Killing wolves is part of the bargain

  • Michael J Dax


On Dec. 6, a Wyoming hunter killed one of Yellowstone’s most famous wolves, 832F, outside the park’s boundaries. It was a legal kill, yet within 48 hours, news organizations across the country ran stories mourning the wolf’s death and treating it like, well, the loss of a family friend.

Wolf advocate Marc Cooke of Montana’s Bitterroot Valley lamented, “She was an amazing mother.” Wolf photographer Barrett Hedges called her “inspirational,” while others declared her to be a “rock star” and a “consummate professional.” The latter referred to her leadership abilities as the alpha female of the Lamar Canyon Pack, which resides mostly in northeastern Yellowstone.

As someone who has had the good fortune to watch 832F lead her pack across the Lamar Valley, I, too, felt a pang of sadness when I heard the news. Yet I resisted the urge to denigrate her killer and reminded myself why I supported wolf recovery in the first place.

I think we need wolves back in the West because they’re an integral part of the region’s wildlife and wildness. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone and central Idaho in the mid-1990s, the agency did so because its scientists hoped that their return would enable those ecosystems to function fully and more efficiently. It was not a matter of pure sentimentality, or because they believed that wolves share positive qualities with humans.

By assigning 832F human traits, wolf supporters effectively anthropomorphize her and allow other wolves to be judged using human moral standards as well. Although this might seem natural and even good, it is inappropriate. Wolves may share several good traits with humans, but wolves also routinely kill other animals. Of course, human beings also kill animals for food, but the problem with wolves is that we have trouble controlling when or where or how they kill their prey. And wolves can’t read our “no trespassing” or “no hunting” signs.

Wolves’ natural propensity to kill deer, elk and cattle was originally used to justify their eradication from the Rocky Mountain West.  Not so many decades ago, newspapers characterized wolves as bandits, criminals and desperadoes, and a threat to human beings as well. Ranchers and other Western settlers denounced the vicious way that wolves attacked and killed their prey as immoral. This helped to make their absolute destruction an honorable task.

Opponents of wolves’ reintroduction in the 1990s often accused wolf supporters of romanticizing the animals while failing to understand the “savagery” and “cruelty” that wolves exhibit when they gang up on elderly or wounded prey. Now, by anthropomorphizing wolves as exemplary family members, conservationists risk validating this criticism. Bringing wolves back to function as predators in the wild was a smart decision biologically; it had nothing to do with wolves’ moral value.

If conservationists try to justify the existence and protection of wolves on sentimental grounds, they will ultimately lose. For as many 832Fs as have roamed Yellowstone and reflected everything good we want to see in ourselves, there have been just as many Bear Paws, Three Toes, Unaweeps, and other wolves that gained notoriety for their ability to kill dozens of livestock in the dead of night, slip away undetected and later avoid the traps set to capture them.

If wolf supporters want to do right by the environment and its wildlife, they need to make their arguments at the species level, eschewing the urge to portray wolves as incarnates of human goodwill.

Additionally, wolf supporters must not forget that we’ve already debated whether to allow wolves to be killed. During the reintroduction process, the Sierra Club and Audubon Society took a hard-line stance that supported giving wolves full protection under the Endangered Species Act. In the spirit of compromise, groups such as the Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Foundation supported restoring wolves as experimental populations. This designation, created by the 1982 amendment to the law, gave wildlife managers flexibility in balancing the needs of endangered species and people. In the case of wolves, it also allowed managers to kill them in certain instances. Although the Sierra Club’s Legal Defense Fund sued the Fish and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on this contentious issue, wolves came back to the West without absolute protection.

If it weren’t for this concession, I don’t think wolf packs would be roaming the West today. So before you get too riled up about 832F’s death, stop and realize that killing wolves has been part of the deal since the beginning. And if wolf advocates 20 years ago had not been magnanimous enough to recognize that killing a wolf from time to time was the cost of recovering them on land shared with ranchers and farmers, no one would have had the opportunity to watch 832F –– or any other wolf –– at all.

