Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill


Commentary: On the Value of a Wolf

It is easy for us to come up with the value of common man-made objects - like a Nikon D4 or a the latest version of Photoshop. But have you ever sat back and tried to associate a tangible value to a non-human living entity? Like, for instance, a wolf? Here's some food for thought - a start point. This is, of course, an imperfect attempt at the impossible. Just a start point...


This commentary is intended as a companion piece to a second essay I wrote entitled "On the Cost of the Wolf" (view it here). Both essays were prompted by my discovery of killing neck snares targeted at wolves near my cabin in the East Kootenays of BC in February of 2013. The snares were set by employees of the Government of British Columbia, officially known as Conservation Officers (or CO's), on public land. At the time of my discovery I saw no signage or warning indicating the presence of them in the area. They were set to remove a pack of six wolves who, over a period spanning from spring to autumn of 2012, were claimed to have killed 14 cows and/or calves owned by a local rancher that were grazing on public land and/or land owned by The Nature Conservancy of Canada.

For me the discovery of the snares represented a shocking, grotesque and savagely cruel real-world illustration of the official policy of the Government of British Columbia toward wolves. It's a policy that is ecologically ignorant. It's a policy that is scientifically unsound. It's a policy that's financially irresponsible. It's a policy that is morally bankrupt. And, it's a policy that I believe is completely out-of-touch with the values of the majority of British Columbians (and Canadians in general).

This commentary focuses on both the concrete, positive impact the wolf has on our natural world as well as the more arbitrary economic value wolves could potentially offer society. It also touches on the more nebulous, tough-to-quantify - but equally important - aesthetic and spiritual value of the wolf.

NOTE: This commentary is intended for public consumption. For this reason I have chosen to maximize readability by keeping it as short as possible and without peppering it with scientific references. Those requiring verification of the peer-reviewed studies that helped shape and support the viewpoints expressed below are referred to the excellent report summarizing current scientific literature relevant to the issue of wolf management. It was produced by Wendy Keefover of WildEarth Guardians. For your convenience and reference, the entire report (complete with full references to just under 100 scientific studies) may be downloaded here:

Northern Rocky Mountain Wolves: A Public Policy Process Failure (PDF: 3.2 MB)

I would like to thank Ray Rafiti, Lori Colt, and Wendy Keefover for making me aware of this report, sending it to me, and giving me permission to re-distribute it.

State of the Union: BC's Current Management Policy On Grey Wolves

When people learn of my chosen profession (full-time conservation and wildlife photographer) the discussion often quickly turns to questions about some of the "sexier" subjects I have photographed over the years - and before long we're talking about orcas, bears, and, quite commonly, wolves. This often leads to discussions about conservation and the "state of the union" about various species. Almost every member of the public that I talk to are absolutely shocked to find out that not only is it legal to kill wolves in BC, but that the Government of British Columbia's official policy towards wolves is designed to minimize - or even extirpate - wolf populations across the province. Those interested in checking the accuracy of this for themselves can download the "Hunting and Trapping Synopsis 2012 to 2014" right here (PDF: 35.6 MB).

How aggressive are BC's hunting and trapping regulations? Some examples:

• Cost of a species-specific wolf tag? What wolf tag? No tag required. So no cost. What other "game" species can you hunt without a tag? None.
• Personal "Bag" limit? Mixed - but in recent years many management units have gone from 2 or 3 to NBL (No Bag Limit)
• Short season - right? Wrong. Varies a little with management unit but most are from August or September through June. In my region, no closed season below 1100 metres elevation.

Following a century of more of persecution wolves have become hard to hunt - they are often incredibly wary and afraid of humans. In response, BC has adopted a policy that functionally removes ALL barriers to any hunter from shooting ANY wolf they seed. If a group of hunters encounters a pack of wolves throughout the bulk of the year, they can begin shooting and not stop until all that is left is a pile of smoking corpses.

What about the other side of the coin? What has the Government of BC done to encourage the return of the wolf to previously inhabited areas from which it has been extirpated? Nothing...nada.

