Wolves, long misunderstood as mindless killers, are really nothing of the sort: They have gone to the brink of extinction and back - and are now once again threatened, thanks to human interference. But the real fight here is about wilderness and what our land is for
Saturday, December 9, 2017 – Print Edition, Page O6

Author of The Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West.

We tend to think of wilderness as the opposite of civilization. There is the natural world, in other words, and then there is the world we have made for ourselves. But in a place as thoroughly exploited as the American West - harvested first for fur, then timber, then gold, then fossil fuels - wilderness is something that has to be created, or recreated, by people. The problem is that not everyone agrees on what an ideal wilderness should look like, on what to leave in and what to leave out. This has never been more true than in the case of wolves, the animal that Westerners for decades have been fighting over more than any other. Decimated by fur trappers in the 19th century and then finished off by ranchers protecting livestock, wolves were eliminated from the West by the 1920s, just as they had been across the vast majority of the lower 48 states as settlement moved inexorably westward.

But then wolves began to make a comeback, with the help of federal wildlife officials - and an assist from Canada.

Wolves captured near Jasper National Park in Alberta were reintroduced in the mid-1990s to Yellowstone National Park in northwestern Wyoming and to a federally protected wilderness area in central Idaho. The idea was to restore some balance to the ecosystem, which had far too many prey animals - chiefly elk and mule deer - as a result of decades without a top predator to keep them in check.

The project was a stunning success, as wolves multiplied and spread throughout much of their former range in the Northern Rockies. Not everyone celebrated, however. Ranchers opposed the project from the very beginning, as did hunters and hunting guides. Elk hunting is big business in the Northern Rockies, and wolves eat a lot of elk. Both constituencies had powerful friends in state legislatures in the region, and local officials fought back against, as they put it, "overreaching federal bureaucrats," until the politics around the issue became increasingly poisonous.

How poisonous? After the first wolves were returned to Wyoming, a bill was introduced offering a cash bounty to anyone who shot a wolf dispersing from Yellowstone, and directing the state to provide for the legal defence of any person that the federal government attempted to prosecute for unlawfully killing a wolf. Meanwhile, Idaho's official wolfmanagement plan - the document drafted to assure the federal government that the state could be a responsible steward for wolves once federal protection was removed - contains the following declaration: "Idaho is on the record asking the federal government to remove wolves from the state." Idaho's current governor, C.L. (Butch) Otter, campaigned in 2006 on a promise of drastically reducing Idaho's wolf population as soon as federal protection was lifted. By 2012, the wolf population had become sufficiently numerous and stable that the federal government did in fact withdraw its protection throughout the region, and wolves are now hunted and trapped in the Northern Rockies. Today, the fight is over whether or not wolves should be protected as they disperse into nearby states - and whether they should be reintroduced into the Southern Rockies, beginning with the state of Colorado, which has a huge expense of public land and a burgeoning deer population of its own. Both sides are girding for another epic confrontation.

But what are we really fighting about when we fight about wolves? Lost livestock? Twenty years into the reintroduction experiment in the Northern Rockies, the problem is not as dire as ranchers feared it would be. Consider the case of Wyoming: The state has a combined cattle and sheep inventory of around 1.6 million in any given year, tens of thousands of which are lost annually to disease and bad weather. Wolves killed just 230 of those animals last year. The state, meanwhile, compensates ranchers for the value of every cow or sheep killed by wolves, multiplied by a generous factor of seven to allow for the likelihood of unconfirmed losses.

What about elk? It is true that some individual populations - such as the famous Yellowstone elk herd - are smaller, which has meant a hard time for hunters and guides in a few areas, such as the valleys east of the national park, where thousands of Yellowstone elk migrate for the winter months. But recall that reducing the size of that herd was one of the goals of reintroduction. (Small comfort to those who didn't share that goal, of course, but hardly an unexpected result.)

Elsewhere in Wyoming, however, elk are thriving, and near-record harvests have been recorded in recent hunting seasons.

