Silenced howls: The reemergence of the war on wolves

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On Jan. 4, the gray wolf (Canis lupus) was officially delisted from the Endangered Species Act, or ESA, resulting in the reemergence of the war on wolves.

Wolves are a keystone species, meaning they are vital to the health and function of ecosystems, and their absence can be very detrimental. In response to the delisting legislation, National Geographic storyteller and founder of SeaLegacy, Cristina Mittermeier, says, “Just because the interests of a handful of people collide with the existence of wolves, does not mean the rest of humanity and the health of entire ecosystems should suffer the consequences of their extermination.”

Mittermeier goes on to say that “Wolves matter. … They have every right to exist. … They were here before humans and Western civilization arrived and they are absolutely necessary to maintaining the vast range of ecosystem services we all require to survive.”

While the fate of wolves in the United States is uncertain, their delisting offers a unique opportunity to reassess the complex relationship between humans and wildlife and how wolves came to occupy such a contentious space in the political arena. 

[ I ]

Context: The wilderness is a social construct 

 

What we think of today as “the wilderness” is a relatively new concept. According to historian William Cronon, 250 years ago people did not really venture through remote corners of the planet seeking what we today call “the wilderness experience.” For a long time, the word “wilderness” was synonymous with desolation, as Cronon explains, a place far from God with connotations that were “anything but positive.”

All things associated with the wilderness — wild beasts and Indigenous peoples — were deemed savage, untamed and a threat to the civilized.

In short, it was a place to be feared and avoided. “Whatever value it might have,” Cronon writes, “arose solely from the possibility that it might be ‘reclaimed’ and turned toward human ends.” Because of this sentiment, it was necessary to protect the “reclaimed” lands from possible intruders, including wolves that prayed on the livestock brought over by European settlers. 

 

“Whatever value it might have,” Cronon writes, “arose solely from the possibility that it might be ‘reclaimed’ and turned toward human ends.”

 

Then something changed. By the end of the 19th century, those fearsome wild places were suddenly revered. Popular thinkers such as Henry David Thoreau and John Muir suggested that the wilderness was Edenic, divine, deeply valuable and in need of protection. Sure enough, national parks and protected lands popped up around the country. Niagara Falls, Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, the Catskills, etc., each deemed worthy of being saved from the encroachment of humankind.

These places were cast as wildernesses –– fierce, benevolent and pure — raw nature untarnished by human hands. This notion, of course, is a great falsity (some might even call it a bioirony) that delegitimizes the Native American presence in and impact on their traditional homelands. It also diminishes the extremely significant relationships Native tribes have with the natural world.

During the formation of these parks and protected areas, Native tribes were removed and displaced while large carnivores such as wolves faced extirpation, or intentional local extinction. This shows just how invented, how curated “the wilderness” really is. 

Today, wolves still suffer the consequences of the othering of the wild, arguably more so than most wildlife. 

To put the wolf story into greater perspective, here is a brief timeline of recent U.S. wolf history.

 

 

  • 1933: Wolf populations in the lower 48 states all but decimated.
  • 1970: First Earth Day, emerging conversations about ecology and protecting the environment.
  • 1973: Following the momentum of the Earth Day success, the ESA was passed.
  • 1974: Wolves are listed as “endangered” under the ESA
  • 1995: Wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone National Park begins
  • 2003: Wolves reclassified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or USFWS, as “threatened”
  • 2003-2019: State delistings, relistings, wolf hunts and various legislative actions for and against wolves
  • 2020: Wolf delisting from ESA in lower 48 states proposed by the USFWS
  • 2021: Wolf delisting goes into effect, wolves lose federal protections, all wolf protections now under the discretion of state governments

 

 

[ II ]

The ESA

 

The ESA, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, “provides a program for the conservation of threatened and endangered plants and animals and the habitats in which they are found.”

In the summary of the final rule to delist wolves, the USFWS stated, “We are taking this action because the best available scientific and commercial data available establish that the gray wolf entities in the lower 48 United States do not meet the definitions of a threatened species or an endangered species under the Act.”

