The Destruction of Nature: As published in the RANGE magazine Spring 2019 edition
One man boldly makes the case that misguided introduction programs are dooming North America’s wolves
By Marjorie Haun
In 1983, countless moviegoers flocked to see one of the greatest fantasies of the decade, “Never Cry Wolf.” The Disney depiction of Farley Mowat’s purported autobiography, portrayed the wolves he interacted with during a research expedition in the Arctic as docile, benevolent, mouse-eaters. But Mowat’s tale was a fiction, and has since been decried by scientists and wildlife experts alike. Nevertheless, Mowat’s near deification of wolves hoodwinked a generation of North Americans, and drove a spate of uninformed laws and policies with the momentum of blind emotion. Now, more than two decades since the cinematic hoax was pulled on millions, wildlife managers, ranchers, hunters, and property owners are struggling with the consequences of misguided wolf worship, and the dire consequences of their growing dispersion throughout North America.
The research of one man is laying bare another destructive consequence of wolf introduction programs which casts a pall over the future of wolves themselves, and which few others have even considered.
Valerius Geist, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science at the University of Calgary in Alberta, explains, “I’m very much for the real wolf. That is what I’m trying to save. Hybridizing wolves with dogs and coyotes is a way to exterminate the real wolf by destroying its genetics. What is being done with wolves here and in Europe has nothing to do with nature conservation. What the U.S. and the E.U. are doing with legislation is a very expensive, brutal and mindless way to destroy real wolves.”
Valerius, Val to his friends, is hardly anti-wolf. He has in fact taken the bold position that human interference with wolf populations is as destructive to the predators as it to the species upon which they prey. Wolf biology is being fundamentally changed and diluted as these apex predators are planted into “settled landscapes.” As he says, “After the enormous public expenditures to maintain wolves, all the effort and costs are for naught, because in settled landscapes wolves degrade via hybridization with dogs and coyotes into worthless hybrids, that is into coydogs and feral dogs. Settled landscapes remorselessly destroy the real wolf. Wolves cannot be conserved as a species in settled landscapes.”
Val was born in 1938 in Nikolajev, a naval port near the Black Sea, to parents who were both marine architects. Having survived Stalin’s purges, Val lost his father during World War II, and his family fled to Germany as refugees. He describes the events of his early life, “We fled to Germany in 1943, where, as refugees, we were well treated. U.S. troops took our village in 1945, and the GI’s, I am very glad to say, behaved very well. I happened to be ill, and I will never forget their acts of kindness towards a sick child and a frightened mother. We stayed in Germany till 1953 when we immigrated to Canada.” Val’s assimilation in Canada was fostered when he joined the Regina Rifle Regiment, and the veterans who trained him were, as he says, “…exemplary men, and taught me to be a Canadian.”
A voracious reader, Val consumed the works of outdoorsman Jack O’Connor, and the rugged westerners Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway. His fascination with the outdoors and wildlife biology impelled his path in higher learning and he earned his PhD based on the study of mountain sheep, which inspired his first book, “Mountain sheep: A study in Behavior and Evolution.”
While pursuing his studies at the University of British Columbia, Val met his wife, a bacteriologist named Renate, whom he describes as a “beautiful Nordic blonde.” They were married in 1961, and after 53 years of marriage and raising a daughter and son, Val lost his darling to breast cancer. Over the course of years he has published and edited 20 books, including “Condemned to Art and Insanity, Our Natural History” and “Life Strategies, Human Evolution, Environmental Design,” which he calls his most important intellectual works. But far from a heady theoretician, Val is a man of hands-on science, and, having spent two years in isolation while studying Stone’s sheep for his PhD, his understanding of wildlife was formulated in the austere laboratory of the Canadian wilderness.
His first, brutal lessons were learned in southwestern Canada where wolves began to spread during the 1970’s. He says, “When wolves are introduced, they first destroy wildlife. When I worked in Banff National Park in the 1960’s there were about 2,500 elk. After wolves returned in the 1970’s, elk dropped to less than 300. Moreover, elk became invisible as they were not only hiding, but the bulls quit bugling during the rutting season. We have the same silent bull elk on Vancouver Island where I now live, courtesy of wolves, cougars and big black bears.” Val explains that today the moose of Banff have disappeared, due either to regional extinction, or behaviors which keep them hidden at all times.
Val has observed the same patterns in the northern United States. After being introduced into Yellowstone National Park, the wolves proliferated. In short order, the famous northern elk herd plunged from 19,000 to 4,000. According to Val, the elk in Yellowstone would have been wiped out entirely had they not adapted by migrating into private ranches and nearby towns where wolves pose less of a threat.
The altered ecosystems and deviating behavior of prey species came as no surprise to Val, he says, “That’s exactly what elk have been doing in Canadian national parks for ages: go into towns to escape predation. Deer do that also. Currently in western Canada they are doing it on a grand scale and flee into suburbs, farms, hamlets and even into the very core of cities. Deer on Vancouver island are concentrated in human settlements and virtually missing in the vast back-country.”
Vancouver Island provided a microcosm for his research, with ecological dynamics untainted by influences from other ecosystems. As he explains, “Alaska colleagues experimentally released wolves on a coastal island. The wolves exterminated the deer, then tried catching seals, and starved to death. Similarly, Tom Bergerud, the premier caribou biologist on this continent, documented caribou extinctions on islands occupied in the current spread of wolves.”
Wolves are prodigious killers. Research in Yellowstone has shown that wolves kill about 22 elk per wolf per year, and the wolves begin to spread beyond the park once their kill rate declines to 16 elk per wolf per year. But the impact on large grazers goes beyond mere predator and prey scenarios. Wolf-borne diseases are an unnerving specter, and are already laying waste to entire herds in the Mountain West.
