Wolves in Europe and “The Landscape of Fear”

The European gray wolf is steadily returning to much of its former range in western Europe. Photograph: Alamy
The European gray wolf is steadily returning to much of its former range in western Europe. Photograph: Alamy

I had been saving these two New Scientist articles and since we’ve been discussing wolves..Here’s the link to how gray wolves are faring in Europe..and one on how prey react based on Yellowstone.

GOODNESS, what big teeth you have, and what close ties to humans you have! And what negative attitudes you elicit from rural people all over the world!

Behind their cultural baggage, grey wolves are an evolutionary success story, giving rise to the domestic dog 10,000 years ago and, more recently, rebounding from centuries of persecution.

“There are wild wolves galore in Europe,” says Claudio Sillero, a conservation biologist at the University of Oxford. “They have recolonised vast areas of their former range and live almost unnoticed in populated areas.”

A wolf was recently spotted in the Netherlands, after an absence of over a century. There are ongoing calls from ecologists for them to be reintroduced to Scotland, where they’ve been extinct since the 1700s. In the US, arguments rage over whether their numbers are high enough to sustain hunting.

These wolves were photographed playing in the Black Mountain Wildlife Park, south of Hamburg in Germany, which has more than a thousand animals in an area of 50 hectares.

“While we think of wolves as masters of the wilderness in Europe, they thrive in human-dominated landscapes,” says Sillero. “Over 3000 wolves live in heavily populated areas of northern Spain and Portugal, and wolves from Italy have steadily colonised southern France.”

French farmers may not share Sillero’s enthusiasm, but with less persecution than in the past, wolf numbers are growing. For those of us in Europe, the howl of a wolf could one day become as familiar as the cries of foxes.

And “Scared to death: How intimidation changes ecosystems

IN JANUARY 1995, grey wolves returned to Yellowstone National Park, almost 70 years after they had been exterminated by an overenthusiastic predator-control programme. Over the next two winters, 31 animals captured in Canada were released into the park, fitted with radio collars so that rangers could track their whereabouts. But not all eyes were on the wolves; John Laundre was more interested in their main prey, elk. The large deer had run amok in the wolf-free decades, causing serious damage to the park’s trees. He wanted to know how they would fare now that their old nemesis was back.

By the second year, the answer was obvious. In the parts of Yellowstone that the wolves hadn’t yet reached, female elk grazed peacefully while their calves gambolled around them. “It was a scene out of a Disney film,” says Laundre, an ecologist at the State University of New York at Oswego. But in areas the wolves had colonised, things were very different. The calves were pinned to the sides of their ever-wary mothers. “It was like looking at two different countries, one at war and one at peace,” he says.

For Laundre, it was a light-bulb moment. He realised that wolves don’t just kill elk, they also change the deer’s behaviour without even lifting a claw. Their mere presence – perhaps their scent on the wind and tracks in the dirt – creates a perpetual state of apprehension in their prey. Seen through the eyes of an elk, the physical terrain is overlaid with a mental map of risk, complete with “mountains” where the odds of being eaten are high and they must be constantly vigilant, and “valleys” of relative safety where they can lower their guard. To describe this psychological environment, Laundre coined the term “landscape of fear”.

The concept seems simple but it subverts the dominant view in ecology – that predators only affect their prey by killing them. It also challenges the belief that most animals feel fear only in short bursts, like the sharp panic of a chase, while long-term psychological stress is something that only humans and other primates experience. With such emotions pushed aside, traditional ecological models have reduced predators and prey to little more than rolling marbles. “If one bumped into another, the second ball was dead,” says Laundre. The idea of adding psychology to the mix, especially a seemingly anthropomorphic emotion like fear, was anathema.

But times are changing. Ecologists are studying landscapes of fear in animals as diverse as wolves and elk, sharks and dugongs, spiders and grasshoppers. Time and again it has emerged that the greatest effect predators have upon their prey is not through slaughter, but intimidation. They can influence how successfully their potential victims feed, breed and raise their young, all without a single kill. And it doesn’t end there: these effects trickle through entire ecosystems, shaping the make-up of the local flora and even influencing the flow of nutrients through the soil. The implications are huge. Through the landscape of fear, predators can unwittingly remodel the physical landscape – just by being scary.

Laundre wasn’t the first to recognise the role of fear in ecology. Since the 1970s, studies had shown that predators can force prey to mount costly defences, such as moving into poorer habitats and being so relentlessly vigilant that they do not have the time to eat enough. But most of these experiments were small in scale and duration, and few looked at the lasting consequences of the choices made by prey. It was the advent of big, long-term studies in natural settings that addressed these failings and brought the importance of fear into sharp relief.

“The Yellowstone example is the first one that really smacked us in the face,” says Laundre. Before the wolves were reintroduced, ecologists correctly predicted how big their populations would become and how many elk they would kill. However, they greatly underestimated the effect on elk numbers. “They really just assumed that wolves would impact the elk by eating them,” says Scott Creel from Montana State University in Bozeman, whose findings in another corner of Yellowstone showed how wrong that idea was.

While hunting for a photo, I found this by Garry Marvin on the return of wolves to the UK.

The solution is not imposition but dialogue. Conservation projects, however soundly based on science, can never succeed without taking account of the human dimension. Wildlife has to co-exist with humans. Put crudely, scientists often seem frustrated that local people do not understand what they tell them about the realities of wolves; shepherds and other livestock farmers feel resentful that outsiders do not want to listen to their traditional knowledge; and agricultural agencies seem to think that compensation for animals killed is payment enough for wolf predation.

Hmm.. sound familiar?

21 thoughts on “Wolves in Europe and “The Landscape of Fear””

  1. I’ve never been to Europe, and will likely never go, but I’ve spent plenty of time in Wisconsin and the Great Lakes region, as well the western US. It strikes me that public acceptance (and lack of somewhat irrational and sensationalistic fear) of wolves is greatest in Europe, followed pretty closely by the Great Lakes states. However, public un-acceptance of wolves (and by far the most irrational and sensationalistic fear of wolves) is greatest in the western US, which also ironically has has relatively low numbers of wolves, especially in the context of tens of millions of acres of public lands.

    Of these three regions of the world one might assume that Europe is the most “progressive” politically, followed by the Great Lakes region with the western US being the most “conservative.” Is there a correlation to be made there, or is that just a weird coincidence?

    Also, regarding this statement:

    “shepherds and other livestock farmers feel resentful that outsiders do not want to listen to their traditional knowledge”

    If, by “traditional knowledge,” we are talking about the same “traditional knowledge” that, say, killed the wolves into extinction in Scotland way back in the 1700s, then my reaction to these people who feel not listen to is sort of “Tough luck. You folks had your chance and blew it.”

    However, if we are talking about “traditional knowledge” in the form of shepherds and livestock farms who use and pass along traditional, non-extinction-causing, knowledge on methods of animal husbandry, my reaction is “Great concept!”

  2. Matt: My mother was raised in Cougar, Washington as a member of the third generation of our family to live there. My grandfather was a logger and and excellent fisherman and hunter who raised his family on a regular supply of wild fish and game. His brother Al, my great-uncle, retired at a fairly young age and spent most of the remainder of his 90+ years hunting, fishing, and trapping — for bounties, when he could get them. During that time he killed over 100 cougars, mostly by hunting with dogs. I don’t recall any specific stories of wolves in the upper Lewis River drainage, but it seems like they may have still been there in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when my family first settled there. Cougars, bears, deer, and elk (the latter repopulated the basin about WW I, after being locally extirpated for many years) are still common in the neighborhood, but no wolves.

    I think the “traditional knowledge” you are looking for — whether hunters or trappers in the woods or Basques sheepherders in the mountains — is to poison, trap and “shoot on sight.” Sorry. I think your second “non-extinction-causing” category is more New Age than “traditional.” I’m not sure where the 10,000-year figure comes from, but some sources claim people have been domesticating wolves for 50,000+ years, and they are still being domesticated and bred with other canids to the present day. They are wild dogs, and there are thousands of them all over the world. Why we need them everywhere (“suitable habitat” or no) is something I just don’t get. I don’t think there are any laws to actually require humans to reintroduce them, are there? Why are we doing it?