Earthjustice attorney Kristen Boyles is currently in the process of suing the federal government over the delisting rule. In the official Gray Wolf Delisting Complaint, Boyles writes, “FWS once again attempts to justify delisting by myopically focusing on wolves in a particular, limited geography (in this case, the Midwest) in order to justify delisting across the entire country. In doing so, the final rule selectively combined populations, ignored available historical wolf habitat, and disregarded relatively new wolf populations outside the Midwest as ‘colonizers’ unnecessary to the survival and recovery of wolves in the Midwest.”

 

“We are taking this action because the best available scientific and commercial data available establish that the gray wolf entities in the lower 48 United States do not meet the definitions of a threatened species or an endangered species under the Act.”

 

Since 1974, federal ESA protections for wolves enabled their populations to steadily increase over time. While wolves do not populate anywhere near their historic range, as Boyles noted in the complaint, they have made significant progress. 

Arguably, the goal to recover wolves to their historic range would cause more harm than good. Avery Shawler, a doctoral candidate working in the Middleton Lab at UC Berkeley, says attempting to do so “would be really unfair to those wolves.”

According to Shawler, the popular thematic goal of conservation — going back to a pristine nature — is problematic. “It erases Indigenous peoples’ effect on the land,” Shawler says, adding that, “We have to deal with the fact that the landscape has changed and focus conservation efforts on what’s actually possible.”

The ESA is far from perfect. Not only is the science of conservation very complex — it is difficult to know everything about how the removal or reintroduction of a species will affect it or the community around it — the ESA itself is, according to Shawler, “a huge piece of legislation that has become so politicized, subjected to public opinion in a way that delegitimizes the science behind it.”

Still, immense effort is required to protect the ESA. For Boyles, the ESA is central to her work. “I spend all my time defending the ESA from people who want to decrease its power,” Boyles says, adding that, “There is a problem with the ways we protect wildlife in general. We wait until a species is either threatened with extinction or endangered with extinction — those are two points along the downward spiral that are hard to recover from.”

The delisting of wolves from the ESA is already having significant consequences. Now that wolf protections are under the discretion of state jurisdictions, the new war on wolves is underway. The ESA is not a perfect piece of legislation, but it is vital for the protection of politically controversial species such as wolves. 

[ III ]

The wolf wars

 

Since the federal delisting of wolves from the ESA went into effect in early January, the war of wolves has reemerged with a vengeance. 

 

Wisconsin

 

Over the course of three days in February, Wisconsin lost 216 wolves, far exceeding the set quota for the hunting season. The buildup to this hunt reflects the political strife wolves find themselves in. 

From 2012 through 2014, Wisconsin’s wolves were temporarily delisted from the ESA. During this time, explains Amaroq Wiess, wolf expert from the Center for Biological Diversity, the state held constant hunting and trapping seasons. “Once the wolves were relisted,” Weiss says, “the state legislature passed a law mandating a wolf hunt once they are federally delisted.”

This is a controversial move. Not only is there a law mandating a wolf hunt, but it allows the hunt to run from early November through the end of February, which is both breeding season and the time when biologists need to count the wolves. More than this, Weiss explains, the law allows the hunting of wolves with dogs among other questionable tactics. Lastly, the law mandates that hunting zones can only be closed after 24 hours’ notice, in addition to the 24-hour period granted hunters to report a kill. These factors combined led to a gross overhunt during the February breeding season, the effects of which are yet to be known.

This did not need to happen. Originally, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, or DNR, planned to hold the first hunt in November 2021. According to Boyles, this would have allowed time for a long-overdue calculation of wolf numbers. More than this, waiting would have allowed ample time for consultation with the Native American tribes, for whom the wolf is sacred, and their treaty rights in regards to hunting.

Not wanting to wait until November, “an out-of-state hunting group, Hunter Nation, sued the state to force the hunt,” Weiss explains. “The lower court judge — who is a member of Hunter Nation — ruled in favor of the hunt going forward,” Weiss says, adding that, “The president of Hunter Nation is the former CEO of Americans for Prosperity, a Koch Brothers group.”