The hunters will move to where the elk are, as they always have. Nor are wolves dangerous to people; in the 20 years since reintroduction, there has not been a single documented attack in the Northern Rockies, and attacks on people worldwide are extremely rare.

The real fight here, as in so many other controversies in the West, is about land - what it should be used for, and who should have the right to decide. It's an old debate, born from seeds planted in the 19th century, when the first pioneers came West and discovered an untouched paradise rich in natural resources (and saturated with wolves).

Beautiful as it was, much of the land was too arid or too rugged for the small farms that homesteaders had established in the much more hospitable East and Midwest.

The government instead adopted a pattern of selling access to the West's treasures - grazing rights, timber, precious metals, oil and gas - without actually selling the land itself. Today, the federal government still controls almost half of all the land in the West. As a result, the residents of a state such as Idaho, where fully two-thirds of the land is federally owned, don't make decisions about how the resources in their own backyards should be used. Instead, agencies including the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management call the shots from Washington, and people all over the country - even those who only visit a Western destination such as Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon once in their lifetimes - feel that they should have a say in how the West is managed, because it belongs to them just as much as anybody who actually lives there.

As long as resource extraction was the foremost goal of federal managers, this arrangement suited most Westerners. But when the environmental movement gained steam in the 1970s, rising resentment over conservation measures on federal land boiled over in the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, when Western politicians pressed Congress to turn control over much of the land to the states, or even to private owners. Timber companies resented bans on logging in national forests to protect owls and other endangered species. Exhaustive environmental reviews slowed new mining projects for years. For every environmentalist who resented the fact that cattle were grazed on public lands, there was a rancher in the West who resented paying the fees, who believed that the land ought to belong to the people who used it, the sort of common-law notion that underlay the very idea of homesteading that had brought people to the frontier to begin with.

When the effort to wrest control of the West from Washington failed, some of the frustrated anti-government fervour expressed itself in darker ways, such as the white-nationalist militia groups that cropped up, most notoriously in Montana. In 2014, disaster was narrowly averted during an armed standoff between federal authorities and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who refused to pay fees for grazing his sheep on federal land and summoned armed supporters to fight the eviction of his stock. He was arrested two years later when he tried to join another band of vigilantes, led by his son, who had taken over a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon to protest what they considered to be onerous limitations on ranchers.

That standoff resulted in the death of one of the armed insurgents, who was killed by police. The trial for Mr. Bundy and his son began last month under heavy security in a federal courthouse in Las Vegas.

Overreaching federal judges, restrictions on gun ownership (however modest), job-killing bans on logging and mining - the list of grievances among Westerners is long, and the return of the wolf was seen by many as just one more burden to bear. When politicians such as Butch Otter gather votes by vowing to wipe out wolves, they are tapping into that strain of conservative, anti-Washington populism, which has never really gone away. And it won't, as long as it is useful. If you are a certain type of politician in the West, your position on wolves has become a kind of litmus test, like your stance on gun control or abortion.

It's a way of signalling to voters what kind of candidate you are and what you stand for, regardless of how much impact the presence of wolves actually has on any particular constituent's life or livelihood.

Pushed and pulled by the perilous politics of wolves, the federal government's response has been to try to make everybody happy. Despite a commitment to restoring predators to public lands in the West (not only wolves, but grizzlies too), federal officials continue to lease pasture to ranchers on those same public lands.

When helpless domestic stock inevitably fall prey to wolves, the same government dispatches professional trappers to shoot the offending wolves, free of charge to the ranchers - an occurrence so regular that the numbers lost to government trappers over the last 20 years rivals the count killed by sportsmen. It's like something from Catch-22 or, better yet, Dr. Strangelove. It's not hard to imagine Peter Sellers (President Muffley), sitting in the war room with his aides and generals, throwing up his hand at the whole mess.

"General Turgidson, we've got to find out who's been killing these wolves we brought down from Canada, and why!"

And the general's reply: "Well, technically, sir, we are killing them. Technically."