The Components of the Valuation of a Wolf

Determining the full "value" of any species (including humans) is challenging. For the purposes of this commentary I will break down the value of a wolf into 3 components: some of the positive values of a wolf to a natural ecosystem (its ecological value), the quantifiable - realized or potential - value of a wolf to human society (its economic value), and the admittedly more nebulous and hard-to-quantify aesthetic and spiritual value of a wolf.

The Ecological Value of a Wolf

Most people have heard the truism that predators keep their prey base strong - they selectively pick out and remove old, sick, and weak members of the population and remove them from the gene pool. Turns out this is more than folklore - modern science has proven this to be true. One quick example: a recent study in the Yellowstone area found that human hunters killed female elk that averaged 6.5 years in age - wolves killed much older elk, averaging 13.9 years in age.

But the positive effects of wolves on an ecosystem are much more diverse than just culling weak members of their prey base. Many of these effects were most visibly demonstrated when wolves returned to Yellowstone National Park after an absence of many decades. Here are just a few of the positive ecosystem effects that science has attributed to the presence of ecologically functional populations of wolves (with more likely to follow in the coming years) in Yellowstone:

• General increase in biodiversity, including an increase in the number of songbirds (both species present and population sizes of already-present species); an increase in pronghorn numbers, an increase in lynx numbers.
• Identifiable effects and improvements in soil nutrients, soil microbes, and plant quality (owing to the presence of decomposing carcasses, courtesy of wolves).
• Assistance in the recovery of grizzly bear populations (again owing to the presence of carcasses available for bears to scavenge).
• Increase in aspen recruitment (for the first time in over 50 years) - owing to a change in foraging behavior of elk in the presence of wolves.
• A negative impact on the number and effect of mesopredators. You know, those smaller carnivores - like coyotes, skunks, and even martens - with sharp teeth who are often considered "pests" by ranchers and farmers (in the absence of apex predators like wolves, mesopredator outbreaks have been documented as having very high ecological, economic, and social costs throughout the world).
• Reduction in the prevalence of wildlife epidemics, including brucellosis and chronic wasting disease.

Simply put, ecosystems that have had their top predators - like wolves - removed quickly become biologically impoverished. In turn, this reduces ecosystem stability - something which can become an increasingly large problem as environmental conditions change rapidly (yes, think climate change).

Even if wolves had ZERO economic value, their ecological value is significant enough to argue for the conservation of ecologically significant populations (i..e, populations large enough for them to impact on the ecosystem).

The Economic Value of a Wolf

I was tempted to subtitle this section as "A Case History in How To Miss the Boat." And, before we get into the meat of this one, an important statement of my philosophy on hunting carnivores: In my perfect world there would be NO hunting of apex predators. It makes no ecological sense to "pick off" the top of the food chain. So, I am philosophically against the hunting of bears, cougars, wolves, wolverines, etc. But, I live in the real world and can recognize what is a winnable fight and what isn't. To go from government-encouraged wholesale opportunistic slaughter of wolves to a total ban on the hunting of wolves in one fell swoop is completely and totally impractical and unrealistic. Won't happen. So let's get real. Baby steps...

Lost Hunting-generated Revenue

A number of American authors have argued that the price set on a wolf, as set by the cost to the public of buying a wolf tag, is far too low. Two examples: in 2011-2012 the price of a wolf hunting tag to a resident of Idaho was $11.50, and in Montana it was $19.00. In contrast, in the same season in Idaho it cost $166.75 for a bighorn sheep, moose, or mountain goat. The cost for a wolf tag in BC? Oh right, no wolf tag required. No cost. No revenue. So the government has officially set the market value at ZERO.

Now...let's look at the cost of hunting some other apex predators that exist in roughly equal numbers and densities. In BC, grizzly tags are available only through a limited entry draw (i.e., they are artificially made scarce by the government) - and many of the available tags are awarded to commercial outfitters. Approach one of these operators to hunt and kill a grizzly and you'll pay between about $8,000 and $12,000 (there is often an up-charge if you successfully make a kill). How about a leopard in Africa? About $10,000. How do you say "lost opportunity"?