    • Bob, I think some folks are implying that ESA regs requires us to put them back everywhere they used to be where there’s suitable habitat (????). But I don’t know, maybe one of our legal friends could explain more clearly.

      • I don’t see many people pushing to restore giant sequoias back to their former range. And just WHO would be charged with deciding what is “suitable habitat”? There are certainly plenty of variables that must be considered within the realm of “suitable”.

    • Yes, that’s what I thought too when I saw the part about things being more complicated than simple predator prey theory would have..Botkin talked about at some length about that in MinNS.

  3. Putting aside for the moment the very real and practical questions regarding what is “suitable habitat” for wolves, I would simply say that anyone who has spent real time in grizzly country knows the “landscape of fear” quite well, and there is actually a growing body of research that suggests this is actually a good thing for us humans.

    There is really something ironic that happens when we try to eliminate fear from our lives, we just become more fearful. I actually think what Mathew was trying to articulate is that it is not only possible to live with wolves, but it may even be a good thing for most of us who otherwise live incredibly sheltered (and fearful) lives. I know its a tired old argument, but aren’t there programs to reimburse for cattle loss in the short term? In the long term, isn’t it time we recolonize our own humanity and remember what it feels like to have the ancient hairs on our necks and backs stand on end when we feel we’re being watched? Its called the “landscape of being fully alive”!

    • Mike: I’m pretty sure that if a “landscape of fear” were a good thing, we’d being seeing a lot more acceptance and even encouragement for living in ghettos or in rural poverty. Tougher, more productive kids and pets who feed themselves. Maybe move to Afghanistan or Ghana and live under mortar fire to complete their studies.

      I’m not sure what research you’ve been reading, but there’s a big difference between sky diving and being accosted by thugs after dark on your way home from the store. Or losing your job or home when there are children to feed. Or being attacked by a large dog or group of dogs. I’d just as soon spend my life in as little fear as possible, and I’m guessing most other people and most other animals would think the same way.

      If you want to go hang out in grizzly country (we don’t have any in Oregon that I know of), so that the ancient hairs on your neck and back stand up so that you feel “fully alive,” go right ahead. Just don’t expect to see many other people or large mammals following your example.

      • Bob’s inane response to my post is exactly why I hardly participate in this “forum”. There is no room for expressing honest differences of opinion without be attacked personally. Hey Bob, you win! But just in case anyone se is interested, the research to which I was refrring to can be found in “The last child in the woods” and “the nature principle”, both excellent and very well researched texts.

        • Mike.. I don’t think that that was a personal attack.. a personal attack would be

          A. “Joe, you are bad” (personal attack)
          B. “Jane, your ideas are bad” – but not a specific critique, just a label for how bad person thinks Jane’s ideas are..like you just used the term “inane”.

          I would call Bob’s response on the snarky side of the “critique of ideas continuum (also called “colorful”) but he never said anything about you specifically.

          People do step over over the line from time to time on this blog in terms of B, but seldom A.

  4. Bob and Sharon,

    My apologies, especially to you Bob. Sharon is correct and after I re-read your response earlier this morning I realized it was not a personal attack. Upon further reflection, I also don’t think your response was “inane” and I’m sorry for using that term, and sorry for reacting defensively. In fact, I actually think you raised some good points about the “landscape of fear” that is often created in impoverished human-centered landscapes like ghettos and places like Afghanistan, and I realized that it is a luxury of mine to be able to choose to go to places with grizzlies etc, since I can then choose to leave if/when I wish. I would only add that humans are not typically “prey” for wolves or bears, whereas in dangerous human environments we are the target (“prey”) of other humans, which may present some nuances for your analogy…but, point taken.