This was just the beginning.

 

Idaho

 

The Idaho State Senate approved a bill to kill 90% of the state’s wolves. According to a recent report in The New York Times, “The bill would give the state’s Wolf Control Fund an additional $190,000 to hire contractors to kill wolves — on top of $400,000 previously allocated toward killing wolves in Idaho.”

 

Montana

 

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a series of bills that establish the intent of wolf hunting and trapping seasons to reduce the state’s wolf population to a minimum of 15 breeding pairs. The bills authorize the use of dogs while hunting, as well as imply permission to kill rather than relocate bears that cause conflicts outside of federal recovery zones and more. All of these mandates not only have severe consequences for wolves and bears but will ultimately impact the ecosystems around them.

 

[ IV ]

The human-wildlife conflict: Where it gets complicated

 

The wolf issue is situated in what is known as human-wildlife conflict. According to geographer Jeff Vance Martin, human-wildlife conflict and the question of how to solve it, is not as simple as it sounds.

“A lot of ink has been used on this question,” he says, “because on the surface it sounds pretty straightforward. But then you think, are humans and wildlife actually in conflict? More often, it is humans in conflict about some issue related to wildlife.”

Wolves have become a sign of federal overreach. Shawler explains that for many years, “The wildlife managers in the government were killing wolves, bears, coyotes and mountain lions. The focus of wildlife management was to protect desirable species, which back then were elk and deer. That’s what they wanted to hunt, and that’s what people wanted to see in the parks.”

 

But then you think, are humans and wildlife actually in conflict? More often, it is humans in conflict about some issue related to wildlife.”

 

However, the removal of carnivores caused an elk boom, which led to overgrazing and damaged ecosystems. The extirpation of a species is no small matter, and the realization of this misjudgment in wolf management led to conservation efforts such as the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone.

The back and forth of “wolves are bad, hunt them,” to “no, wolves are good, save them,” is certainly frustrating for the people who live in the landscape. According to Christine Wilkinson, a doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley, “The human-wildlife conflicts are reflected in the urban-rural divide.” That is because, according to Martin, “There are real costs of living with wildlife, costs that are unevenly borne. Wolves come back to rural counties, and it’s the urban counties that are happy to have them.”

“The persecution and extermination of wolves is bound up with that process of transforming the landscape from one in which indigenous people lived perfectly content alongside wolves and other species, to what has been converted into private property — into the capitalist production of livestock and the desire to eliminate both material and symbolic threats to that,” Martin explains.

Livestock depredation is one of the main reasons why wolves are hunted and is a central component in the human-wildlife conflict. Over the 20th century, ranching has drastically changed. According to Martin, “You have far fewer operators, because of international, competitive pressures, as well as the shifting regional economies and patterns of rural gentrification in certain areas that raise tax burdens.”

Over time, “the ‘highest and best’ economic use for land is no longer producing livestock — it’s development.” This, Martin continues, puts a lot of pressure on folks in the ranching industry because livestock producers regard wolves as a threat to their livelihoods. “Producers look at wolves and say, well, this is the last straw. This is going to be the loss that breaks me,” Martin continues. While wolf depredation is not as common as it is made out to be, “It is understood within a broader context of threats and pressures on staying in business, and staying on the land,” Martin says.

On another note, some people hunt wolves to feel connection with the land. According to Randy Johnson, the large carnivore specialist at the Wisconsin DNR, “Many people value the opportunity and challenge inherent in pursuing a wolf, and this opportunity can exist while maintaining sustainable and ecologically functional wolf populations.”

Shawler echoes this sentiment, explaining that, “There are a lot of ethical hunters out there who do it because they want to feel connected to the land, want to have their own game meat and want to feel a connection to the animals they eat.” While wolves are not usually hunted for game meat, “People have a lot of respect for wolves, and having this rare opportunity to kill one is something that some people value,” Shawler says.

