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 (hcn.org). He writes about the American West in Missoula, Montana.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CLIMATE CHANGE COORDINATOR
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition is seeking a Climate Change Coordinator to play a lead role in shaping our programs to make the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac