Where's the middle ground on wolves?


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Eighty-one -- that's how many gray wolves were confirmed to be living in Oregon this November, when the Fish and Wildlife Commission voted to remove the animals from the state's endangered species list.

The controversial delisting and the commission's upcoming review of Oregon's wolf plan revived regional tensions about wolf management across the state. Urban news outlets, for example, report the birth of every new pup with the same fervor that rural news outlets track each confirmed livestock killing. Wolves, it seems, always have the ability to stir up controversy.

Why haven't we gotten beyond this? The renewed interest has made me think about my own attachment to wolves, or perhaps to the very idea of wolves. It feels personal, as I suspect it does to many of those who care about the issue. For me, it all goes back to my early work at a wildlife park.

I remember standing outside the wolf enclosure with a raw meatball in one hand and a dog whistle in my mouth. The pack eyeballed me from inside. I blew the whistle, tossed the meatball, waited for a wolf to retrieve the treat, then blew the whistle again.

I repeated this Pavlovian exercise, dropping the meatball closer to my feet each time. The goal? To train the pack to enter a corral for veterinary treatment.

Over the course of the training, the pack slowly began to edge closer. A rangy juvenile male was the first to break ranks. Five feet away. Whistle. Meatball. Retrieve. Whistle. Three feet. Whistle. Meatball. Retrieve. Whistle. But the others watched, holding the line a safe distance back.

After each retrieval, the most adventurous wolf retreated a few feet to wait. Finally, I held the meatball extended in the tips of my fingers. Whistle.

His shuffle picked up momentarily. About the time my brain registered his long, curved claws and powerful jaws, he made his move toward me and my outstretched hand.

I saw the condensation on his black nose. I felt his hot breath. Then, witnessing my reflection in his eyes, I experienced a moment of transcendence, a feeling of oneness with this magnificent beast. Sure. Or rather, I assume that's what I would have experienced if I hadn't panicked and chucked the meat wad into the back of the poor guy's throat before he could take a finger off. Whistle.

Though I skillfully sidestepped any spiritual transformation, I ended that experience with both a craving for spaghetti and a healthy respect for wolves. I liked knowing they were out there in the wild doing whatever it is wolves do when we're not looking.

In the years since that mano-a-lobo encounter, I've paid close attention to the saga of wolves in the West. And what a saga it's been: Wolves! Varmints! Kill 'em all! ... Wolves? ... Hello? ... Is anybody there? ... Wolves are dying! Save the wolves! ... Yes! Wolves are back! ... Varmints! Can we kill 'em again?

A wolf at the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, in Candy Kitchen, New Mexico.

Westerners have long had a fraught relationship with wolves. Pop culture from ancient legend to classic literature to modern movies gives wolves multiple personality disorder. In Hollywood, wolves and their werewolf brethren stalk innocents, driven by uncontrollable bloodlust. It's a terrifying portrait, tempered only by the fact that most of those werewolves are, like, really hunky.

In other contexts, wolves are objects of beauty and inspiration, symbols of the American independent spirit, as in Call of the Wild, or Dances with Wolves (I know, I know). But if you don't cry when Two Socks (spoiler alert!) gets shot, then your chest is an empty cavity indeed. Few depictions of wolves in our popular culture show them as just, well, there. It's no wonder there is no middle ground.

We also continue to attach a lot of human nonsense to wolves -- our own longing for connection to something wild, our resentment of government interference, anger over unwanted competition for game, blaming the animals for hard times. That's an awful lot for an animal to carry.

If wolves are going to recover and thrive -- and thereby eliminate the need for special management -- environmentalists, ranchers and hunters may have to start letting go of some of these lingering cultural associations. Or at least start being honest about the deeper divisions behind our standoffs. If we can't, I wonder if wolves won't be doomed to a continuing cycle of near-extermination followed by near-recovery.

Without the protections of the Oregon endangered species act, it's more important than ever that we let science rule the day, rather than politics or emotion. It's past time for wolves to begin the important business of just being wolves.

Quinn Read.

Quinn Read is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She is an environmental attorney in Portland, Oregon.

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