The Political Wolf

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The Political Wolf

By: Jerry Johnson, D.A.
Posted on June 13, 2012 Big Sky Political Analysis Topics:

David Parker has done a commendable job lately of covering the impact of big money in the Tester/Rehberg race. I fully expect a variation of Gresham's law to apply as negative ads funded by outside groups drive away a civil discussion on issues important to Montana and the west. Here is one version of how that will go down.

Politics is all about frames, images, and themes - the simpler the better; think Willie Horton. The most effective frame captures a basket of issues in a single image around which political rhetoric and an emotional storyline is constructed. The frame for this race is Canis lupus  - the grey wolf.

Today, there is not a more divisive issue in the Greater Yellowstone region or most western states than the reintroduction and subsequent management of the grey wolf. It is the quintessential political frame bound up as it is in the economic history of the west, environmental romanticism, private property rights, as well as the science (and politics) of public land management. The wolf stirs reaction from most citizens of the region as well as politicians at every level of government. One’s stance on wolf policy clearly demarcates a cultural divide between the old west and the new west.

Apex predators like grey wolves are large, charismatic, and potentially dangerous. In most parts of the world, they are often the targets of extermination programs, poaching for profit, and perceived to be a threat to private property. At best, many people find them difficult to live with. Others find them intolerable. The reason is that humans, especially those who make a living off the land, share habitat with creatures that can, and do, kill and maim. They damage property, they force us to live differently simply because they exist.

The grey wolf was once widespread across the whole of North America but eradicated in most of the contiguous U.S. by the 1930’s. By 1977, the war on the wolf was officially won. In 1991, after much political maneuvering, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a recovery plan for the grey wolf to large and remote expanses of public land. When the Clinton administration took office in 1993, the science and more importantly, the people were in place to make reintroduction a reality. Bruce Babbitt, the administration’s Secretary of Interior, Mollie Beattie, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Renee Askins, a highly motivated and articulate citizen champion of the wolf, formed the core triad that would return the wolf as a “nonessential experimental population” under the ESA. The reintroduction effort was a political as much as an ecological event.

The reintroduction was politically heavy handed and was seen across the west as a federal usurpation of property rights – real and implied. Conservative politicians knew an effective frame when they saw one and immediately, wolves were used as an expedient shortcut to garner support from rural interests and argue against broad based public land management. The most vocal opponents included the agricultural community who run livestock near the park boundary and property right advocates who saw the reintroduction as a way to move publicly subsidized ranchers off public lands. Wolves, they argue, threaten property rights when they cross over onto private land and kill livestock and even pets – sometimes viciously so. Hunters blame the wolves for decreased elk harvests and use them as an excuse to launch political attacks on wolf advocates.

Pro wolf supporters insist reintroduction simply restored the ecosystem to its former condition. They often point to regional and national polls that show respondents favored reintroduction 3 to 1. Those who favor wolves on the landscape present them as a symbol of wild places, ecological harmony, and even as a regional political entity. They depict the wolf as the embodiment of nature in all its forms especially as symbols of wilderness and empty spaces. Their stake in public land management is often for amenity and recreation values.

In reality, the anti-wolf position is the most current form of proxy for the perceived “war on the west” that has raged since the sagebrush rebellion of the 1970s and the wise use movement that followed. The controversy is one grounded in state vs. federal control over public lands and resources and wolf reintroduction efforts are simply the latest incarnation of the struggle to recover the commodity economy of the west. Oddly enough, the position of both candidates is very similar – to remove the wolf from the ESA list and let states manage them. They use the frame differently however.

Denny Rehberg sells himself as a rancher in the tradition of the west and so is an advocate for the commodity economy in all its forms – publicly subsidized mining, timber production, energy exploration, and ranching. In fact, he is a land developer but very effectively uses the “wolf frame” to argue for a public lands policy that favors production over conservation. That position would cut budgets for public land programs and result in smaller government. We can expect those positions to take front and center in the coming months.

Jon Tester is a farmer and teacher. His position on wolves, like his position on government in general, seems to be to pragmatically manage them as one would any other resource without political drama or hyperbole. The language in his plan to remove gray wolves from the ESA list framed the solution as reflecting “Montana values” with  “a responsible, common sense plan.” The tone for his campaign rhetoric will be “let’s live with the wolf as a neighbor – perhaps not one of our choice but one we are faced with”.

The wolf frame will appear explicitly and implicitly in many forms during the campaign - as it should. It is an efficient way to communicate with the constituencies of both parties. It is an effective use of imagery and theme. I would go so far as to say one’s position on wolf management is a predictor of how you will vote. Let’s watch as wolves make their appearance in Montana politics over the next few months.

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