In his lectures on wolves, Val is emphatic about the horrific consequences of infection from the Hydatid disease. He describes it as, “a nasty parasitic disease, caused by ingesting the eggs of the dog-tape worm, Echinococcus granulosus. It can be deadly!” This infectious parasite perfectly illustrates disruption to the “settled landscapes” where wolves do not belong. He says, “The danger resides primarily in the family dog getting infected, and then spreading infective tape worm eggs on lawns, driveways, the veranda and in the house.” The threat of transmission of this parasite from wolves to dogs is serious. Vectors can include handling the bodies and furs of infected wolves, or vegetation contaminated with tapeworm eggs from nearby wolf scats. Lawn mowers, hay balers, or even water that has come into contact with wolf scat can cause the eggs to be spread and ingested.
In a deadly cycle, infected elk, moose or deer will carry the cysts filled with tiny tape worm heads, primarily in the lungs and liver, and sometimes in the brain, which is fatal. Infected animals will fall ill and become easy prey for the wolves. The wolves ingest the viscera containing the cysts. Then, masses of tiny eggs will be introduced into the environment via wolf feces. And the cycle begins once more.
Hydatid disease does not discriminate between people who live in the country and those in the suburbs. Any dog can be infected, as Val says, “The primary danger comes from dogs which have fed on infected gut piles. Also from farm and ranch dogs that have found an infected dead elk and fed on its innards. Since in winter elk will seek refuge in suburbs and hamlets, any resident dog finding dead elk is likely to get infected, and infect its owners in turn. In short, any hunting dog or companion dog that finds a dead deer or elk or an infected gut-pile will bring the disease into the home and to the neighborhood of its owner. And that will include school yards. There is also a real danger to ranch families on whose lands infected elk and deer gather to spend the winter and who crowd in about buildings to escape the marauding wolves.”
Chronic Wasting Disease
Although wolves are known carriers of bovine tuberculosis, brucellosis, Neospora caninum (causes abortion in cattle) and, rabies, Chronic Wasting Disease is what Val describes as “a juggernaut descending onto American wildlife.” Some researchers believed wolf predation would wipe out Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in grazing species, but it has done the opposite. According to Val, “Wolves generate panic among deer and prey leading to desperate long distance flight as well as desperate searches for locations free of wolves, primarily due to human presence.” Having personally observed such panic behavior in deer and livestock alarmed by wolves, he knows the wolves will follow the prey. Val warns that, “Because wolves in dispersing go great distances, they can spread ingested CWD prions via feces and urine over very great distances. And they would disperse it in concentrated form.”
CWD has been described as a wildlife form of “mad cow disease,” and brings with it the most grisly symptoms. Val predicts that the widening dispersion of infected wolves and prey will bring CWD to private farms and ranches, as well as open private and public lands used for hunting and recreation. Considering that a ranch or hunting refuge with animals, soil and vegetation infected with CWD would lose nearly all commercial production value, the impact on private property could be devastating.
Ecological Management and Biodiversity
The destruction of wolves and other ripple effects of wolf introduction programs, are symptoms of a disordered philosophy hampering true conservation of wolves, other species, and the environment which must sustain them. A hundred years of active wildlife management in North America is being undone by politically-driven policies, like those governing wolf introduction initiatives. Using the degraded ecology in U.S. national parks as an example, Val explains, “Right now the national park service is bemoaning the fact that in national parks the bio-diversity is plummeting (species are going extinct), while at the same time the parks have now over 6,500 invasive plant and animal species in the parks. Management in national parks is primarily protection – that is, doing nothing!” What Val is describing are the contradictory factors of human interference in species distribution, and a “nature will run its course” management approach, both of which are the modus operandi for environmentalists and federal agencies alike.
So-called “conservation” groups have failed both the environment and species. What Val refers to as the “Wonderful North American Model of Conservation” had nothing to do with political activism or “green” measures and everything to do with hands-on local game management, forestry, hunting and the stewardship of private ranchers and farmers. Val explains. “In 1974 bighorn sheep across the U.S. were in decline, despite all attempts at ‘protecting’ them, and that for over a century in California. All to no avail. Well, the cause of the decline was identified publicly in 1974, a society to implement the rescue was called into life by 1976, and within 25 years the population of bighorns increased by almost 50 percent. How come? How come we have today so many more elk than three decades ago? Though of course not in Yellowstone National Park! There, the “within-park do nothing policy” has driven the park elk almost entirely onto private ranch land.” And he concludes, ironically, “What a success!”
Invasive species, or as Val calls them, “The hoodlums of the plant and animal world,” are epitomized by the degraded wolf hybrids spreading throughout the United States. The reasoning behind wolf management and the policies that derive from it must be reworked if the wolves and the habitats they affect are to be conserved. Val says, “Let us be clear: to conserve wolves for the future as a natural species, they must be segregated from dogs, and in America from coyotes as well. And wolves must be maintained in natural, functioning packs. And that is exactly what we had until the latter half of the 20th century in North America, at least in western and northern North America. Wolf populations were kept out of settled landscapes and controlled closely, which kept wolves away from coyotes and minimized encounters with dogs, it also generated abundant wildlife and kept wolf-borne diseases to a minimum.”
A rare man of pure science, Valerius Geist is unafraid to take on the mythology befouling wolf management, and the do-gooders who write policies based on pop culture fictions. The special interests claiming they intend to save the wolves are in fact, responsible for the decline and destruction of nature. With a scientific background that goes back sixty years, Val persists tirelessly, traveling, giving presentations, and granting interviews, in a quest to bring the truth about wolves and wildlife conservation to sportsmen, ranchers, wildlife managers, and lawmakers. His quest is not to draw acclaim to himself or further a political agenda, but to save the natural world from the ignorance from its self-proclaimed saviors.