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Matt Skoglund’s Blog

A Letter to ESPN (and Disney) About Wolves

Matt Skoglund

Posted April 29, 2010 in Saving Wildlife and Wild Places, The Media and the Environment

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Dear ESPN (and Disney),

I am baffled and troubled by your publishing of “The myth of the harmless wolf” by James Swan on the Outdoors section of your popular ESPN.com website.  The article is so misleading, one-sided, over-the-top, and, at times, bizarre, it is difficult to understand how you decided to publish it.

I’d like to know why ESPN would baselessly demonize the wolf, an iconic wildlife species revered by many across the country, on its website.  Why are you trying to needlessly scare people?  What’s your goal here? 

If a mainstream monster network like ESPN wants a legitimate outdoors section on its website, it should celebrate wolves and the amazing American conservation success story of wolf reintroduction in the Northern Rockies, not reach into the Fox News toolbox of fear tactics.

The majority owner of ESPN is The Walt Disney Company.  Disney is quite proud of its conservation and environmental-protection efforts.  (Full disclosure: Disney is supporting an NRDC conservation effort in Costa Rica.)  Just last week, Disney announced:

The Walt Disney Company's rich legacy of respect for the planet and all its inhabitants began with Walt himself and continues on today.  A new Disney Conservation Report provides an overview of The Walt Disney Company's efforts to save wildlife and wild places and engage people of all ages in conservation, as well as snapshots of some of Disney's most important initiatives.

ESPN also touts its own corporate-sustainability efforts on its website (and links to Disney’s corporate responsibility page):

It’s our fishing sanctuary, our local soccer pitch, our makeshift dirt bike track – but in the end, the Earth needs just as much attention as the things we enjoy in life.  ESPN is proud to do its part to promote and resurrect a greener world.

Really?  Swan’s article is a not-so-subtle call to kill wolves, which only occupy a tiny portion of their historic range -- about 5% -- in the lower 48.  Please explain how trying to scare the soccer balls out of your viewership with a sensationalized, misleading vilification of wolves jibes with your and Disney’s statements. 

Throughout Swan’s article, he misrepresents facts, spouts half-truths, makes astounding leaps for his “support,” and plays fast and loose with the truth.

It’s a dreadfully dismal piece of journalism.

Here are some of the many problems in the article:

Swan begins his article with a discussion of three recent fatal attacks by “wild wolves” in North America: the death of a teacher in Alaska in 2010; the killing of a folk singer in Nova Scotia in 2009, and the loss of a student in Saskatchewan in 2005.  It’s a striking opening, but it’s not the whole story.

Regarding the attack of the folk singer in Nova Scotia, Swan initially explains that she was killed by coyotes, not wolves.  He then says the coyotes were subsequently identified by park rangers as a wolf-coyote hybrid.  That’s correct; the coyotes in Novia Scotia have some wolf genes from past interbreeding.  But they’re still largely coyotes (or hybrids at best) and classified as coyotes by the Novia Scotia government

And thus it’s shocking to see Swan a mere two paragraphs later write, “The attacking wolves in these three incidents . . . .”  Where did the coyotes go?  How did it change from a coyote attack to a wolf attack in Novia Scotia?  Research it; see how it has been reported.  To call that event a “wolf attack” is boldly dishonest. 

Regarding the 2005 attack in Saskatchewan, Swan points out that whether that was even a wolf attack is disputed, but he neglects to mention that the wolves seen in that area had been feeding at a garbage dump and people were concerned they’d lost their fear of humans.  Therefore, even if it was a wolf attack, these were not typical wild wolves (and this was the first recorded fatal wolf attack in North America, a pretty big fact Swan conveniently omits).

So, Swan opens his piece with three fatal attacks, of which one was simply not a wolf attack and another was a disputed wolf attack by garbage-feeding wolves that had likely lost their fear of humans.  This means we’re left with a single recorded fatal attack in North America by truly wild wolves.

And let me be very clear: that one freakish attack is a horribly sad, tragic loss (as were, of course, the other two).  There’s no question about that.  I discuss the attacks to shed some light at how Swan twisted the truth and left out some key facts to make his opening sexier and scarier. 