And yet the battle lines in the West are not as clear as they may seem. Much more powerful, if less radical, interests than the Bundy family are behind the push to reduce the size of national monuments in the West, again in the name of local control versus federal encroachment. In response to urging from oil and gas companies, President Donald Trump this week reduced the size of two such protected areas in Utah, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, by some two million acres, the largest such rollback in history, and has announced plans to trim even more acreage set aside by presidents Bush and Obama over the past decade. But environmentalists have found some unlikely allies here, as hunters and other sportsmen have joined their ranks in opposition to the land grab. Likewise, the official Mr. Trump tasked with carrying out the plan, Interior Secretary and former Montana congressman Ryan Zinke, has at the same time identified several new monuments he would like to set aside, including one in his home state, where - despite local resentment over federal regulations - he knows there is also a large constituency in support of conservation and preservation of the state's natural heritage.

The American West is not the only place where the management of wolves has become controversial. Rebounding wolf populations in some European countries, such as Italy, have led to renewed calls to control their numbers.

To protect dwindling caribou herds in Alberta and British Columbia, meanwhile, wildlife managers have used strychnine-laced bait, aerial gunning and snares to kill more than 1,000 wolves in the past decade. But studies indicate that habitat loss, largely due to logging and oil and gas production, is the true cause of the shrinking herds, not predation from wolves, which, after all, have co-existed with caribou for thousands of years in those woods. Wolves have been ready scapegoats for centuries, since the first pastoral civilizations began building economies around livestock, which made wolves the enemies of men. Myths as old as recorded history - reinforced over time, from medieval werewolf tales to Grimms' fairy tales to modern Hollywood movies, in which wolves are still depicted as mindless killers - die hard.

Wolves are much more than that, as two decades of study in Yellowstone - not to mention thousands of delighted wolf-watching visitors - has demonstrated. If everybody knew the truth about wolves, would it change the tone of the debate? Maybe not. In the years before wolves were brought back to Wyoming and Idaho, a government biologist named Ed Bangs was assigned the thankless task of travelling to small ranching communities in the area to explain what the federal government was doing, and why. Not surprisingly, he absorbed a lot of abuse in those meetings, and over time he became somewhat philosophical about his job, as anyone would under the circumstances. Now, when he speaks in front of pro-wolf groups, he often makes a point about the putative value of "educating" the public about an issue. What we often mean by education, he tells them, is "I'm going to tell you what I know, so that you will believe what I believe."

Mr. Bangs came to the conclusion that it doesn't work that way. There was (and is) a lot of misinformation floating around about wolves, and setting the record straight is a worthwhile undertaking. But it's not enough, because we are not really arguing about facts when it comes to wolves. We are arguing about values. If you talk to hunters and ranchers in the Northern Rockies about the landscape they live and work on, they will give you a long list of things they value about those woods - but the maintenance of a balanced ecosystem will not be on it. Hunters don't want a perfect balance between predator and prey - they want a surplus of elk, so there will be plenty available to stalk in the fall.

Ranchers, for their part, just want fewer predators (and, for that matter, fewer elk, which compete with cattle for forage).

The fight over Canis lupus has revealed a difficult truth about our own species, Homo sapiens. As the journalist Jane Mayer recently explained in an insightful New Yorker piece, our species developed its capacity for reason and logic as an adaptive strategy. Just as our ability to manipulate tools, learning to reason enhanced our chances of survival. But the real advantage of learning to reason, Ms. Mayer points out, wasn't that it gave us a better understanding of how the world works, although that didn't hurt.

Rather, reason was most useful because it helped early humans win arguments, mostly about who should have to take risks, such as hunting a dangerous animal, and who should get to stay in the cave where it was safe. But all is not lost.

We are, after all, still evolving, and - perhaps - learning just how dangerous ideological polarization can be to our species.

We need to educate, to be sure. But we also need to strive for a higher and better use for our capacity for reason - finding common ground.

Associated Graphic

Wolves, such as these ones photographed at Northern Lights Wolf Centre in Golden, B.C., were all but eliminated from the American West by the 1920s. They have since made a remarkable comeback -sparking some heated debates over land use and conservation along the way.


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