An orca, as spotted by the Alaska Fisheries Science Center.
Photo by David Ellifrit, NOAA Fisheries Service

Living with Wolves, Losing our Orcas

Author Brenda Peterson takes a look at the vulnerable populations of two iconic species.

“There never really was a Big Bad Wolf,” my hunter father taught me. “Wolves are all gone from these forests.” Then he added, “But the wolf is a mighty hunter. And wolves have tight-knit families—just like us.”

Flash forward to 1995: Standing on a hillside in Yellowstone witnessing the Crystal Creek wolf pack howl and play with their pups. “They’re the first pups born here in 70 years,” whispered a wolf biologist with obvious pride.

Every year since the reintroduction, tourism has flourished as park visitors, it is hoped, flock to watch wolves. Scientists have documented that when wolves return to their natural habitats, they actually help restore the ecosystem: Overgrazed trees regenerate and there’s a dramatic increase in biodiversity.

Washington is still in the very early stages of wolf recovery. Wolves are on the state’s endangered species list; to recover they need 15 breeding pairs. Currently, there are only five such pairs, out of 16 packs—68 wolves total. Can Washington now manage its wolf reintroduction more sustainably than other states?“

Washington has the best wolf management plan in the West,” says Conservation Northwest’s Mitchell Friedman.

“We have an historic chance to be a model for wolf management,” explains Diane Gallegos, Executive Director of Wolf Haven International. She credits the collaborative work of the Wolf Advisory Group to listen to sportsmen, ranchers, and wolf advocates as they focus on science, education, and enlightened solutions. Ranchers are learning non-lethal and practical tools to protect their livestock, employing range riders (off-vehicle herders) and not grazing sheep near known wolf ranges. If ranchers sign a cooperative agreement with state wildlife officials to practice “conflict avoidance” they can receive radio collar alerts when wolves are near livestock.

Pacific Wolf Coalition reports that 100,000 West Coast residents joined 1 million citizens from across the country urging the government to maintain federal protection for gray wolves—even as a new bill threatens to reverse recent wolf protection and revive brutal wolf hunts in the West.

New research from Washington State University reveals that traditional wolf control tactics don’t work—killing wolves actually increases livestock predation. It’s counter-intuitive, but researcher Rob Wielgus discovered that killing wolves disrupts their social structure. “If you kill the alpha male and female, the pack fractures,” he explains. “Instead of one breeding pair, you may have two or three.”

We can find a more sustainable and balanced way to live with wolves, based on science, not politics. The key is dialogue, education, and social tolerance. As rancher, Sam Kayser, who pastures his cows on public land near Teanaway, explains, “I want to co-exist with wolves . . . there is room for all of us out there.”



A curious member of Washington's Lookout Pack. East slope of the North Cascades.
Photo by David Moskowitz

A curious member of Washington’s Lookout Pack on the east slope of the North Cascades. Photo by David Moskowitz


Orcas are considered the “wolves of the sea” because they are also top predators, have strong family bonds and an historic, often complicated history with humans.

Imagine a many-layered big brain that has had six million years to evolve—30 times longer than humans; an oceanic mammalian mirror of us with a sophisticated culture, complex language, astonishing acoustic skills, social rituals, and a vast knowledge of the waters we share.

Granny, the 103-year-old orca matriarch  of the famed J, K, and L family pods in Puget Sound, is such a “mind in the waters.”

This Salish Sea elder was born in 1911, before the Titanic struck that fateful iceberg; before our whole world went to war—twice. Granny swam our waters when the Wright Brothers were just learning to fly; when Henry Ford’s Model T cars first roared around our horse-pulled wagons.

Orcas claimed our inland sea for thousands of years before us; so it’s shocking to hear scientists predict that Granny’s Southern Resident pods are facing extinction within the next 100 years,  maybe as soon as 2045. A super-tanker oil spill, another lethal blast from the Navy’s military sonar or seismic tests, or the final collapse of chinook salmon (their dietary mainstay)—and our totemic, but officially endangered resident orca pods, will be gone.

Our J, K, and L pods are the most studied orcas in the world. Since 1976, Ken Balcomb of The Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor has documented many generations of orcas. This spring, three new calves give hope for these Southern Residents, bringing their population up to 80 after years of sharply declining numbers.

The birth and death of every orca is crucial to the survival of the clan. Balcomb and other marine mammal researchers have long advised federal authorities to set aside critical habitat for these orca pods. But the government has just declined to take action to protect orca habitat, claiming that human needs and national security come first. Military sonar testing and bombing continue, even in an Olympic coast whale sanctuary off Neah Bay and La Push. There’s still a glacial pace in tearing down the Snake River dam, which would revitalize salmon stocks and keep orcas from slow starvation.

Elders in any family, and across all species, offer practical survival strategies: where to find food, shelter, even mates. Like humans, orcas are the top predator in their habitat and their longevity rivals our own. Studying orcas can teach us about “staying on top of the food chain,” writes David Neiwert, in Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us.

Now, while we still have them,” concludes Ken Balcomb, “is the time to decide whether we want these iconic species in our neighborhood, or not.” May we see far beyond our own fears and needs. May we not be the last generation to celebrate a hundred-year-old-whale.

  • Brenda Peterson

    Brenda Peterson is a novelist, memoirist and National Geographic author. Her 18 books include the recent Your Life is a Book: How to Write and Publish Your Memoir and Leopard and Silkie: One Boy’s Quest to Save the Seal Pups. She lives in Seattle.

  • David Moskowitz

    David Moskowitz is a biologist, photographer and the author of Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest and Wolves in the Land of Salmon.