Where's the middle ground on wolves?

 

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 [email protected].

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.

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 [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • NEWS DIRECTOR
    Based in the state capitol, Boise State Public Radio is the premier NPR affiliate in Idaho. With 18 transmitters and translators, it reaches 2/3rds of...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • WRITING PLACE: THE ANIMAS RIVER REGION WRITING WORKSHOP
    REGISTER ONLINE BY: Friday, June 15 WHERE: Durango, CO (location TBD) WHEN: Monday, July 16 Youth workshop: 10 a.m. - 12 p.m. (18 and under,...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    HawkWatch International seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our awesome team! This position will provide support in all aspects of the department. We are looking...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details: