November 6, 2013
James McWilliams, Contributor
If the October headlines were any indication, the quickest way for a wolf to make the news is to get shot. The Jackson Hole News and Guide reported the story of a Wyoming hunter who bagged a wolf, strapped him atop his SUV, and paraded his trophy through Town Square. A Montana landowner shot what he thought was a wolf (it turned out to be a dog hybrid) amid concerns that the beast was harassing house cats. The Ecologist speculated that hunters were chasing wolves from Oregon, where hunting them is illegal, into Idaho, where it’s not, before delivering fatal doses of “lead poisoning.”
Predictably, these cases raise the hackles of animal right advocates and conservationists alike. Both groups typically view hunting wolves as a fundamental threat to a wolf population that, after a history of near extermination, is struggling to survive reintegration into the Northern Rockies. According to Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, “Hunting is now taking a significant toll on wolf populations.”
While the anger directed toward irresponsible wolf hunters makes perfect sense, it should not obscure the essential reason for the wolf wars in the first place: livestock. Michael Wise, a history professor at the University of North Texas and the author of a forthcoming book on wolves on the Canadian border, says that “The challenge of wolf recovery is reintegrating the animals within a region that was transformed by industrial agriculture during the carnivore’s sixty-year absence.” Protecting migration corridors, expanding habitats, and fostering genetic diversity are integral to this goal. But, as Wise notes, “Opposing the wolf hunts does not address these larger issues.”
Understanding what would address these larger issues requires momentarily looking backward. Historically speaking, wolves got the shaft. When Lewis and Clark explored the American west at the dawn of the nineteenth century, thousands of wolves thrived across the Northern Rockies. Lewis admiringly called them “the shepherds of the buffalo.”
But the systemic destruction and commodification of their natural prey–including the buffalo, deer, elk, antelope, and bighorn sheep–as well as the subsequent replacement of wild animals with domesticated livestock, effectively transformed wolves–who wasted no time attacking helpless livestock–from innocent wildlife into guilty predators. Federally sponsored extermination programs–which included the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey (later the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) hiring hunters to kill wolves en masse–succeeded so well that wolf numbers dropped to virtually nil by 1930. In such ways was the West won. (A similar battle continues, to an extent, in the attempt to remove wild horses today).
Six decades later, buffeted by the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the emergence of a modern environmental movement, conservationists were working diligently to restore wolves to their former climes. But the livestock industry had, throughout the century, radically altered the old terrain, not to mention the rules governing it. Twentieth-century grazing practices denatured the wolf’s traditional habitat, reducing the landscape to ruins while securing ranchers’ presumed right to continue exploiting the wild west for tame animals. Michael Robinson, noting that the process of land degradation began in the nineteenth century, puts it this way: ”the west was picked clean of anything of value.”
Cattle had indeed wrecked havoc. They destroyed watersheds, trampled riparian vegetation, and turned grasslands to hardpan, triggering severe erosion. To top it off, the livestock industry spent the twentieth century securing cheap access to public lands through thousands of grazing permits now granted by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. Today, ranchers enjoy tax-supported access to 270 million acres of public land. Seventy-three percent of publicly-owned land in the west is currently grazed by privately owned livestock. Some of that grazing might be done responsibly. Most of it, according to the BLM itself, is definitely not.
No matter what the quality of prevailing grazing practices, one thing remains the same as it did a century ago: ranchers have a clear incentive to kill wolves. As environmental groups worked to form a united front in support of wolf reintegration in the mid-1990s, anti-wolf advocates articulated their opinions with vicious clarity. Hank Fischer, author of Wolf Wars and an advocate of wolf reintroduction, recalled the arguments he confronted as he pushed the pro-wolf agenda in Montana. “The Wolf is the Saddam Hussein of the Animal World,” read the placard of one protester. “How Would You Like to Have Your Ass Eaten by a Wolf?,” asked another.
Politically sanctioned release of pent-up vituperation against wolves came in 2012. It was then when gray wolves were completely removed from endangered species lists. Hunting season commenced with a bang in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Recreational hunters and ranchers–not to mention the federal Wildlife Services–have since shot hundreds of wolves that ostensibly posed a threat to livestock. At times, such as last week, hunts have evinced grotesque, vigilante-like displays. According to James William Gibson, writing in The Earth Island Journal, “The Northern Rockies have become an unsupervised playpen for reactionaries to act out warrior fantasies against demonic wolves, coastal elites, and idiotic environmentalists.”
Fortunately, as the debate over wolf hunting rages, cooler heads are trying to prevail. Camilla Fox , Executive Director of Project Coyote, an organization dedicated to the peaceful coexistence of humans and animals, advocates policies that promote, in her words, “predator conservation and stewardship.”
Working closely with ranchers, she encourages them to have “tolerance and acceptance of wolves on the landscape.” She highlights several non-lethal methods of management, including using guard animals (such as Great Pyrenees and llamas) to deter wolves and coyotes from attacking livestock, better fencing, range-riders, fladry (flags that whip and flap in the wind), and grazing allotment buyouts, a solution that allows private parties to pay ranchers to relinquish their grazing permits. Project Coyote’s work has already had a dramatically successful impact on resolving conflicts between sheep owners and coyotes in Marin County, California.
Whatever techniques are eventually used to keep wolves off the headlines and in the wilderness, critics of wolf hunting should not lose sight of the fact that, while hunters are an easy (and perhaps legitimate) target for their ire, a lead poisoned wolf in 2013 is ultimately the victim of a century of disastrous decisions regarding land use–specifically, the use of livestock on the landscape. Eliminating grazing permits for western cattle ranchers would negatively impact no more than 10 percent of the beef industry in the United States. Ten percent! Seems a modest tonnage of flesh to sacrifice in order to save a species that symbolizes the beautiful essence of a landscape we have lost.
As Camilla Fox notes, “they do a lot better when we leave them alone.”