In the mountains, they strip bark from graceful fir forests and gobble alpine flowers. In the valleys, farmers curse them for trampling fields and eating crops.
An explosion in the deer population has become rural Japan’s biggest natural headache. Now a growing group of wildlife experts say that they have the natural remedy: wild wolves.
“It’s necessary to have a predator of the deer--it was like that 100 years ago,” said Masaaki Koganezawa, wildlife biology and management expert at Utsunomiya University Forests.
The pro-wolf movement is still in its infancy--the Japan Wolf Assn. was formed in 1993--but already the idea has set off an emotional debate about ecology, economics and even nationalism.
The wolf idea also has split environmentalists, with opponents arguing that crowded, super-industrialized Japan would hardly be a comfortable, safe home for wild wolves.
Wolf packs roamed the Japanese countryside until the late 1800s, when disease, fearful villagers and livestock owners decimated their numbers. The last Japanese wolf was killed in 1905.
Now, wolf supporters say, it’s time to turn back the clock--by importing similar breeds from China or Mongolia and setting them loose in Japan’s deepest mountain forests. As an example, they cite Yellowstone National Park in the United States, where wolves were reintroduced in 1995.
For the “bring back the wolf” crowd, the effort is nothing less than a crusade to reestablish a vital element of Japan’s national heritage--and preserve what natural beauty the country has left.
It also is an effort to counter influences from the West that led to the wolf extinction in Japan and still make the animal unpopular, from livestock breeding to imported “anti-wolf” tales like “Little Red Riding Hood.”
“Japan used to have wolves,” said Naoki Maruyama, chairman of the Japan Wolf Assn., which claims a membership of 350. “It’s the Japanese people’s obligation to bring them back.”
At the center of the debate is deer.
The gentle, graceful animals are blamed for ruining scenic forests by ripping bark off trees, devouring mountain foliage and running amok on farms. The government does not track the number of deer, but the Ministry of Agriculture says deer damaged 10,870 acres of forest in 1998--up 400% from 2,720 acres in 1977.
Wolf supporters have zeroed in on Nikko National Park, a 56-square-mile mountainous reserve 75 miles north of Tokyo, as the best place to test their plan.
The wolf association estimates that the park at Nikko could sustain between 100 and 200 wolves, with packs of five wolves each eating about 120 deer a year. With plenty of food in the highlands, they say, the animals would have little reason to encounter humans in the valleys.
The idea has raised the hackles of some animal lovers.
Critics say that Japan’s forests--crossed with highways, dotted with towns, golf courses and ski slopes--are unlikely places to expect wild animals to live without coming into conflict with humans.
They also fear that more human tinkering with nature could lead to even greater distortions in Japan’s environment. Critics have even maintained that Chinese wolves might not be able to adapt to different conditions in Japan.
“Japan’s ecosystem is already damaged, so the recovery of that is more important than bringing in wolves,” said Atsuko Suzuki, of Friends of the Wolf. “If you think about whether it’s good for the wolves, we say it isn’t.”
Another major obstacle to the wolf scheme is one of the factors that led to the extinction of the Japanese wolf a century ago: fear.
The wolf association’s surveys have found that less than 30% of Japanese favor reintroducing wolves. The government also is wary, arguing that the danger posed by wolves to humans could outweigh the benefits.
There are doubts even among folks not so enamored of deer: farmers.
In Senjogahara, a farming area inside the park at Nikko, Yoshio Okazaki said he spends up to $10,000 a year in netting and electrified fences to keep deer out of his flower and strawberry beds.
But that doesn’t make him a wolf fan.
“I’m definitely against wolves,” he said in his farmhouse. “If five stray dogs get together, they’ll easily attack you, especially children. I think wolves would be even more dangerous.”