ASHTON, IDAHO - The West's traveling anti-wolf evangelist, Ron Gillett, brought his crusade to this rural community a couple of weeks ago.
It's a good venue for him. Hundred-pound wolves prowl among people and livestock and elk around here, on the western border of Yellowstone National Park, stirring up waves of fear and anger.
In mid-April, naked dirt showed in the farm fields, and the higher-elevation public lands held the ruins of winter in melting snowdrifts. The town of Ashton is nothing fancy, just a few blocks of small businesses and a scatter of houses around a stand of grain elevators.
About 120 of the locals turned out to see Gillett on a chilly Thursday evening. They parked mud-splattered pickups and SUVs at the Ashton Community Center and along side streets, by the Log Cabin Motel and the Zion Lutheran Church. As they filed into the metal-roofed, brick-walled community center, the sky glowed with sunset. A nearly full moon was rising, and the snowy tips of the Tetons brightened the horizon. The sound of cattle bawling came from a nearby feedlot.
In the main room - a wood-floored basketball court - the crowd filled rows of metal folding chairs and stood along the walls. They were all ages, gray-haired down to infants, some women but mostly men, in farmers' caps and cowboy hats, sweatshirts and jackets, jeans and boots.
The furnace hadn't been turned on, so it was cold in the room. But Gillett, a beefy guy, was in short-sleeves, his baby-blue T-shirt decorated with a macabre scene of bloody-jawed wolves around a torn-apart elk. Sheaves of silver hair stuck out from under his straw cowboy hat, and silver medallions shone on his wristwatch band. He positioned himself at the front of the crowd, and as he began speaking, things warmed up.
"I'm not gonna let anyone sleep in here tonight," he said. "I'm pretty passionate about this wolf thing."
Raising his voice, sometimes almost shouting, jabbing a finger to emphasize his points, he spoke for an hour and a half.
He delivered his message with the fervor of a fundamentalist preacher: Wolves must be removed from Idaho! Immediately! Because they're killing too many elk and other prey, and soon they'll kill people!
"It makes me fighting mad!" he roared.
The crowd listened politely, with the reserve of country people, and yet most seemed to agree with Gillett's tirade.
There are reasons why the "reintroduction" of wolves to the Northern Rockies continues to rankle people.
The 66 Canadian wolves brought to Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in 1995-1996 have multiplied to more than 1,500 - an Endangered Species Act victory, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and environmentalists. But as wolves have spread through Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, with bone-crushing bites, they've killed hundreds of ranchers' cows, plus sheep, horses, dogs, and tens of thousands of wild elk and other game.
In response, government wildlife agents have executed hundreds of wolves, mostly by aerial shotgunning, to appease ranchers and elk hunters.
And lately it's gotten easier to kill wolves. The feds removed the Northern Rockies wolf population from the endangered species list March 28, shifting management to state agencies, which have more liberal rules. That set off an unofficial killing spree. By the time Gillett came to Ashton, 20 days after the feds pulled back, citizen shooters had killed at least nine wolves in Wyoming, in areas where that state government classifies wolves as pests. Montana had at least one unofficial wolf-killing in that period, and in Idaho there had been at least three.
Near Ashton, wolves had killed dogs at two homes April 9, and a dog owner responded with gunshots (results unknown). Another guy said two wolves threatened his herd of horses. He told Channel 8 TV news in Idaho Falls that the wolves "came up to his cabin, got into the dog dish, pulled out blankets and then circled" the cabin. He shot and killed one wolf, then fired up a snowmobile and chased the other more than a mile and killed it as well.
A murky new law - Idaho Code 36-1107, subsections (b) and (c) - says anyone can kill wolves without a permit, if the wolves are "molesting" livestock or pets. "Molesting" is defined as "the actions of a wolf that are annoying, disturbing or persecuting, especially with hostile intent or injurious effect, or chasing, driving, flushing, worrying, following after or on the trail of, or stalking or lying in wait for, livestock or domestic animals."
The Idaho Fish and Game Department wanted a misdemeanor charge against the snowmobiler for killing the second wolf - a possible $1,000 fine. The local prosecutor declined to file the charge.
Idaho plans to let hunters kill wolves, for the first time ever, this fall - selling wolf tags for $11.50. But that's not enough for Gillett and his allies. They want to get an initiative on the November ballot that would let Idaho voters decide whether to remove almost all wolves from the state. Under two banners - the Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition and Save Our Elk - they were circulating petitions, trying to collect at least 45,893 signatures by May 1. If they missed that deadline, Gillett told the crowd, they would immediately begin a new petition drive. "We don't care if you nuke 'em or poison 'em," Gillett said, "as long as they're gone!"
