Wolf opponents just don’t get it


Time flies when the sky is falling. At least, we were told to expect the sky to fall in 1995. That’s when federal biologists snatched a bunch of Canadian wolves, hustled them south of the border and cut them loose in central Idaho and Yellowstone.

Ten years sped by in a flash. But when I look up, I see a pale blue winter sky, right where it’s supposed to be. It puzzles me how people both demonize and idolize wolves. I have concluded it has less to do with data or reason and more with emotion, ideology and culture.

Ten years ago, cattle and sheep interests likened wolves to terrorists, sure to rip the guts out of their industry. One senator warned that wolves would snatch kids off bus stops. No doubt, some wolves can be hard on livestock. When a rancher has a troublesome pack in his neighborhood, it’s a very real and expensive problem. But it’s one of many challenges ranchers face, and for most it has proven to be manageable.

In Montana in 2003, more sheep died from "turtlings" than were killed by wolves. Turtling — a wonderfully descriptive word — is when domestic sheep fall on their backs and can’t right themselves. What killed the most sheep that same year was poisonous plants.

Looking at the new pickup trucks in Montana cowtowns, it’s clear ranchers lately have been enjoying the fruits of their hard work. Beef prices went up due to "low-carb" fad diets and a scare over chronic wasting disease that capped the flow of cheap beef from Canada. Though the beef exports are back and the low-carb craze is waning, you can’t blame wolves for that.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just gave more leeway to ranchers in Montana and Idaho to defend their herds. To me, this makes sense, as wolf populations grow. It makes little difference to a wolf if it’s killed by a federal agent or a local rancher, and wolves have proven themselves prolific enough to withstand this kind of pressure. It’s also an example of the flexibility inherent in the Endangered Species Act.

But besides some ranchers, the special interest group complaining most bitterly about wolves is big game hunters, charging too much competition from wolf packs for elk and deer. Even though I am an avid member of this special interest group, their lamentations leave me less than sympathetic.

In Montana, for example, state wildlife managers for the first time this year allowed hunters to kill two elk per season in some areas. They also stretched the elk season from five weeks to seven in several places, because hunters weren’t killing enough elk. The columnist for my local newspaper’s outdoor page for years had a NO WOLVES bumper sticker on his pickup truck, but he recently wrote, "This year, there were more opportunities for hunting elk than anytime during the last 50 years. The good old days of elk hunting are right now."

The mountain where I hunt elk and deer is in the heart of a wolf pack’s territory. I step over fresh wolf scat on many of my hunts. Yet for the past 10 years, I’ve put meat in the freezer every fall and hung antlers on the wall that would be the pride of any hunter. This year, I passed up legal, safe shots at five deer before shooting the big buck I wanted.

If I were to join the chorus about wolves eating "my" deer or elk, I would just feel greedy. But I will tell you what really did devastate game numbers in my area — the Big Snow of 1995-96. Even so, the game recovered, despite the wolves.

If I wanted to be rational, I could point to all the balance-of-nature benefits wolves bring to the natural landscape. In Yellowstone, aspen and willow are already recovering after elk overgrazed hillsides and riverbanks. The ripple effects, biologists believe, will be more songbirds, more beaver, even more and bigger trout in the streams.

But that is beside the point. The West without wolves, cougars and bears would be as bland as Africa without lions, leopards and cheetahs.

One September evening a few years ago, my wife and I spied a pair of pointed ears in the long grass of a mountain meadow. Binoculars revealed a wolf pack, staring back. We watched them lope into the timber and then shivered as one of them howled.

For kicks, I threw my head back and howled in return. All around us, the pack broke into full throat. By my watch, we howled back and forth for five minutes. Maybe some folks can have an experience like that and not be moved. I’m just glad I am not one of them.

Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives and writes in Kalispell, 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 [email protected].

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