Yellowstone Wolves in 2015
Tuesday morning a neighbor reported a wolf sighting just south of our home near the spring pasture where our steers graze. Our neighbor advised Ramona to carry a gun on her morning walks on ranch roads. At times she is more than a mile from our buildings and far out of sight and sound.
Just last week FREE Insights noted "Yellowstone's successes include successful reintroduction of the wolf in 1995 and rejuvenation of the grizzly population. The latter has more than doubled after a population crash in the 1970s"
Grizzlies occasionally maul and kill people in and around Yellowstone. The Park Service reports "During the 32 year period from 1980-2011, there have been 32 human injuries caused by grizzly bears in the backcountry, an average 1 per year." Yet there is no outrage but rather strong approval for the dramatic increase in grizzly number in and around the Park. In contrast there has not yet been a single wolf attack on humans in the entire18,000,000 acre Greater Yellowstone area. But wolves remain feared and hated by many natives--and even some newbies who go native. What explains the different reactions to grizzlies and wolves? It's huge.
For starters, grizzlies have always been here, not re-imposed by a remote government. Also, grizzlies range over a smaller territory, and their numbers expand more slowly.
Wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone is the most divisive policy issue I've observed since the late1960s. The reason is clear: Wolves symbolize a cultural continental divide: It resembles NPR vs. NRA.
With the exception of some livestock owners, people taking vehement stands on this issue rarely have a practical stake in the matter. They respond to the wolf's iconic qualities. To some, wolves represent devils on earth, to others, saints returned to a special part of Gaia's earth.
In regard to wolves, we generally agree with Doug Smith, Yellowstone Park's Chief Wolf Biologist. Here is his perspective
"As far as we can tell, with the return of the gray wolf the region called greater Yellowstone has reclaimed its full complement of historic mammals; indeed, the area is now commonly described as the largest generally intact ecosystem in the temperate world. This project says a lot about the value Americans place on the creatures of the wild, even those that can be troublesome on occasion. For that matter the entire restoration was guided by directives contained in the Endangered Species Act – a law created to ground a decades-old cornerstone of science that says the healthiest, most stable nature systems tend to be those with high levels of biodiversity. It was specifically the flowering of that knowledge that led the National Park Service – the same agency that killed the last wolf in Yellowstone in 1926 – to commit seventy years later to an extraordinary effort to bring them back. Admittedly, some consider the act of returning the very animal we spent millions of dollars eradicating as a sign of madness. But to others, including many scientists, this has been a move filled with hope – a clear indication that we’ve finally started to move beyond a longstanding body of myth that treated all predators as if they were God’s great mistake. To those who value ecological health, the wolf has become a powerful touchstone to the wisdom of managing the last pieces of wild America with a generous commitment to wholeness.” (Decade of the Wolf: Returning the Wild to Yellowstone, pp. 10-11, Smith & Ferguson, Lion’s Press, 2005)
Ramona and I are in an unusual position. While basically agreeing with Doug Smith, we are livestock producers. We descend from generations in American agriculture. For many years we ran hundreds of ewes just a few miles north of timberlands now harboring wolves. We suffered significant predation. Most came from bear, coyotes, and domestic dogs. And suffering it was. People who don't have the responsibilities of husbandry and caring for livestock rarely understand the psychic costs of finding dead and severely wounded animals.
Last summer three dogs attacked ewes and lambs just a few hundred feet from our house.
This is a grim experience--and an argument against full metal jackets. (fn Hollow point, soft-tipped bullets expand upon impact while metal jacketed bullets don't. They pass through soft targets like dogs and often fail to kill them. These dogs can come back to harass and kill again.)
While money is surely important to struggling farmers and ranchers, the anguish that follows predation is wrenching. Shepherds and stockmen have ethical responsibilities that go well beyond fiduciary duties.
Still, the ecological argument for Yellowstone wolves is clear. The Biological Survey of the Department of Interior eliminated Yellowstone wolves in the early 1900s, the last one in 1926. Then, lacking its major large predator, the Park's ecology went out of balance. Absent the wolf, there were far too many grazing and browsing animals, mainly elk and bison.
Understanding this while revering Yellowstone, Ramona and I became vocal and visual supporters of wolf return. FREE produced a poster, Yellowstone Homecoming, to foster this cause. (FREE has a few posters again available for a donation to our Yellowstone project, Harmonizing Liberty, Ecology and Prosperity.) However, our support was conditioned on an important qualification. Misbehaving wolves should be shot. Why? Poison is not selective.
Here is a paragraph I wrote shortly after the wolf was returned to the Park and before viable populations became established. I stand by it today.
"Icons have different meanings to different people. Newcomers to the West and urbanites insulated from rural Western traditions see the wolves as displaced natives who must be returned to the ecosystem. Conversely, many native Westerners view wolf reintroduction as the imposition of an alien culture. To them, the wolf causes a whimsical waste of resources that threatens ranching and the traditional culture. Wolves have evolved as careful killers. That's why we want them returned to wild ecosystems. However, we want them to be discriminating in their predation. This requires that we permit stockmen to shoot wolves that kill livestock. As wolf numbers increase, so will this problem. It is irresponsible to pretend otherwise." (FREE Insight, January 8, 1997, A Place for Wild Wolves and a Reason to Kill Them).
Here it something to celebrate. Wolves have sufficiently recovered to being listed as a game animal in Montana in 2011. I’ll not apply for a hunting license—but wolves will find it healthier if they stay away from our sheep and steers.