The license plate on Gillett's truck says NO WOLFS. He rattled off his credentials: His grandfather was a sheepherder, his father was a cattle rancher, and he's been an outfitter. He rents cabins to hunters on his land outside tiny Stanley, Idaho. And he's been campaigning against wolves for more than a decade.
He's threatened lawsuits against the government (which didn't get filed), pushed an anti-wolf resolution through the Legislature (which had no real effect), and tried a previous petition drive (which didn't succeed). His wife got seriously ill with multiple sclerosis, and he offered to lay off the wolves to spend more time with her. She told him to keep at it. On this petition drive, he'd traveled "more than 5,000 miles in the last six weeks." The stress may be getting to him: He'd recently pled not guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge, arising from an altercation with a pro-wolf woman.
More highlights of his talk: A wolf kills 16 to 24 elk and deer per year, just for food! They engage in "sport binge killing" - and they'll wipe out competing predators, such as bobcats and lynx! They'll dig up a hibernating bear and kill it! Wolves "are the most cruel, vicious animal in North America ... the only predator that eats its prey alive because they like the taste of warm blood!" Enviros - the "wolf-thug terrorist groups"- are full of "crap" and "baloney" when they claim wolves have little impact. "When they turned wolves loose, they were having toasts that hunting in Idaho would soon be over!"
He even said one of his arch-enemies - Idaho Fish and Game's top wolf manager, Steve Nadeau - "would love an alpha female wolf for a girlfriend!"
Then he got out an anti-wolf poem and read it to the crowd. He didn't mention that other anti-wolf groups - including the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association and the Idaho Cattle Association - don't support his petition. They think that if it passes, the federal government will just take over again, re-imposing tougher protections for wolves. (That may happen anyway: A dozen enviro groups, worried about the increased wolf-killing, filed suit April 28, demanding that the feds restore the protections.)
Gillett called the politics "a mess" and seemed to double-dare the feds and enviros to come at him. He held up the front page of the Sun Valley newspaper, the Idaho Mountain Express, which had a photo of one of the resort town's councilmen getting licked in the face by a tame wolf. "Brainwashing!" he said. "They have elevated the wolf to a godlike status!"
Wolves do pose more of a threat to people, as well as to elk and other prey, than most enviros admit. The Web site for Save Our Elk features TV news reports about wolves threatening hikers in Alaska in 2007 and biting a Canadian camper in 2000 (the victim needed 50 stitches to close his head wound). Investigating another attack, a Canadian coroner's jury concluded that wolves killed Kenton Carnegie in 2006 in Saskatchewan.
Wolves that are "habituated" to people - for food scraps, for instance - tend to be the culprits. But Valerius Geist, a respected Canadian animal behaviorist whose studies Gillett often cites, says it's time to end the "harmless-wolf myth." Geist says North American wolves had grown "extremely shy" of people, after decades of being poisoned and shot and trapped. Now, however, they're less afraid, and more likely to attack. Geist says he had to shoot a couple of wolves a few years ago in self-defense. Wolves kill people in places like Russia, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, Geist adds; why should we expect to fare differently?
Even Gillett's nemesis, Nadeau, thinks wolves may soon be biting people in Idaho, at least occasionally. Nadeau also says Gillett's estimate of the number of elk eaten by wolves is fairly accurate. But Nadeau thinks Gillett's reports of massive binge killing are exaggerated. After 13 years of reintroduced wolves, Idaho still has about 125,000 elk. The total may be declining slightly, and in some areas, local elk populations are noticeably down. Nadeau blames drought, wildfires and habitat loss, as well as wolves.
Geist says the anti-wolf campaign misrepresents his conclusions. He still thinks "wolves have a place" in the Northern Rockies. He believes wolves should be preserved in large areas of good habitat, like national parks. Outside the preserves, he advocates increased hunting, and the killing of "misbehaving" wolves, to teach other wolves to avoid people, and to limit the toll on elk. Gillett lacks that kind of nuance. He told the crowd about his recent encounter with three "wolf-lovers," and said, "I hope they've floated up in Payette Lake by now - there's about to be some Idaho justice!"
Some people chuckled. No one stood up and said, that's not funny!
When Gillett finished his talk, the crowd applauded. He passed out petitions, and people took them eagerly, setting out to collect signatures. And they lined up to buy the campaign's bumper stickers - $3 each, or two for $5 - that were emblazoned with a slogan promoting wolf-killing: "Smoke a Pack a Day."
The author is HCN's senior editor.