Snakes aren’t the only feared, reviled, and misunderstood animals. Wolves have their antagonists too. Recently, we visited our good friend Dr. Sue Ware in Gardiner, Montana, where she spent a week at the Heritage & Research Center examining wolf skulls.
A forensic anthropologist with a Phd in paleo pathology, Dr. Ware was studying skulls from the offspring of wolves introduced to Yellowstone National Park in the mid 1990s to determine their demise. “Every skull you pick up is a new puzzle,” she said as she fit the canine tooth from one skull into bite marks of another skull. “I love forensics!”
The re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and again in 1996 was so successful that their numbers now need managing. Prolific reproducers, wolves thrive when released, but know no boundaries. Although they thrill Park visitors, wolves can stray from protected land to private ranches and prey on cattle and sheep, leading to conflict and controversy.
While some people promote wolves as natural predators important to the balance of nature, others oppose them as vicious killers that decimate livestock and elk herds. Some portray wolves as cuddly stuffed animals; others declare them butchers. The real work is in the middle.
“Wolves are neither good nor bad,” says Dr. Ware. “They’re wolves, and they do what wolves do.”
Dr. Ware’s work involves analyzing pathology and osteology on wolf skulls and skeletons, working with the wolf recovery program as part of a bigger study of different populations of gray wolves from different sites. “In every one of these sites I have the same predator,” says Dr. Ware, “but their prey is different. I want to see if the injuries are the same or different and who’s getting injured most – male or female.”
So far, Dr. Ware is finding that wolf injuries are essentially the same at each site she studies. “It’s difficult to be a carnivore, especially when you do your entire business with your face,” she says. Dr. Ware plans to use the data to determine if wolves are more crowded, perhaps becoming more aggressive. And her work creates a database for future work for her and other scientists by trying to age and sex wolves by means and measurements other than their teeth.
Wolves and Snakes
As with snakes, a great deal of fear-based ignorance exists about wolves and their place in ecology. And as with snakes, the best way to work with it is to educate about and demonstrate the value of keystone predators such as wolves and snakes. Ranchers, for instance, may lose more animals to blizzards and disease than to wolves. Economy, as well as fear and ignorance, influences many emotions.
“I think the only way we can dispel fear and misunderstanding,” says Dr. Ware, “is to work together. Pathologies are important because we can study it in modern dogs. You can determine sex, age, geographic range, predator/prey interaction, and interaction with nature. Research adds to the bigger picture.”
Wolves are much like people, according to Dr. Ware. “We kill, we have families, we exterminate what we don’t like just as our grandfathers did. That’s where the threat is.”
And so it is with snakes.