The Big Bad Wolf Makes Good
Beyond the Bovine Curtain
As wolf reintroduction took hold and wolves migrated out of Yellowstone as far as Oregon to the west and Colorado to the east, it became clear that surrounding states needed plans to deal with their spread. Once regarded as an endangered species and legally protected by the Endangered Species Act, wolves were taken off the formal list of protected creatures wherever states created plans for restoring and managing them. The intention of the federal government was to allow states to participate in, and so take some control over, the recovery process in the West.
As it happened, however, most states took a strikingly hostile approach to their new wolf populations, treating them as varmints. A federal court took away Wyoming's power to regulate wolves within its borders when it decided that the state's management goal would be no wolves at all outside of the Yellowstone and Teton national parks. Other Western states are now planning to keep their numbers as low as possible without triggering a federal takeover, too low to play their ecological role, or even survive over the long run, according to conservation biologists. After wolves were "delisited" in Idaho in 2009, 188 of them were killed by hunters before the year was out.
In August 2010, a federal judge ruled that wolves everywhere but in Minnesota and Alaska (where wolf populations are plentiful and healthy) must be relisted as an endangered species and afforded more protection. How this major decision will shape the debate from here on out is uncertain. Since relisting precludes sport hunting, state wildlife agencies are now making plans to kill more wolves themselves to keep their numbers low. Critics worry about a return to the days when wolves were routinely shot, trapped, poisoned and gassed in their dens.
Up until now, where wolves and cows mix, cows have ruled. What wildlife advocate George Wuerthner calls the "bovine curtain" limits full wolf restoration to within Yellowstone's park boundaries. Outside the park, where the feds have less power and control, wolf packs continually form but are often slaughtered, usually at the insistence of ranchers who can legally shoot wolves that attack cattle. They are also compensated for wolf-kill losses from both state funds and privately donated ones. Wolf predation accounts for only about 1 percent of livestock deaths across the northern Rockies, but those deaths generate disproportionate resentment and fear.
Ranchers are the first to understand that, in the arid West, a cow may require 250 acres of forage to live. In the states where wolves are spreading, cows wander wide and don't sleep safely in barns at night as they do in the east. Wolves need room to roam, too. Overlap and predation are the inevitable results. If wolves are ever to effectively play their ecological role again across the West, significant changes in animal husbandry, like adding range riders and guard dogs, would be required, as well undoubtedly as less grazing overall. The implied threat to limit grazing provokes fierce opposition from cattlemen's associations, a powerful and influential Republican constituency throughout the West. Real cowboys don't sip tea, but as anger over those wolves builds, they may be riding off to the nearest tea party nevertheless.
At public hearings across the rural West wherever wolves are rebounding, near-hysterical locals claim that their children will be carried off from their yards by those awful beasts set loose by evil Obamacrats willing to sacrifice life and limb to win favor with tree-hugging Easterners. In New Mexico, such hostility has led to poaching that has decimated an endangered species of gray wolves reintroduced twelve years ago after the last survivors of that species were trapped, bred in captivity, and released into the wild.
Eco-Commodities or Ecological Communities?
Today's wolf wars pit opposing perspectives on how (or even why) our public lands should be managed against each other. The disagreement is fundamental. On one side is a historic/traditional resource management paradigm that sees our Western lands as a storehouse of timber, minerals and fresh water; on the other side, a new biocentric orientation driven by conservation biologists who see landscapes as whole ecosystems and all species as having intrinsic value. At one end of the spectrum lie strip-mining coal companies; at the other, deep ecologists. In between you can find conflict, contradiction, and confusion as we sort out a new consensus about how to manage vast public land holdings in the West.
In the beginning, Americans assumed that nature was inefficient (if efficiency is defined as getting the most bang for the buck) and that humans could manage the planet better than Mother Earth. Wild rivers, after all, spill their liquid bounty where they will and then empty themselves into the sea. What a waste! In the same way, forest fires were viewed as a prime example of Nature's wanton destruction. To a rancher who is leasing public land, wolves and cougars are monsters of inefficiency.
It's far clearer now that nature is, in fact, efficient indeed, if creating healthy, viable ecosystems is what's on your mind. Matter and energy are never wasted in food webs where synergy is the rule. Because we have come to appreciate how rich nature's interconnections are, we are now committed to protecting species we once would have wiped out with little regard. Health (including the health of the planet), not wealth alone, is becoming a priority. Think of wolf reintroduction, then, as a kind of hinge-point between the two paradigms. After centuries of not leaving the natural world's order to chance, micro-managing wherever we could, we are now encouraged to take a chance on Nature, to trust the self-organizing powers of life to heal ecosystems we have wounded.
While organizing campaigns to make polluters accountable, I learned that citizens generally won't take them on until they grasp that the deepest link they have to their environment is their own bloodstreams. Once they understand the pathways from a smokestack or a poisoned watershed to the tumors growing in their children's bodies, they can become a powerful force. But first they have to know what's at stake.
In this regard, ecological literacy is not a side issue. It's a prerequisite for survival. The articulation of reality is more primal than any strategy or policy. If greed is turning the Earth into a scorched planet of slums, ignorance is its enabler. Just as American farmers once realized that erosion follows ignorance and learned how to plow differently, just as most of us finally learned that rivers should not be used as toxic dumps, so today we must learn that environments have the equivalent of operating systems. Predation by large carnivores is written deep into the code of much of the American landscape. Today, a rancher who expects to do business in a predator-free landscape is no more reasonable than yesterday's industrialist who expected to use the nearest river as a sewer. Living with wolves may be a challenging proposition, but it's hardly impossible to do—as folks in Minnesota or Canada can attest.
Hard days are ahead as the weather, once benign and predictable, becomes hotter, drier, and ever more chaotic. Western landscapes are already stressed—whole forests are dying and deserts are becoming dustbowls. To maintain their vitality in the face of such dire challenges, those lands will need all the relief we can give them. We now understand far better the many ways in which nature's living communities are astonishingly connected and reciprocal. If we could only find the courage to trust their self-organizing powers to heal the wounds we have inflicted, we might become as resilient as those Yellowstone wolves.