Wolves may be the education of us

  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 received.

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 scientists."

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.

"Wolves 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."

Ethicist Bill 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 animals remain.

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.

Then there’s 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.

Greg Gordon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives and writes in Gardiner, Montana.