Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Wolf center shifts educational focus

By Kevin Strauss

If you go to the International Wolf Center in Ely this year, you are likely to learn about some new aspects and challenges of wolf conservation. The center is still committed to advancing wolf survival through education, but in a world where wolves have exceeded population recovery goals in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and the northern Rockies , the issue is no longer “will the wolf survive?” Now it is more a question of whether humans coexist with the predator and whether wolves have wild habitat to live in as humans continue to turn forests and foothills into housing complexes.

The center’s new “Wolves and Wild Lands in the 21st Century” exhibit highlights these new wolf conservation challenges and demonstrates a shift in the center’s educational strategy. “We are a small organization based solely in Minnesota, so we have been looking for ways to maximize our impact,” said IWC Assistant Director Jim Williams. To do this, the center has been prioritizing projects that they feel will have the biggest impact on wolf populations on the ground in two key geographic areas: the upper Midwest and the southwestern states of Arizona and New Mexico.

“In the Midwest, we are entering the post-endangered species era,” said Williams. “And in the southwest, they are in the early stages of wolf recovery, but have run into barriers.”

In each of these regions, the Ely-based Center is working to be a leader on wolf issues. According to Williams, the organization is focusing on “multiplier effect” projects like teacher workshops, a new curriculum and the new traveling exhibit to help get their message out.

Then and now

One way to see the differences in the center’s approach is to compare its two exhibits: “Wolves and Humans” and “Wolves and Wild Lands.” Both exhibits where traveling exhibits and according to Williams, the “Wolves and Humans” exhibit acted as a catalyst for wolf recovery in Yellowstone National Park in the early 1980s. In 1993, “Wolves and Humans” became the central museum exhibit at the International Wolf Center in Ely, where it has remained ever since.

While “Wolves and Humans” covers a wide range of wolf conservation issues from human folklore to wolf biology, ecology, historical wolf hunting and research, it doesn’t address the many modern “management” issues that didn’t exist in the 1980s.

“Wolves and Wild Lands” addresses several potentially provocative wolf management issues like sport hunting, wild land development, and livestock depredation head-on. The focus is much more on humans and human interactions with wolves and wolf habitat.

“We chose the title because we wanted people who care about wolves to stop looking just at short-term wolf recovery,” said Williams. “People need to realize that the habitat that wolves depend upon for survival is being destroyed at an alarming rate and if we are not careful, this may not be a sustained recovery.”

In one study, if current development trends continue in Colorado, the number of wolves who could someday successfully live there will drop by 60 percent in the next 20 years.

Some of the panels may be surprising to long-time wolf conservationists. While some wolf conservation groups oppose a wolf hunting season, it is true that as wolf populations expand, they may require some level of management. Most states use a hunting season to control deer populations. The same may some day be true for wolves.

“Our exhibit leaves it up to viewers to decide what they think about wolf hunting,” said Williams.

The exhibit also discusses strategies people can use to avoid conflicts with wolves. Now that wolf populations have “recovered” in the upper Midwest, humans will encounter wolves more often. Some simple changes in human behavior, like not feeding deer near homes, securing garbage and not leaving pet food outside can reduce chances that people will accidentally attract wolves to their homes. It will also reduce the chances that wolves will get used to human contact and lose their fear of humans. In many cases, “problem wolves” are wolves that have lost their natural fear of people.


“The IWC aspires to provide objective information, both the good and the bad (about wolves),” said Williams. Williams admits that this non-advocacy approach will probably invite some criticism from both ends of the wolf conservation spectrum. “On some of these issues, both sides (pro-wolf and anti-wolf groups) are so polarized that there is often a willful inattention to the facts,” said Williams.

According to Williams, the IWC sees its job as providing the facts about wolf conservation, wolf recovery and wolf management.

“I tell our staff that as educators, we have to serve two masters: we need to educate people to ensure wolf survival and we need to serve the objective truth,” said Williams. “We have to be equally committed to both. We can’t let our commitment to ensure wolf survival undermine our commitment to tell the whole truth.”

While some pro-wolf groups have criticized the center for not taking a more pro-advocacy role in the wolf debate, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Research and Policy Manager Mike DonCarlos sees things differently. “(The Center) achieves its non-advocacy goal and this helps them provide more balanced wolf information to the public,” said DonCarlos.

By comparison, advocacy groups on both sides of the wolf debate spread information that ranges from factual to various levels of distortion. “The International Wolf Center sticks to the facts and if people are interested in having factual information from multiple viewpoints, the (IWC) does a great job of providing it,” said DonCarlos.

Getting people to talk

That balanced approach to wolf issues has positioned the center as a credible educational organization that can help diverse groups in other regions come to the table to work on wolf conservation issues.

The center is involved in a project to get stakeholders to the table on wolf issues in the American southwest. The center is the co-founder of the Southwest Wolf Information Network, a coalition of over 30 organizations including ranching, hunting, government and environmental groups.

Right now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service operates a small wolf recovery project on the Arizona/New Mexico border, but it has yet to complete the region-wide recovery plan to insure wolf recovery for the southwest region as a whole. Part of the hold-up has to do with the lawsuits pro- and anti-wolf groups are filing over these wolf issues.

“There has been a political war between the environmentalists and the ranchers, and one casualty of the war has been a public understanding of the costs and benefits of wolf recovery,” said Williams.

According to Williams, this approach didn’t seem to be working for either side. In addition, the center didn’t have the resources to mount a large-scale educational campaign in the region. The network seems to be solving both problems by providing a forum for groups to share and discuss factual information about wolf conservation. Member groups can then take that information back to their own organizations.

“Environmentalists tend to educate environmentalists and ranchers tend to educate ranchers,” said Williams. “This way we can help each other do a better job, because no one person can have the expertise on all aspects of wolf issues, but collectively, (the network) does have expertise in all of these areas.”

Williams stated that this collaboration has already helped his organization and other groups find and fix factual errors or hidden bias in educational materials. “The group is already working,” said Williams. “People in this group who could not disagree more vehemently about wolf issues have agreed that there should be a civil debate about the issues.”

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