Wolves: the endangered danger

Rachel Alexander

In high school, I went wolf tracking in the Idaho wilderness every summer. For one week each year, I dissected elk carcasses, dug through wolf poop and drew countless pictures of canine toes. This experience solidified my love of the outdoors during those summers, and I fell in love with the idea of the wolf. In this respect, I was not alone. For many environmentalists, wolves symbolize both the arrogance of humans in our domination of natural ecosystems and our chance for ecological redemption. Their story is intensely personal, as anyone who has ever heard them howl on a cold fall night can attest, yet their situation is also intensely political. Where wolves come, controversy follows.

Hunted to extinction in the lower 48 states, wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1996 and listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. By 2007, their numbers had grown from 14 animals to more than 1200. Because of this, wolves were removed from the federal endangered species list in April 2009, making it legal to hunt them. Environmental groups panicked, mounted lawsuits and stepped up fund-raising efforts. Ranchers, hunters and others opposed to reintroduction breathed a little easier.

I counted myself among the opposed environmentalists, and I couldn’t understand the desire to kill a wolf in cold blood. The raging debate between the government and environmental groups questioned how large the wolf population needed to be before it would be sustainable, but the lives of the individual wolves that would be affected were never mentioned by either side.

Now, on Semester in the West, I’m confronting the other side of the issue. Our largely pro-wolf delegation listened to five ranchers who run cattle in Wallowa County, Oregon. They spoke about wolf-incurred losses: not only kills, but lower calf weight and fewer births due to cows being stressed by the presence of predators. One rancher put the cost at $250 per cow, which is no small number for someone running 1000 cattle and barely breaking even. Although environmental interest groups have set up a compensation fund for confirmed wolf kills of cattle, proving cause of death is almost impossible unless the cow is found within hours of the kill.

Listening to these men, I was struck by the pain in their voices. They respect wolves immensely as predators, and none seemed likely to pick up a gun and shoot a wolf just for fun. They feel driven to the breaking point after years of demonization for grazing on public lands, while also struggling to make a profit working seven days a week. Their livelihood depends on being able to run cows; the environmentalists they contend with have, in their mind, a much smaller stake in the issue.

Personal feelings aside, most ranchers have accepted that wolves are here to stay. They are trying to adapt to life with wolves. Many are having difficulty because of Oregon state law. Although states must comply with the Endangered Species Act, they are free to make stricter laws governing wildlife protection. Wolves remain on Oregon’s state list, and consequently a wolf cannot be killed by a private citizen, even if it is discovered in the act of killing a cow.

Wolves’ legal status changed again on Aug. 5 when a federal judge ruled that Wyoming’s State Management Plan was inadequate to prevent wolves from becoming endangered again. Though I want to be happy with this decision, it means an end to hunting, and hunting will be necessary for the long-term survival of the wolf. Wolves are crucial for ecological balance, but there are people who will be hurt by their presence. Idaho ranchers who feel powerless to protect their cows have resorted to shooting wolves illegally, no longer bothering to call Fish and Wildlife when a calf is killed.

Unless the concerns of ranchers are taken seriously by environmentalists, attitudes toward the wolf will never change. Allowing hunting is a middle ground between wildlife activists and the people most affected by their quest to reintroduce the wolf. Ultimately, this will allow those who feel marginalized by current policy to accept the presence of wolves, benefiting all stakeholders in the long run.