Wolf conflict, take 452

 

The wolf debate in the West is irredeemably ossified. I realized this when I strolled into the town square in Jackson, Wyoming, Saturday morning and saw the crowd of cowboy-booted and behatted protestors, gathered for an anti-wolf rally, hefting signs blazoned with tired, decade-old slogans - “Save Wyoming Wildlife; Delist Canadian Wolves,”  “Wolves: smoke a pack a day,” and “Wolves are the baddest pouchers [sic] in the USA.” The equally stereotypical Patagonia-clad environmentalists with their “I love wolves” and “Humans are the pests” signs completed the tableau. With rampant states-rights fervor in the air, all I could think about was Civil War re-enactments; the audience already knows how the battle turns out, but show up anyway to make sure each sides plays its role properly. In this case, everyone was in perfect character, and the outcome was just as predictable.
 
As it stands now, the wolf debate is binary: you are either for wolves, or against them. Arguing over the details of the science, which provides few definitive answers, is a means of asserting an identity-based affiliation with one clique or the other. Try to elucidate a nuanced position to either side, and you’ll find yourself immediately under attack.
 
But for me, an ecologist with a background in anthropology and human rights work, the wolf situation presents a labyrinthine, highly nuanced ethical conundrum. Maintaining a viable wolf population requires connectivity over large scales, which means that wolves must utilize private lands and public resources such as elk herds. Maintaining ecosystem functionality is the ultimate goal, and society must bear the short-term costs in order to reap the longer-term benefits.
 It’s unfair, however, to ask specific individuals to bear the brunt of that cost, as has happened in the wolf case, and it’s difficult not to be sympathetic to the sense of betrayed expectations among ranchers and outfitters who were led to believe that the wolf would be delisted once the population reached the recovery goals. Make no mistake: much of that sympathy vaporizes in the face of the obnoxious, hostile, and frequently paranoid rhetoric employed by the anti-wolf crowd. But if you can relax your own offended sense of identity and not get distracted by peripheral arguments, the need for a new paradigm for the wolf question becomes obvious.
 
Ideas for alternatives do exist, even if they fail to grab media attention. Here's one example: environmental and anti-wolf groups expend enormous resources in carrying out their arguments via the media and courts. What if the two sides explored the idea of forming a coalition to use these resources as seed money to establish a national, federally funded carnivore fund that expands on the Barrasso-Tester Livestock Loss Mitigation Act? This fund could compensate ranchers for lost livestock at an adequate rate, offer financial incentive directly to ranchers for innovative conflict-mitigation programs, and provide money and direction for future research.

Outfitters and ranchers often complain that environmental advocacy groups harness money from urban coastal dwellers to interfere in the lives of hard-working westerners. What if this money was harnessed instead through a program similar to the duck stamp initiative, in which those concerned about protecting carnivores pay into a fund that would directly assist communities in finding better ways to live with carnivores? An essential first step in this process would be engaging with ranchers, outfitters, and environmentalists interested in a Middle Way solution, which allows for the persistence of carnivores while recognizing that management of wolves - including trophy hunting and, occasionally, preemptive control of wolves in areas where there is no social tolerance - will be necessary.
 
Steve Primm, a wildlife biologist and community-based conservationist who has worked for years on carnivore issues in the Madison Valley of Montana, is poised to begin such a discussion with stakeholders in his region. Dr. Seth Wilson, of the Blackfoot Challenge, whose community-based work has reduced bear-rancher conflict in the Blackfoot Valley by 84 percent over the past five years, is interested in exploring similar techniques to reduce wolf conflicts. These are a few examples of the creative options that the wolf discussion needs if we really are going to move forward. We’re an imaginative nation, and I’m sure there are numerous other ideas out there.
 
The wolf debate as it has been carried out for the past fifteen years is now a historical artifact. At the next public event dealing with wolves, I hope to see American innovation on display, rather than the same worn-out reenactment of battles whose outcome will remain a stalemate.

Rebecca Watters is a Project Manager for the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, where she conducts research on wolverine ecology. She also blogs at The Wolverine Blog.