    Finally, I want to acknowledge that you (Bob) raised another good point regarding the fear of loosing one’s job, home, or some other personal loss. Thank you for reminding of our collective need for compassion with one another. I feel humbled by this exchange with you Bob and, ironically enough, want to thank you for your post. I still love wild and dangerous critters and will advocate on their behalf, but you have helped remind me to keep this in perspective too.

    Sincerely, Mike

    • Mike: Thank you very much for your heartfelt and sincere apology. I really didn’t expect one and — in the sometimes rough and tumble world of blogging — none is really needed. What did impress me is your thoughtful and insightful reconsideration of my comments. Yes, I do tend to get flip and snarky at times (usually during daylight hours), but I see that as a privilege of old age and strong opinions, not necessarily intended to hurt anyone. More importantly, you picked up on the key points that I was trying to make: empathy for the animals that are being regularly pursued and killed by wild predators, and the very real human element that constitutes such a “landscape of fear.” When it is self-induced thrill seeking, that is almost always a result of privilege; when it is a daily or regular parts of our lives (and our children’s lives), that is something else entirely, and probably should be addressed.

      As people we tend to see others joking or arguing about ideas we think important as personal attacks. I know I sometimes do, and evidence is all through this blog and probably most other blogs, too. People are the most successful predators in the history of this planet, and we are biologically programmed to “kill or be killed” at all times — which tends to make people assertive and/or defensive in lots of situations, not all of them necessarily constructive or appropriate. Blogging is probably a lot better option than video games or bullfights in that department, though. In my opinion.

  5. Mike, thanks for your reply. Bob expressed himself in his Bob-way, I’ll express myself in my Sharon-way by telling a couple of stories.

    I went to school in New Haven as an undergraduate (for one year) and graduate student. At the time, the neighborhood definitely had a “landscape of fear” . I won’t go into the gender aspect of it, but I think you can imagine that growing up female makes a difference in the reality of crimes.

    My college roommate was mugged on her way to the computer center. Working late at night and walking around campus was something to be avoided. As many relatively poor students, I couldn’t afford a car.

    For a time, at the entrance to the school building, they had a map that showed what crimes had occurred and what time. You could call for someone to pick you up.. but standing around waiting just increased your time of exposure. and waiting for them to pick you up could easily run longer than walking back at a fast pace.

    After this I went to school at UNH in Durham. I could walk anytime anywhere without worry. I remember an overwhelming sense of freedom. And peace.

    I feel differently for each species about lions, grizzlies and wolves.

    Lions.. they are around all the time. Across the street from my house, there is a sign about watching for them. They are a part of life almost everywhere in the west, at least.

    Wolves..putting them back where they are not now, is a major change for livestock owners, perhaps not so much for recreationists. But all kinds of local people need to be involved in the decision, in my opinion, not have it imposed on them.

    Grizzlies change the landscape of fear for recreationists and everyone else. That’s nice that folks where they currently live are adapting to living with them. However, I choose not to hike very much where they are, for the most part, because I like to experience nature and not be on alert. Maybe I would get used to that if I lived there. But bringing them somewhere they haven’t been for 80 years or so? I guess I would have to understand why some think that’s important to do.

    I don’t know that the desirable goal of having folks be in nature, which is healthy and healing, is actually promoted by having dangerous creatures (grizzly) there. But then I don’t go places with water moccasins, either…

  6. Interesting questions Sharon. I think you and Bob have articulated well the landscape of fear that comes with some human centered places…With regard to dangerous animals in their native habitat, would it make sense to couch the dialogue around whether a landscape of “alertness” is the same as a landscape of “fear”? I’m wondering if my having spent a fair amount of time in grizzly country means that my experience is really quite different than that of someone like yourself who has not had the same degree of experience. Most folks I know who spend lots of time in grizzly country (and there are lots of people who do so) talk about being alert and careful, rather than being in constant fear, so now I am thinking I should not have drawn a parallel between the “landscape of fear” from the article and the experience of being in grizzly country as a human…

