Carter Niemeyer raises a shotgun to his shoulder and squeezes the trigger. An instant later, a rubber bullet bounces off a cardboard target. Niemeyer, Idaho’s coordinator for wolf recovery, is demonstrating non-lethal means of stopping wolves from preying on livestock. His audience is 200 Westerners at a meeting of the North American Interagency Wolf Conference.
"Does it work if you don’t hit the
wolf?" asks a woman.
After a long pause, Niemeyer says,
"Well, it works a lot better if you do hit the wolf."
Most people on the front lawn of Chico Hot Springs Resort in
Montana’s Paradise Valley laugh. In this gathering of
wildlife biologists, wolf advocates, government staffers and a few
ranchers, humor that aims at the West’s most controversial
wildlife subject — bringing back wolves — is well
The audience reserves its greatest laughter for
Ed Bangs’ tongue-in-cheek statement: "Politics don’t
interfere with the Fish and Wildlife Service; we’re strictly
Although this is a scientific conference,
there is widespread agreement about the primacy of politics when it
comes to wolves. Does any other animal generate such visceral
response in people?
Ranchers in attendance shake their
heads and grumble at the data that show only .6 percent of
Idaho’s cattle losses are due to wolves. They also dispute
biologist Joe Fontaine’s statement that "ungulate herds are
not threatened by wolves in Montana." Meanwhile, wolf advocates
cringe at the photos from Alberta, Canada, showing wolves hunted
and trapped; biologists quibble over methodology.
and wolf management have nothing to do with reality," says Bangs.
"It’s not about the animal; it has to do with people and the
strong symbolism that wolves represent."
Lynn points out that, "Wolves are the root and fruit of our moral
responsibilities. They are the root because if we can learn to live
with large carnivores, we will have gone a long ways to a
sustainable existence. And they are the fruit, or the beneficiary,
of our taking a serious moral responsibility toward wildlife."
With 760 wolves in the Northern Rockies, Ed Bangs tells
the group that wolf recovery is a success: "Wolves are back and
here to stay." But he adds, "We’ve had all the easy wolves
we’re going to have. The wolf population of Idaho, Wyoming
and Montana is not going to exceed 1,000 wolves; the West just
isn’t that wild anymore."
Bangs says he’s
ready to turn wolf management over to the states, which means
wolves will be hunted. "There’s no reason wolf harvest
shouldn’t be a part of a state management program," he says.
Others disagree. Jim Pissot of Defenders of Wildlife
Canada fears that state management might look a lot like wolf
conservation in Alberta, where there are no restrictions on
trapping, no bag limit, no license required and no limit on hunting
from September through June. This has resulted in an 80 percent
decline in wolves in southwest Alberta, he says, now, less than 30
At the day’s end, Kent Weber,
director of the captive-wolf facility, Mission Wolf, invites some
of us over to his bus. "When you go in, he cautions, "kneel down
and let the wolf come to you. Look them in the eyes. They’ll
want to lick your teeth."
Suddenly a bolt a fear shoots
through me. As we enter the bus and walk into the cage, intense
yellow eyes survey us. The wolves approach cautiously and lick our
faces. Satisfied with greeting us in the wolf manner, they crawl
back into their bunk and close their eyes.
With a large
group, Weber tells us, the wolves are brought out of the bus and
trotted around the circle of people. "They ignore everyone for the
most part, but will usually pick out one person and focus on them,"
he says. When I ask about the person they pick out, he says
it’s usually someone who’s fighting some illness or
under emotional stress. "Once (a female wolf called) Rami went
right to this guy," Weber recalls. "I asked him if he’d ever
seen her before. He said five years ago she picked him out, and it
totally changed his life." Weber says another time a wolf went up
to a woman who was undergoing treatment for breast cancer; the wolf
nudged the woman in the chest, gently.
an encounter of a different sort. Weber says,"We brought Rami into
a meeting, and she went right up to the most adamant wolf-hater and
peed on his leg."
This all makes me think that wolves
know more about us than we do about them.