Moving along, what about the various quotes Swan provides from Dr. David Mech?  Strangely missing from the article are other statements made by Mech.  For example, the following is from a 2006 High Country News article on the 2005 Saskatchewan killing: “[T]he odds [of a wolf attack in North America are extraordinarily low, points out L. David Mech, a leading wolf biologist: ‘Wolves are still not any more dangerous than they ever were.’”  Whoa, that’s an inconvenient statement for Swan’s wolves-are-coming-for-you article.

Swan writes, “Wolf biologist David Mech advises people to never feed wolves and/or allow them to become habituated.  He says that if you meet a wolf, do not run away — yell, look as big as you can, throw rocks.  Pepper spray helps.  The sound of a gun will let them know you mean business.”  Sounds pretty ominous, right? 

Well, the following is from the same article Swan likely found some of the above statements: “Mech, a senior research scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey who has studied wolves full-time for more than five decades, said there have been about two dozen nonfatal attacks in North America in the past century or so.  Most involve wolves that had become habituated to people who have been feeding them at campgrounds, dumps and other sites near wolf habitat, he said.”

About two dozen nonfatal attacks in 100 years?  And most from habituated wolves?  How is that support for the picture Swan paints of bloodthirsty wild wolves stalking your children at this very minute? Any reasonable person reading that would find it reassuring, not terrifying. 

To support his argument that wolf attacks and aggressive wolf encounters are either increasing or receiving better reporting, Swan writes, “One recent incident involved a pack of wolves killing a mountain lion within sight of downtown Sun Valley, Idaho. Presumably these are the same wolves that have been seen prowling the streets of Sun Valley at night.” 

First, how does a pack of wolves killing another wild animal in the foothills of an Idaho town translate into “wolves are going to kill you”?  Wolves are carnivores.  They eat other wild animals.  I don’t understand the hysteria here.

And “prowling the streets of Sun Valley at night”?  Yes, wolves were often seen in residential neighborhoods in the Wood River valley last year.  But this is the Northern Rockies, not Cleveland.  In Bozeman, Montana, where I live, black bears come into town in the fall.  Many people move here for the wildness and wildlife of the Northern Rockies.  And wolves are (thankfully) part of what make the Northern Rockies so special.  (Swan also fails to mention that, due to Idaho’s wolf hunt that recently ended, these wolves are now rarely seen around Sun Valley.)

Swan then takes quite a swan dive with this one: “If you are out hunting and you're using a predator call, be careful.  Recently, one Idaho hunter was wailing on a dying rabbit call to draw in coyotes while his son was about 100 yards away.  A pack of wolves came in and surrounded his son.  The father and son had a very tough time driving away the wolves.”

Is this for real?  The father and son were out HUNTING PREDATORS!  They were making the sounds of a dying rabbit to lure in predators, and a pack of wolves showed up.  Wasn’t that what they were trying to do?  Did they expect Santa Claus to respond to the dying rabbit call?  I’m sorry, but this is just downright deceptive. 

Swan also advises us not to trust wolves.  To get to his don’t-trust-wolves admonition, Swan discusses old traditions and teachings of the Blackfoot Indians: “[T]he elders teach to respect the wolf, for he is a good hunter.  However, the elders also teach to never trust the wolf (or the coyote), for he can turn on his own kind, as well as anything else, and kill it.”

He then writes, “Co-existence between man and wolf is new to both species in the lower 48.  We should enter into this relationship following Blackfoot wisdom for relating to wolves — respect, admire them, but do not trust them to be like to [sic] warm, cuddly, animals you see on TV.”  Swan wants us to follow old Blackfoot wisdom in our relationship with wolves, but he also tells us that coexistence between humans and wolves is new to both species in the lower 48.  So, did the thousands of years of coexistence between Native Americans (e.g., Blackfoot) and wolves not occur?  Does it not count?  How can we follow the Blackfoot coexistence wisdom if Swan doesn’t acknowledge that it ever happened?  I am seriously confused.