    Again, I want to reiterate and re-acknowledge here that what we are talking about involves the luxury or choosing when/how/ and how long we spend in a place with dangerous critters. Having said this I also agree with you that lions are practically ubiquitous in the west and I am sure I am being watched every time I do my favorite trail run out my back door…Its perfect lion country and there have been numerous sitings in the cliffs about the trail. Why are grizzlies and wolves different from lions? Is the wolf question centered only on the impact to ranching (not belittling this impact at all)? Or is there something else about wolves that really terrifies people more than lions? I agree entirely that local folks must be involved in any decisions to bring wolves or grizzlies back to places they have not been for some time, and I am cognizant we may have a long row to hoe on that end of things…

    • As I was thinking about this, I remember when my husband first got excited about moving out west. The first job that opened was the Director of Timber Management in Region 1. . it occurs to me that if I had moved to Montana then, 2005 ish, I might be where you are today in terms of “alert and careful.” That’s where I finally got to be about copperheads, even though I never liked being in an area where poisonous snakes do not rattle.

      I do think there is something deep within our psyches about wolves. It could be that our ancestors were all herding people before we were agrarian; and that wolves could cause starvation for us by killing our animals.

      Err.. maybe not so long ago..
      This is from January 2013

  7. Wow, fascinating article Sharon. I do see how there is something visceral about wolves for ranchers and ranching communities from an economic livelihood perspective for sure. Yet, even that article you cited indicated that no humans had been attacked by wolves, even though the wolves were apparently starving due to the near complete loss of their usual prey animal (blue hare)….But I “hear” you though…resistance to having wolves around may not be something that can be “rationally” discussed any more than is the desire to bring them back into areas from which they were once extirpated, which is why I think this discussion is really interesting!

  8. I always have to say that this is my favorite wolf book of all time by none other than U of M’s own Martin Nie: Beyond Wolves: The Politics Of Wolf Recovery And Management

    here’s the review on Amazon:

    Since 1995, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released Canadian gray wolves into Yellowstone National Park as part of its wolf recovery program, reintroduction has been widely challenged in public forums and sensationalized in the media. This conflict has pitted western ranchers and property rights activists against environmental groups, highlighting starkly contrasting political perspectives. In this informed account, Martin A. Nie examines not only the future of wolf recovery but also the issues that will define debates around the politics of wildlife management, animal rights issues, and other flash points. The result is a revelatory look at the way the democratic process works when the subject is an environmental hot-button issue.

    Examining the wolf recovery program from a policy-making perspective, Nie looks at programs in Alaska, the Lake Superior region, the Northern Rockies, the Southwest, and New England and upstate New York. He analyzes the social, political, and cultural backdrop in the areas in which wolves have been reintroduced and explores such contentious issues as the role of science in public policy; the struggle between wilderness protection, resource management, and private property; and the use of stakeholders in environmental conflicts.

    For Nie, the debate over wolf recovery is above all a value-based political conflict that should take place in a more inclusive, participatory, and representative democratic arena. Wolves, Nie writes, are an important indicator species both biologically and politically, and in Beyond Wolves, he tells an important story of wolves and people, place and politics, that resonates far beyond the fate of America’s most misunderstood inhabitants.

  9. Hi Sharon, Mike, and Bob,
    Your conversations are funny, in a way, but it’s clear that what happens in the wild life also happens in humanity, as above so below, and inversely so, as below so above. IF were to take a bible, I could probably say with confidence, that Mike is what the bible refers to as a Jew (or israelite) and Bob is a gentile. In fact the reason you were “attacked” Mike for simply laying out your biased opinion, is exactly for that, you (and your ideas) are persecuted, (as are wolves) and will always be, until the day of judgement, in which most likely the scoreboard will virtually be flipped, and it is for this, and like you mentioned that our “collective need for compassion with one another” needs to be enhanced, and we need to humble ourselves- basically stop making excuses for our wrong doings, just like hunting wolves, because it will never makes sense, the math is one and no matter how much you want to bend it, 2+2 will always want to equal 4, so there is no running away, it’s not an option, those who are liars will suffer the consequences, eventually, this is the only thing that can truly be guaranteed in life, way before death even. As they say, karma is most definitely a bi-ha-tchz


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