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Know the West

Will Wyoming warm to wolves?


The second week of April is a brutal time to drive through Wyoming; windblown blizzards coat everything with ice. But that's what 70 people in Cheyenne did last spring to view my photographic safari about the return of wolves to Wyoming and Montana.

I was prepared for more than brutal weather. While antagonism toward wolves in my home state of Montana has mellowed to a whisper since wolves slipped across the Canadian border in 1979, people warned me that Wyoming was still fearful and aggressive about wolves, which were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995.

An elderly rural couple came early and sat in the front row, impassively listening to my report on the successful return of wolves to the Rocky Mountain West. Afterward, the rancher gentleman stepped deliberately to the podium, pre-empting those in the audience who had begun to ask questions.

He spoke slowly, evenly. It was beyond his comprehension, he said, that people like me were celebrating the return of America's most notorious predator. He and his people had celebrated the elimination of wolves just 60 years ago. His wife's father had killed the last wolf in these parts, yet here I was saying that was wrong.

After five minutes, he turned to leave, dignified and unriled. I thanked him and asked him to stay, to allow an opportunity for respectful dialogue. He stopped.

I am not condemning you or your family for the elimination of wolves, I said. Those were different times. In the 1920s, game populations were only beginning to recover from the wholesale slaughter of the last century. Deprived of their prey base, wolves, managing to elude bullets, strychnine and steel traps, turned their appetites to livestock. Those wily survivors earned a savage notoriety that fuels today's anti-wolf stories.

Yet today, ungulate populations have recovered. In northwestern Wyoming outside Yellowstone, wildlife officials say there are nearly 10,000 too many elk. The winter ranges are degraded to the point where expensive feeding programs are required. Recognizing the valuable role of wolves in maintaining ecological balance, most hunters who belong to the Wyoming Wildlife Federation supported wolf recovery in the Yellowstone area.

The rancher turned thoughtful. He didn't know about elk near Yellowstone, he said, but for decades his people on the high plains had indiscriminately killed rattlesnakes. He had come to regret their virtual disappearance. Gophers had become a far greater menace to farmers than rattlers ever were.

The rancher did not depart a wolf advocate, but together we crossed a fragile bridge to mutual respect. I came to see my dialogue with him as a seed of hope for Wyoming, a state that has clung stubbornly to its storybook image as a simple society of cowboys. Wolves were a symbolic threat to this mirage. But now that they are back, the illusionary balloon may have popped. It's possible Wyoming may be drifting back to earth, ready to face the complexities of the West on the brink of the 21st century.

My optimism is rooted in the experience of western Montana, where more than 100 wolves now roam forested mountains interspersed with dry grasslands. Average annual livestock losses to wolves have been in the single digits since the mid-1980s. For every 40,000 cattle and sheep lost in Montana prior to going to market, only one is killed by wolves. In those instances, the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife quickly compensates ranchers.

This August, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission took its first tentative step across the cultural threshold when it formally recommended that the Legislature sanction wolves as a protected species. Wolves currently are classified as a predator, which means residents are encouraged to shoot them on sight. The wildlife commission's recommendation comes on the heels of a large statewide survey which found most Wyoming residents support wolves roaming south of Yellowstone's boundaries.

Although some industry leaders, such as Bryce Reece of the Wyoming Wool Growers, continue to proclaim that "big game herds will be decimated and ranchers horrendously impacted" by wolves coming out of Yellowstone, pragmatism is prevailing.

At this year's convention of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association, outgoing president Stan Flitner said ranchers have much more important things to worry about than wolves. "If I'm going to have a wolf on my place," he said, "I want to make sure he's eating a $1.16 calf and not a 64-cent calf."

Steve Thompson writes from Whitefish, Mont., and has been watching, tracking and listening to wolves for 11 years.