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Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?

A profile image of a reddish-brown wolf with piercing, golden eyes and its head tilted ever-so-slightly down.
Photo: Seth Bynum, PDZA

There is perhaps no other animal with whom humans have had a more complicated relationship than the wolf. We often struggle to define wolves beyond knee-jerk epithets like “evil and blood-thirsty,” but these archetype descriptions are really the emotional response to how we understand our connection and relationship with wildness, with which we are often at odds. To an immeasurable extent, such ill-conceived perceptions have informed the way we manage, advocate, and conserve species today.

The Ancient Myth of the Big, Bad Wolf

Thousands of years ago, the wolf posed a real threat to humans’ survival, as people huddled around campfires, surrounded by wilderness. It was only Nature taking its course when wolves attacked humans, but from these early altercations, humans developed defensive mechanisms.

“We know very little about the wolf. What we know a good deal more about is what we imagine the wolf to be.” – Barry Holstun Lopez, Of Wolves and Men

Wolves began showing up in ancient myths, usually as the villain in important cautionary tales that warned humans to stay far away from wolves and kill any that happened to cross their paths. From Aesop’s Fables to the Brothers Grimm, wolves have come to be associated with a devil in disguise, a trickster, or an insatiable murderer. For centuries, we have told wide-eyed children that if they aren’t careful, the wolf will eat Grandma and then eat them, too. So, it isn’t surprising that the archetype of the “Big, Bad Wolf” has stood the test of time.

Even the Bible contains 13 references to wolves, mostly as metaphors for greed, destruction, and evil. Probably most well-known is the concept of a wolf in sheep’s clothing in Matthew 7:15, which admonishes against false prophets by comparing them to “ravening wolves.” In a slight twist to this tradition, Saint Francis of Assisi is said to have befriended the Wolf of Gubbio, only after the wolf had ravaged the town’s livestock and people. Nevertheless, the concept of a fearsome predator persists to this day.

A large figure of a woman dressed in flowing white robes hovers above the land, which is dotted with early pioneers, wagons and horses heading toward the darkened left side of the frame, in which lie Native Americans and wolves.
American Progress, 1872. The wolf faces increasing threats from encroaching settlers fulfilling the spirit of Manifest Destiny. Painting: John Gast

These cultural perceptions of the Big, Bad Wolf can be found in nearly every continent where wolves have existed, though they took on profound implications in the 18th and 19th centuries in North America. As pioneers advanced into Western wilderness in fulfilment of Manifest Destiny, the wolf became entangled with the hostility these settlers encountered, both from the land and the Native American tribes they met. In the famous painting of Manifest Destiny, we see land, Native Americans, and wolves shrouded in darkness, alluding to the imminent divine right of pioneers to “civilize” and “domesticate” this hostile land.

And so they did. The eradication campaigns against wolves during this time period are not only unimaginable, but certainly incalculable. Between shooting, trapping, and poisoning, an untold number of wolves and other wildlife were decimated. Adding insult to injury, as wildlands were converted to agriculture, wolves were pushed out of their habitats, creating even more human-wildlife conflict as wolves encroached on human territory to try to find food, mates and water. With a loss in their prey base, wolves turned to livestock for survival—hurting early settlers’ livelihoods and reinforcing the idea that wolves are evil and must be destroyed.

After Near Eradication Came Protection

It is no surprise then that by the 20th century, apex predators like the wolf had been almost entirely eradicated from the Lower 48. But this is where things get interesting. By the 1970s, environmentalism enjoyed huge popularity in American history, and with the trend toward conservation came sweeping legislation to protect the air, water, land, and species of our nation.

At the same time, scientists foretold the coming extinction of one species in particular—the red wolf (Canis rufus). The red wolf is of particular note because it is the all-American wolf, having only ever existed within the bounds of the United States.

Identifying a small red wolf population along the border of Texas and Louisiana, scientists took drastic action to save the charismatic carnivore: They captured every remaining red wolf in the wild and began breeding them in captivity. They believed this was the only way to save the red wolf from extinction and hoped that eventually they could reintroduce a population back into the wild.

In 1987, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did just that. Choosing a complex of wildlife refuges in coastal North Carolina (selected for several reasons, including that it was part of the wolves historical range, the large amount of protected land and no occurrence of coyotes), 14 wolves were released into the wild.

A mean opens the carrier, and a wolf emerges onto the grass.
A USFWS scientist releases a red wolf into the recovery area. Photo: USFWS

This was the first time humanity had ever attempted to reintroduce a top carnivore back onto the landscape. Red wolf reintroduction was groundbreaking—paving the way for more famous reintroductions like the gray wolf in Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and serving as a model across the globe.