Though there’s much more to say about Swan’s article (e.g., his maverick position on wolf movies and fairy tales), I’ll stop here.  Reread it.  Slowly.  Use Google.  Try to figure out how Swan arrives at his insane ending: “So, if you meet a wolf in the woods, cry ‘wolf!’ and protect yourself.  And don't stop reading ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ ‘Three Little Pigs,’ and ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ to your kids.  Someday, it might just save their lives.” 

Swan’s piece is an illusory house of cards that should never have been published on ESPN.com. 

And this is only the most recent snafu on the Outdoors section of your website.

Last month, in response to your problematic reporting on the false Obama fishing ban, ESPNOutdoors.com’s Executive Editor, Steve Bowman, wrote, “We take seriously the tenets of journalism that require we take an unbiased approach, and when we make mistakes in the presentation of a story or a column, it is our responsibility to admit them.”

I look forward to another mea culpa, ESPN (and Disney).

 

(The Alpha Male photo by SigmaEye on Flickr)

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Comments

Julian RuApr 29 2010 03:02 PM

What a great article Matt. Thank you so much.

Lauren DApr 29 2010 03:42 PM

Thank you for this article! Wolves are my favorite animal, and I have never thought they have deserved the reputation they've gotten. Swan's article gives readers a completely distorted view of these great animals, and I'm glad you were able to set the record straight when it comes to wolves.

Linda TownsonApr 29 2010 03:54 PM

This article made my eyes go blurry. Swan needs to be lobotomized before he does more harm to this member of our planet earth. It has taken decades to remove the superstitious stigma and demonisation surrounding this animal, along with the fox and the coyote. Feed him to the wolves I say. No better not, we don't want to poison them. The sooner our planet is devoid of of humans such as he it will perhaps be able to heal and move on to happier co-existence with all species. I cannot say more otherwise I see you will edit my comments. I cannot manage another civil word. His remarks beggar belief.

Janelle GhiorsoApr 29 2010 04:05 PM

Well done! Thanks for taking the time to dispute this....yet another, attack on our wolves.

Steve LeClairApr 29 2010 05:45 PM

Wow, you are dilusional sir. Wolves are an increasing threat to both humans and all other species in the woods.

How do you argue the impact that these animals have had on the habit once introduced (not re-introduced)?

If you would like to read the facts, please check out www.saveelk.com.

There is a reason this animal was nearly eliminated in the past. Other than their beauty, they have no redeeming quality.

Josh MogermanApr 29 2010 06:56 PM

Steve---

Thanks for taking the time to comment, but i have to tell you, I think you are missing the massively positive contribution wolves have made to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Their reintroduction has had great benefits in renewing riparian stream habitats, increasing rodent and raptor populations, providing a food source for grizzly bears, and increasing pronghorn antelope numbers. Wolves have also brought tens of millions of dollars in tourism revenues to the region.

I recognize that there are some negatives that come with all those positives---and I won't minimize those issues (though I don't think we'd see eye to eye on them and NRDC's Montana staff is working to help find reasonable solutions). But to imply that they have no redeeming qualities other than aesthetics is simply wrong.

Lela CApr 29 2010 08:51 PM

Thank you for this article. The most dangerous animal in Yellowstone is neither the wolf nor either species of bear, but the bison. Wolves are much less dangerous to humans than are cougars. In the past 20 years, one person has been killed by a wild wolf pack in remote rural Alaska, but a number of people have been killed by cougars. Cougars are solitary hunters that seldom fit the fed-predator scenario. In Colorado, three boys, ages 3, 11, and 17, were killed. All three had in common that they were running at the time of the fatal encounter. One of these deaths is included in the book, "The Beast in the Garden." Other cougar attacks and at least one death involved people on mountain bikes. It's important to go into the wild with respect and knowledge of the dangers there, but it should be with the truth, not hyped-up hysteria.