Lost Wildlife Watching Revenue

Wildlife viewing events, including guided wildlife photography tours, are gaining popularity throughout the world. The star attractions are ALWAYS the ones we refer to as the "charismatic megafauna". In Africa it's the big cats and rhinos. In North America it's orcas, humpback whales, and bears of all colors (polar bears, brown bears, and those white-phased black bears). And, as one who offers commercial wildlife photo tours myself, I can say this: the number one request I get (but can NOT currently provide) is for wolf photo tours. Why? Because after a century or more of persecution, the wolf numbers in BC are so low, and the ones that are remaining are so wary, that it is impractical to currently offer wolf photography tours.

For those who would argue that it will argue it will ALWAYS be impractical or impossible to offer commercially-viable wildlife viewing (and photography) of wolves I say two things: First - Yellowstone. Second - turn back the clock 30 years on today's commercially successful bear-viewing operations and the same criticism could have been leveled. Quit persecuting the wolves and before long we WILL be able to watch and photograph them.

But it's pocket-change right? Perhaps for Warren Buffet, but not for most folks. But in 2005 a total of 94,000 visitors drawn to Yellowstone to engage in wolf-watching generated $35.5 million in economic activity. This absolutely dwarfs the money raised by the hunting of wolves in the same region.

Just stop and think about how many times you can kill a wolf. And compare that number with how many times you can photograph the same wolf. Duh.

Dodging an Embargo on BC Tourism

One final point I must make pertaining to the economic value of wolves in general, and specifically to BC. In the week following my first blog post (February 11, 2013) subsequent to encountering the killing neck snares near my home I received a number of emails from interested readers from the UK and Europe. Several of them informed me that there were many from "across the pond" who were watching the wolf situation in BC with high interest. More than one indicated that if they didn't see "progress" on the issue soon, they were prepared to initiate a boycott on tourism to BC. A claim like this could have been easy to dismiss at one time. But with the emergence of the power of social media...well...ignore these kind of "threats" at your peril. And Canadians can remember what happened when Europe stood firmly against the importation of goods derived from the seal hunt.

How do you say "Missing the Boat?" And how do you say "Playing with Fire?"

The Aesthetic and Spiritual Value of a Wolf

There are a few animals that become symbolic of - and synonymous with - the wilderness. The grizzly bear is one of those symbols. Perhaps the cry of the loon is one as well. But there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the most powerful symbol of wilderness in North America is the wolf. It could be the sighting of a wolf. It could be the howling of the wolf. And even the thought of seeing or hearing a wolf will bring chills to many. I have watched the howl of a wolf bring tears to the eyes of my clients during photo tours in the Great Bear Rainforest of BC. Those howls have brought tears to my eyes too - not sure if it was tears of happiness, or tears of melancholy, or some mix thereof. But it was an amazingly emotional experience - and I'd pay BIG bucks to experience it again.

I won't pretend I can quantify the value of the very existence and essence of a wolf. Sure, I could probably dig up stats on how many tourists travel to Canada in the hopes of hearing or seeing a wolf.'s not just about money (even if the current CEO of Canada Inc. is trying to make us think that way). When the last grizzly bear or the last wolf dies something inside me - and any other feeling human being - will die. We are a product of the wilderness - and, acknowledge it or not, it is part of all of us. We must save and respect the essence of the wilderness - even for just its own sake...

Do wolves have any real value? Your actions will help determine if they do or not - both for yourself and for future generations...

February 19, 2013.


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Other Commentaries

Reality in the Age of Digital PhotographyDigital Manipulation vs. Digital CorrectionNature Photography as a Resource Extraction Industry
My Top 3 Reasons for Shooting in the RAWOn the Value of a WolfOn the Cost of a Wolf
The Challenge of Being a Green Nature Photographer


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Brad Hill and do not necessarily represent those of any other group, organization, or corporation.