I got to experience something the other day I should never take for granted.
I was driving the family minivan along a mountain
two-lane, returning home from a daylong meeting in another town. Suddenly, the driver of the SUV in front of me piled on
his brakes. I followed suit, and pulled to a stop behind him."Probably a critter getting ready to cross the road" I
thought to myself. It's not at all unusual here in Wyoming.
Within seconds, a burly creature, mostly black, came
barreling across the road in front of us and headed up a steep slope on the
other side. There was no mistaking what it was.
Uttering a surprised expletive, I scrambled out of the van as quickly as I could. The animal went tearing up the slope in loping strides. By the time I got my diminutive camera ready and snapped a few shots, it was too far away for really good photos. But at least I got some. A few minutes later, I hit our home number on speed dial and yelled into my poor wife's ear. "Honey, I just saw a wolf!"
For nearly two decades, wolves have never been far from my mind, or the minds of many who live in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. In the mid 1990s, I had graduated recently from the University of Montana and started my career in journalism. An issue that had been building for the past few years had blown wide open.It was going to happen. The wolves were coming back. It was then that a seed population of about 60 wolves, captured in Canada, was set loose to repopulate Yellowstone National Park and parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
I was in a small Montana town, where much of the economy
rested on cattle ranching. And, like me, nearly all of the men, and a good
number of the women, looked forward to hunting season each fall. So, the cataclysmic predictions I began hearing came
as no surprise. Cattle and sheep ranchers would be devastated, people were saying. The game
herds would disappear, and hunting would cease. The federal government and
radical environmentalists were using wolves to drive us off the land.
I was dubious about those assertions; and, frankly excited about the master predators returning, helping to make our wild country truly wild. Still, I mostly kept my mouth shut and went on about my business.
Stories of cattle ranches being hit by wolves started to make the news. And as devastating as some of those attacks could be, they were also isolated. As a whole, the cattle industry barely felt the effect of wolves. Likewise, I started to hear some fellow hunters, especially those who sought elk in the high country, complain about disappearing game. Again, this might have been a function of location. Certain herds were knocked back, to be sure, but only in specific areas. Also, there could be an argument made that some of those herds -- such as the one frequenting Yellowstone National Park -- had gotten grossly over-populated. Overall, the elk herds in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho were growing. As they still are.
Now, things are coming to a head again. Through a
Congressional budget rider, Montana and Idaho have gotten wolves taken off the
federal Endangered Species List, again, and this time it's expected to stick.
Wolf hunting seasons could begin as soon as this fall. In Wyoming, we're still stuck. My state wants a "shoot on
sight" zone declared for wolves in most of Wyoming outside the Greater
Yellowstone area. The Federal Government won't hear of that, and has refused to
hand management over to our Game and Fish Department.
Some have hailed the budget rider as a bold and innovative move; a way to make an end run around a process that's been held up for years. Others say it was a nefarious undermining of the Endangered Species Act. Perhaps there's validity in both those views.
As I did back in 1995-96, I still think it's entirely possible to have a viable population of wolves in the West and protect vested human interests. However, I think the first step has to be acceptance of facts. I don't agree with the angry rhetoric coming from some of my fellow locals. Wolves hold a vital place in the ecosystem. They always did, and exterminating them in the first place was wrong. It was the result of our ancestors either not knowing enough, or simply not caring enough to see past their immediate gain.
Those who vehemently oppose wolves must come to grips
with the fact that it isn't 1880 -- or even 1960 -- anymore. The view that nature is a thing to be dominated has changed. And that's for the better. However, those who
labor under the idea that wolves should be left unfettered upon the landscape, and
balk at the idea of their being delisted and hunted must also realize the same
thing.The landscape is no longer completely wild. Nor will it
ever be again. People of all walks of life live in small cities and town here,
as well as numerous rural communities, farms and ranches. Families make a
living off of ranching, guiding hunters into the mountains, working oil and gas
rigs and farming the land.
Others hunt big game to maintain a connection with the land, and to put food on the table. I'm one of them. My family is large, and my income is modest. Even with increases in the prices of hunting licenses and gasoline, I still live near enough to game herds to make it very worth my while to get a deer, and if I'm lucky, an elk and pronghorn each fall to help with our grocery bill. I won't be hunting wolves myself. I simply don't have the desire to shoot one. And also, I'm personally not much for killing something I don't plan to eat. However, I understand that some hunting will be a part of any lasting, pragmatic wolf management plan. I therefore support it, so long as it is done within the bounds of the law, and the parameters of fair chase.
Delisting is another stage in the complex and sometimes strained relationship with wolves we've had all along.They are remarkably like us. They are social creatures and cooperators. Their group revolves around a family structure. They are highly intelligent and share deep bonds with one another. And despite, or perhaps because, of them being similar to us, wolves and humans have also always competed for resources.
There's room for both of us on the vast landscapes here, I think. But it's also unfair and naive to think that wolves don't pose very real challenges to legitimate human interests. Whether it's scattering elk herds and making them more difficult to hunt, attacking livestock or stalking into subdivisions to gobble pets, wolves can and do have very direct and dramatic effects on people's lives here.