Conversely, and unignorably, there are those with a clear vendetta against wolves. The driving forces behind the historic and reemergent war on wolves are inherently political. “Wolf harvest/trophy hunting seasons are for the most part, as they’ve been implemented, politically driven rather than based in the best available science,” Martin says.

Wiess adds that, “Hunters comprise about 5% of the U.S. population, yet have such outsized power through the NRA, Safari Club International, through the groups we just saw in Wisconsin (Hunter Nation) and others.” The political incentives behind these groups are difficult to understand, Weiss continues, “I’ve always said, there is a congressional sportsmen’s caucus. We need a congressional ‘I prefer my wildlife alive’ caucus, and I don’t know why we don’t have one.”

 

[V]

Coexistence

 

No amount of political strife will supersede the work necessary to enable a peaceful coexistence with wolves. This, however, is much easier said than done. 

“Essentially,” Wilkinson says, “Policies and socioeconomic and cultural context can lend to (or directly lead to) inequities, misunderstandings and lack of cross-stakeholder listening –– all of which can exacerbate conflict. This context-specificity, along with the fact that we have very little empirical evidence for which physical or management tools actually work for alleviating conflict, is why it’s difficult to give a clear answer about what will and what will not work for solving human-wildlife conflicts.”

A key question Martin asks is, “What does it take to coexist, to share landscapes, and who’s willing to pay those costs?” The biggest conflict with wolves in the United States is between the major sources of opposition: livestock producers, hunters, environmental activists and Native tribes. 

“For some folks,” Martin says, “Any wolf in the state is too many, one calf killed by a wolf is too many. For others, any wolf killed, or hazed even, is too many. So it’s very hard to find a middle ground between those positions.”

Finding this middle ground is what Johnson deems the primary job of wildlife managers. “Many, if not all, species will regulate their own population levels through the biological carrying capacity. However, the other piece of the puzzle is the collective human tolerance for a species given their impacts. This is often called social carrying capacity,” Johnson explains, continuing to say that the “primary job of wildlife managers is to find the balance.”

Balance can be achieved in other ways as well. Organizations such as the Wood River Wolf Project in Idaho take “a collaborative approach by including community members, livestock producers, wildlife NGOs, and federal agencies working together to use proactive, nonlethal deterrents to minimize conflicts between livestock and wolves,” according to their website.

 

“For some folks,” Martin says, “Any wolf in the state is too many, one calf killed by a wolf is too many. For others, any wolf killed, or hazed even, is too many. So it’s very hard to find a middle ground between those positions.”

 

Some of these nonlethal deterrents, explains Shawler, who worked with the Wood River Wolf Project, include a mix of increasing human presence around livestock, guardian dogs, sound devices, the use of foxlights and fladry, or a string of flags that wave in the wind.A lot of what we were trying to do,” Shawler explains, “is train the herders who are on the ground to use the tools. Anything to make it seem like there is human presence will scare the wolves off because they are naturally wary of humans.”

These tactics work differently for different species of livestock of course — sheep are easier to herd than cattle — but the method itself is valuable. Not only does this approach enable communities and multiple stakeholders to come together and work through human-wildlife conflict, but it also promotes coexistence by requiring a deeper understanding of both the land and the wildlife that inhabit it. 

“There is value in thinking about and relating to a species that has a lot in common with us,” Martin says. Wolves are one part of a greater community that — now especially due to climate change — require innovative approaches to not only the human-wildlife conflict but to the environmental crisis at large. It is necessary to depoliticize wildlife, depoliticize the climate crisis and begin to collaboratively work toward sustainable coexistence. 

“Globally,” Wilkinson says, “There are myriad examples of admirable compromises and hard-fought socially just solutions when it comes to human-wildlife conflict. Without people with diverse views, needs and concerns creating structure and space for listening to one another (and for resolving past injustices that contribute to or are interrelated with conflict), any attempt at a sustainable solution is futile.”

Contact Rochelle Gluzman at [email protected]