By Jeremy Berlin
In rural Reserve, New Mexico, children wait for school buses inside boxy, wood-and-mesh structures that look like chicken coops. The "kid cages" are meant as protection from wolves. But are they even necessary?
The issue is part of a long-simmering political debate, which recently came to a boil in the Southwest when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it wants the Endangered Species Act to cover about 75 Mexican wolves in New Mexico and Arizona. That would make it illegal to kill these wolves—a smaller subspecies of gray wolf—and expand the area where they can roam safely.
Conservative groups, which call wolves a threat to humans and livestock alike, say that would be government overreach. Wolf defenders, who cite the fact that no wolf attacks have been documented in New Mexico or Arizona, call the new kid cages a stunt.
To understand the issue on scientific terms, we spoke with Daniel MacNulty, a wildlife-ecology professor at Utah State University who's been studying wolves in Yellowstone National Park for the past 18 years.
Are wolves in the Southwest really a threat to schoolchildren and other humans?
Are they a meaningful threat? No. Is the probability of wolves hurting someone zero? No. Is it close to zero? Yes, very close.
A child in a rural area is more likely to [be hurt or killed in] an incident with an off-road all-terrain vehicle, or in an encounter with a feral dog, or in a hunting accident. There are very, very few instances in North America of wolves hurting anybody, let alone children.
Another thing to keep in mind: Mexican wolves are not very large—they weigh just 60 to 80 pounds. Compare that to wolves up in Yellowstone, which can be upward of 130 pounds. As a result, [Mexican wolves are] more easily intimidated by people, livestock, and wild prey.
So I think people are overreacting here, as is often the case with wolves.
Practically speaking, would those "kid cages" even protect children from wolves?
I've not seen the cages. But wolves are not sharks. Cages are unnecessary because wolves aren't going to be attacking children at the bus stop. The suggestion that they would is fear-mongering and unhinged from the facts.
I think the "kid cages" are a publicity stunt designed to stoke opposition to Mexican wolf recovery in general and to the federal government in particular. Why else would the anti-federalist group Americans for Prosperity be circulating photos and videos of the cages? I would be skeptical of any wolf-related information coming from this organization or its agents.
Why do you think wolves are so often vilified in the popular imagination?
They take things that we value: They kill livestock and pets. They infringe on our sense of safety. The fact that they take things from us creates alarm and exaggerated notions of their power.
Wolves do have the power to kill—there's no question about it. That's how they make a living. But that power is checked by very real biological limits: their skeletal morphology, their behavior, their size, their age—factors that limit their capacity to kill.
For that reason, they're selective about what they kill. They primarily target juvenile livestock, because they're small and they're easy to kill—there's very little risk of being injured in the process. Same with wild prey. They primarily kill fawns and elk calves. And among the adults, they mainly kill the older animals.
When I see wolves in the field, they often run away. The reason is they're intimidated. And that's in Yellowstone. My guess is that Mexican wolves are generally even more intimidated [by people].
Does that change when it's a pack situation, rather than an individual wolf?
There's no data to show it, but I'd say a pack is probably more likely to be bold than an individual. Solitary wolves are fairly easily intimidated.
In terms of hunting, we know from our analyses of packs up in Yellowstone that success at hunting elk peaks at about four [wolves]. In other words, beyond four wolves, each additional wolf doesn't increase the success rate of the pack.
We think the reason for that is that when a pack of ten shows up, they don't all contribute equally to the outcome of the hunt. Only about four of them actually do anything. The rest are there simply to be on hand when a kill is made.
Pack size probably matters most from a social perspective—in terms of wolves' relationship with each other. A bigger pack will overcome a smaller pack in a competition for turf.
What should people do when they encounter wolves?
Encountering wolves in the wild is a thrilling, safe experience. If you're lucky enough to see them without them detecting you, then sit back, relax, and enjoy the opportunity to observe wild wolf behavior. If they detect you first, it's likely they'll run off before you even know it. Wild wolves are generally intimidated by humans.
So how should we think about wolves?
What people have to understand is that wolves do not have supernatural powers. They can't jump over mountain ranges. They can't bring down a moose with a single bite to the neck. They have intrinsic biological limits, which means they have a constrained role on the landscape and in the environment.
People can avoid overreacting to wolves by understanding that the power of wolves is limited. It's as simple as that.