Michael Dax is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He writes about the American West in Missoula, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Scott Mittelsteadt
Scott Mittelsteadt
Feb 05, 2013 11:22 PM
There was no bargain. It was take it or leave it. While it is kind of annoying when people personify wild animals, it is more a reaction to the senseless killing of these important predator species than it is a desire to attribute human qualities to them. I find this article nothing more than a thinly veiled justification for hunting wild animals, regardless of the reason. I am not a hunter, but have hunted. So I do know what it is alike to take an animal's life and I do know what it means to hunt for sport. That means I also know the difference between hunting for food items and hunting purely for the thrill of firing a gun and taking the life out of a living creature. Hunting for predators and other non-game species is pure blood lust and has no place in modern society. This article doesn't give us any information as to why it might be necessary to kill wolves or why it might be good for anyone but the blood-thirsty hunter. Instead, he trashes those who value the wild in wildlife and wish to see them thrive in a healthy ecosystem free from as many human encroachments as possible. I cancelled my subscription for HCN once awhile back for trying to be "objective" in this manner, and now I think its time to do it again.
Mike Canetta
Mike Canetta Subscriber
Feb 06, 2013 09:49 AM
Scott, I think you may have missed the point a bit. It doesn't appear that the author's intent was to "justify" the hunting of wolves as you put it, but rather have us step back for some perspective. The reality is that once wolves were delisted, they were always going to be turned over to states for "management" (read: hunting). This is the nature of the beast; it is how wildlife management has and will be done in this country. I don't necessarily like it, and the author probably doesn't either, but that's the way it is. A bitter pill, no doubt. But surely you must agree that we are better off having wolves throughout the West who are subject to a hunt than not having them at all?

It is clear that you do not agree with any amount of hunting of wolves, and that's fine. I, too, am very uncomfortable with the notion and wish it weren't the case. BUT, a large constituency was built for reintroduction on the premise that the animals would be managed once they reached a sustainable level. Keeping these people, many of whom are ranchers, sportsmen, and private land-owners, on-board is going to be critical to the future tolerance and treatment of the species. By keeping the promise of managing wolves with some of their interests in mind, the government has built some good faith and stock with these folks (people who are not your typical "conservationists"), and it has had positive ripple effects for many other species - look at all the blossoming, partnership-based watershed initiatives throughout Montana and Wyoming. Unfortunately, the "objectivity" you loathe can be a force for positive change.

William V McConnell
William V McConnell Subscriber
Feb 06, 2013 11:02 AM
"We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view."

Aldo Leopold "A Sand County Almanac"
James Liden
James Liden
Mar 26, 2013 08:08 PM
Michael, thanks for the Op-Ed. As a hunter-conservationist, I strongly supported the wolf reintroduction. My desire is for the remaining wild/semi-wild areas to have as healthy an eco-system as possible. Unfortunately, knowing what I know now, I wouldn't have supported the reintroduction. The agreement was for 30 packs of 10 wolves over 3 years (if I remember right)... to trigger delisting. Whether this is a sustainable population or not, I don't know, but that was the 'agreement'. For the environmental groups to fight for approx. 10 years after that threshold was reached shows lack of integrity within those organizations and will make similar attempts to restore endangered species in the future very difficult. I know I will never trust many of the environmental organizations that were involved in the wolf reintroduction ever again, and have discontinued my financial support from them.

"If it weren’t for this concession, I don’t think wolf packs would be roaming the West today. So before you get too riled up about 832F’s death, stop and realize that killing wolves has been part of the deal since the beginning. And if wolf advocates 20 years ago had not been magnanimous enough to recognize that killing a wolf from time to time was the cost of recovering them on land shared with ranchers and farmers, no one would have had the opportunity to watch 832F –– or any other wolf –– at all."
James Liden
James Liden
Apr 27, 2013 10:42 AM
Hunting the wolves does not have to be justified. As mentioned in the article, and in a misguied response, this was part of the deal. The "agreement" that allowed the wolf to be reintroduced has long since been met, the wolf has been delisted, the wolf is now being managed by WY, MT and ID just as all other prey and predators species in those states. It is time for people to move on. The noise being created by by the killing of these high profile wolves, in accordance to the EPA agreement and the wildlife management of the impacted states, takes away from the fact that the wolf has been successfully reintroduced, the ecosystem is healthier with the wolf there, the states won't allow the wolf populations to drop below the stated management goals (healthy/sustainable population of wolves) they don't want to have to go through all this crap again. It is time to move on...