James GuilfordApr 30 2010 06:05 AM

Steve,It is mind boggeling that in this age of enormously abundant knowledge concerning practicaly any subject that someone could conclude that any lifeform as advanced as a wolf,has no redeeming value other than asthetic ! My God man, where have you been? For crying out loud freind,go to a library,book store or get on the net and start reading something besides material which was wrote to support the political and economic goals of people who care about nothing but financial profit,and sometimes their ego's,''as in wealthy hunters who hunt purely for sport and insist that every hunt should end with the kill of a ''trophy''animal'' ! These so called hunters do not even understand the true value nor purpose of hunting ! If they did,they would be satisfied with the taking of a medium size creature that wound up in the oven, not hanging on a wall.

If wolves are indeed to blame for a decline in elk numbers,rest assured that decline would not be a serious issue if it were not for the fact that man has in the lower 48,already decimated elk populations to begin with.We humans like to pride our selves as being the great care takers of the natural world,when in reality we are lousy stewards of the animal world.Ironicaly,we would not have to be in the position of being natures care giver if we would not have destroyed so much of our natural world to begin with ! It is absurd to believe that we humans who are only part of nature were ever meant to be her primary care giver ! If we were meant to be natures great steward,then we have ceartainly failed at what we were meant to do and are likely fixing to be looking for another job,along with another planet to live on !

Jess EdbergApr 30 2010 11:41 AM

Thank you. Accurate, unbiased education is the key to any large predator's survival. Wolves need to be given the same respect as bears and mountain lions when living in and visiting wolf country. Human behavior can and does influence any wild animal's behavior.

R.K.SharpeApr 30 2010 12:27 PM

Steve,www.saveelk.com.Ahh,yes! To save an elk in order to just shoot it. Great article,Matt.

william huardApr 30 2010 12:56 PM

Mr Leclair- First of all you spelled delusional wrong. Second of all, why don't you do some research before you start throwing anti-predator website names like saveelk out there! They should call saveelk-" saveelk so wecan killem". Mr Skoglund gave you all the facts you need- so who is delusional?

TLMApr 30 2010 07:33 PM

I think the ESPN story was well researched. We have had wolves living around us for over 5 years now. There is nothing wrong with educating people about habituated wolves - and wolves that live around people ARE habituated. The ESPN story sites well known biologists that have studied wolves for many years - yet people that don't live around wolves will still cling to the false claim that "wolves are harmless". When you have wolves prey testing you in your own driveway - there is something that rings false in the "harmless wolf" claim. A lot of people that were for introduction have changed their minds after seeing the reality on the ground.

Janet McDonaldApr 30 2010 10:04 PM

Until the end of time, there will be the wolf argument. Wolves are wild animals. Anyone who live near or in the woods should treat all wild animals the same, leave them alone. I was taught as a small child what to do if I was in the woods and came upon a wild animal or if one came upon me.
Everyone needs to use some common sense, scaring the hell out of people who are to blind to see their own way, is not the answer. That will only end up with the second eradication of the wolf.
Man and wolves survived on the planet for a very, very long time without having to kill each other, and they should be allowed to continue to do so. For hunters who say that they like to shoot one in the gut cause it takes em longer to die, is not a hunter. The hunter shooting any animal from a helicopter, is not a hunter. These people are sick humans.
The wolves were given bad names by ranchers, period. Ranchers who would leave the aborted, sick, dead and dying carcasses lying out in the open, too lazy to dispose of the carcass. Then they want to holler when the wolves come. Why not just put out a dinner bell and call em in to eat?
Ludicrous! Irresponsible!

Jim DMay 1 2010 02:25 AM

Mr. Skoglund sounds just like all the other left coast transplants who came here with the let nature balance itself ideology that just doesn`t have any place in the real world. Why aren`t any of these so called environmentalists crying about the almost total elimination of moose in Yellowstone? I guess wolves are in vogue with that crowd so too bad for moose. And elk, deer, sheep, and every other animal that doesn`t have long sharp canine teeth. Funny how those folks think that people that eat meat are savage barbarians but animals that eat meat are the coolest things since tofu. Go figure.

John RMay 7 2010 02:23 PM

Did we read the same article? I saw no attempt from Swan to "demonize" wolves or paint them as "bloodthirsty" animals "stalking your children." Your attack on him was far more vicious than any of his statements about wolves. And as you point out, he closed by saying we should "RESPECT AND ADMIRE" wolves but "not habituate them." What's wrong with that? As for the "coexistence between Blackfeet and wolves," Blackfeet basically killed wolves whenever the hell they felt like it.
As for your criticism of Idaho's wolf season, how would you replace the $497,000 the state raised thru the sale of wolf tags?

