrounded it with snares, and killed the pregnant alpha female of the most-viewed wolf group in Denali. With her death, the family group had no pups, and it disintegrated, shrinking from 15 to three wolves. That summer, for hundreds of thousands of park visitors, wolf-viewing success dropped by 70 percent.
This is not unique to Alaska. In 2009, Yellowstone National Park's Cottonwood group disappeared after losing four wolves to hunting, including both alphas. In 2013, the park's Lamar Canyon family group splintered when the alpha female—nicknamed "rock star"was shot.
So it's never about numbers. It's about family. A wolf is a wolf when it's part of an intact, unexploited family group. Wolves are no longer endangered when these groups have permanent protection, and when we manage according to this essential functional unit. If we leave wolves alone, we'll be the ones to benefit.
The government has extended the comment period for delisting gray wolves from Endangered Species Act protection to Dec. 17, 2013. Go to regulations.gov and click on Gray wolf: Docket N. (FWS-HQ-ES-2013-0073).
Marybeth Holleman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). With Gordon Haber, she is the author of Among Wolves: Gordon Haber's Insights into Alaska's Most Misunderstood Animal. She also runs the blog Art and Nature (artandnatureand.blogspot.com) and lives in Anchorage, Alaska.