Other innovative research, including pup fostering (releasing captive wolf puppies directly into the care of wild wolf mothers who had litters of their own) and coyote place-holder-based management (sterilizing and releasing coyotes in territories with less risk of hybridization), was founded because of this program, which became the shining example of American commitment to conserve and preserve our natural heritage. From a founding population of just 14 wolves, the reintroduced red wolf population grew to 130 individuals by 2006. It was a resounding success story.

Short-Lived Success

As the red wolf population peaked, however, a few anti-wolf advocates began a very effective campaign against the recovery program. Starting in online hunting forums, they slowly unrolled a campaign of misinformation against the red wolf, asserting that ravenous, bloodthirsty wolves were decimating wildlife, among other ideas.

We know from our own field studies that this narrative is simply not true—despite the presence of red wolves, the recovery area is still full of white-tailed deer, bobcats, black bears, otters, raccoons, turtles, snakes, and many, many more species.

This black and white photo shows two men kneeling in front of several wolf hides, hung from the ceiling.
The January catch of Forest Service hunter T.B. Bledsaw, Kaibab National Forest, circa 1914. Photo: Arizona Historical Society

But in an era where truth is often blended with lies, this mantra against the wolf gained traction among rural populations in North Carolina. Soon, illegal shooting became one of the major reasons for mortality among the wild red wolf population. The idea of “SSS”—shoot, shovel, and shut up—became a dark reminder of old eradication programs. According to these anti-wolf advocates, red wolves were evil and should be destroyed at all costs.

In 2011, the invasive coyote, by then firmly established in every county of North Carolina (including within the red wolf recovery area), threatened the red wolf population with more than just hybridization: To manage the growing coyote population, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission decided to allow nighttime hunting of coyotes, including in the 5 counties where red wolves were supposed to be protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Conservationists were justifiably concerned about how this rule would negatively affect red wolves since it is very difficult to differentiate between the red wolf and coyote. The two animals have similar appearances, though red wolves are typically bigger. At night, it would be almost impossible to positively identify the species before shooting. The nighttime hunting allowance would propel red wolves even further down the road to extinction.

“They were few in number but their voices, screaming for the wolf’s head, were often the loudest, the ones that set the tone at a grange meeting and precipitated the wolf’s extirpation in the lower forty-eight states.” – Barry Holstun Lopez, Of Wolves and Men

When conservationists successfully blocked this attempt to allow nighttime coyote hunting in court, their victory actually added fuel to the fire against the red wolf. Now, in the minds of anti-wolf advocates, the red wolf was not only an evil animal bent on killing other wildlife, it also prevented people from shooting coyotes at night. Ironically enough, the only reason coyotes migrated to the East was because without grey and red wolves dominating the ecosystems, coyotes were able to spread out and fill the wolves’ niches. The red wolves were unfortunately becoming entangled with what the anti-wolf advocates considered government overreach telling them what and when they could hunt.

The Fate of the Red Wolf Is Uncertain

Year after year, the voices of the anti-wolf advocates became louder and the pressure on the USFWS to end the program became so great that by 2015, the agency ended all management activities. Without management interventions to help stabilize the population, the number of red wolves continued to plummet. Today there are only an estimated 40 individuals still trying to eke out an existence, though some believe that number may be even lower.

Now, we await a decision from USFWS on their plans for the Red Wolf Recovery Program. Conservationists are expecting the worst—from possible abandonment of the wild population altogether to merely restricting the population to 1 North Carolina county, which by the agency’s own analysis would lead to extinction in the wild over time.

For those who have followed the story of the red wolf over the years, it is more than upsetting to see this historic program be ripped apart by the cultural manifestations of what we think a wolf is. It is devastating.

TAKE ACTION to Protect the Red Wolf

Often, culture is an iceberg—what we see above the waves is only part of the story, the larger narrative hidden beneath the sea. With the red wolf, we see cries of “Wildlife disaster!” and “Government overreach!” and “Evil and bloodthirsty!” But there is actually so much more at play.

This dark, grainy photo shows a painting of a little girl in a red cloak standing at the foot of a bed with a wolf in it.
Little Red Riding Hood stares at the wolf in her grandmother’s bed. Painting: Fleury Francois Richard, c. 1820

For centuries we have feared the Big, Bad Wolf—even after webecame the top predator. The false narrative of the wolf as the ultimate villain is so ingrained in us that we continue to tell the cautionary tales of Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, and the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing to our children and grandchildren. That the wolf is a symbol of wildness and that wildness is something to be conquered is still a current running through our collective veins.

Cultural perspectives against the red wolf are obviously an oversimplification of the long and complicated story of the animal, but it is a factor nonetheless. And as intractable as behavior change seems to be, we know it is dynamic and can be changed. In addition to stopping the spread of the “Big, Bad Wolf” narrative, we can start by saving the red wolf—our natural heritage, our all-American wolf—from certain extinction.

Contact Your Senators to Save the Red Wolf

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