Steve LeClairMay 11 2010 02:17 PM

Josh, I do not believe I am missing the point. Yes, I acknowledge that some aspects of nature has changed, such as some of foliage and related plants and animals that thrive there. I am also not so ignorant that wolves have only a asthetic beauty, but there is a reason there numbers have been reduced so greatly.

My issue is that the negatives right now exceed any positives that have resulted from there introduction. The wolf population is increasing at a rate that is not substainable. They are decimating the other animals in the area. The wolves kill far more elk and game animals than the hunters do. To those who reply as anti-hunters, what is your view that the population of other animals have been cut in half over the past few years? Do you value the life of the wolf over the prey animals? Wolves kill for the thrill as much as they kill to eat.

To James, I do have a library card. I suspect you do not. Yes, saveelk is geared to the hunters viewpoint. Most hunters, including myself, do not hunt for a trophy. I hunt, and nearly all my friends hunt for the same reason, we love it. If a trophy animal is taken, so be it. It is human nature to go to the "biggest and baddest". I eat everything I take from the woods. As for the stewards of the world, you have it totally wrong. With proper game management, herds and animals thrive in a healthy balance. Without the tax revenue brought in by hunters, and there general positive impact on the community (I do agree there are bad apples out there, as with anything), these animals, and the habitats they live in, would be in far worse shape.

I can not defend our ancestors for destroying animal populations in the past. That is totally out of my control. We can only move forward in harmony with the animals. A species that is not properly maintained is doomed to thrive in excess of sustainability, or destroyed.

I can guarantee that I have donated more money and more time than 99% of the people on this blog toward the betterment of nature.

And to RK, I have never hunted an elk. I hope someday I get the opportunity, but with the way the wolves have been destroying the population, I doubt I will get the chance.

And, btw, I have put in for a wolf management tag.

ramji k.May 11 2010 06:13 PM

Interesting blog Mr. Skogland. Nice to see that neither your writing skills nor your razor sharp wit has been diminished by MT.

Matt SkoglundMay 12 2010 01:06 PM

All,

Thank you very much for your comments.

Here is a great piece on wolves, elk, and why we need to let wolves be wolves:

http://www.newwest.net/topic/article/we_need_wolves_to_be_wolves/

Matt

Steve LeClairMay 13 2010 03:38 PM

I am glad the writer Matt referenced in his comment acknowledged that these wolves were INTRODUCED in 1995, not re-introduced.

"RMEF President David Allen likes to make the point that since wolves were introduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1995, elk numbers have declined from the high point of 19,000 to 6,000-7000 animals."

Since this animal, foreign to these forests have been introduced, they have destroyed the elk populations and other native species.

So, by saying that the wolves have the right to stay, does that mean you value the life of the wolf more than the native species?

Send them back to Canada where they are native and belong.

Curt GoldmanMay 13 2010 04:26 PM

Very well written and informative piece Mr. Skoglund - congratulations to you for doing your homework!

For what it's worth I was an agnostic on the issue prior to your article but after reading and reflecting on your stats and critiques, as well as the commentary from your readers (incl critics) that followed, I'm now fully supportive of the wolf preservation movement and join the anti-Swan crusade. Thank you for taking ESPN to task Matthew - we need more responsible journalists out there, especially those employed by beheamoths like ESPN.

Bob FannngMay 18 2010 01:40 AM

http://www.youtube.com/user/Rockholm66#p/u/0/BSGwCbP809I


Jim Beers' presentation on the "Criminal Activities Associated with the Introduction, Protection, and Spread of Wolves in the Lower 48 States" in Bozeman yesterday.

scott goldmanMay 19 2010 07:16 AM

Clap. Clap. Clap.
Mr. Skoglund - Journalism is a cutthroat and deadline driven business. Clearly this guy was exaggerating the facts to make a deadline and get some attention. Thank you for calling him out.

Comments are closed for this post.

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