Wolf wars: Can man and predator coexist in the West?
As the gray wolf comes off the Endangered Species list, new questions swirl about whether the animal can survive without federal protection – and its impact on cattle and other wildlife. The view from one ranch.
As ranchers in one of the most rugged corners of the northern Rockies, Jon and Debbie Robinett have had to cope with their share of animals preying on cattle. Coyotes and mountain lions prowl unfettered in the pristine Dunoir Valley, where snow-shod peaks jut defiantly into the Wyoming sky and where life hasn't changed that much since Jon's great-grandfather herded livestock here – like him, from the sling of a saddle – 130 years ago.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Can there be peace in the Wolf Wars?
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But two other formidable species, largely erased by Jon's forebears, are now making a carefully orchestrated comeback. First it was grizzly bears that started arriving shortly after the Robinetts were hired to run the Diamond G Ranch in 1989. The bruins struck with increasing regularity, the result of federal protection enabling them to expand beyond the oases of nearby Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.
In response, the Robinetts bought a pair of "bear dogs" – Great Pyrenees – to protect the herd. It worked for a while, virtually eliminating cattle deaths. But then another visitor reappeared after a 60-year absence – gray wolves, offspring of animals transplanted into the Yellowstone ecosystem in 1995. A pack of wolves attacked one of their horses, then killed the bear dogs, before turning on a pet border collie, leaving it dead literally on the back porch. On top of that, wolves were taking 50 to 60 calves annually.
Over the years, the Robinetts have tried everything to keep the lobos at bay – erecting a sophisticated cordon of electric wire around pastures, deploying a gantlet of police sirens and flashing lights to scare them off, and pulling countless all-nighters baby-sitting Angus cattle. "When wolves are hitting your place, they chew into your thin profit margin," says Jon, reflecting the numeric pragmatism of someone who makes a living off the hoof.
The story of the Robinetts and the wolves is a tale of the modern West – of federal wildlife policies that have been remarkably successful in recovering nearly extinct animals and of the hardships some of those animals have caused as a result. Now, with the federal government taking the gray wolf off the endangered species list (ESL), the next chapter in this long-running narrative is about to unfold, revealing how well man and predator can coexist in the changing landscape and traditional political culture of the West.
In some respects, it will be a unique experiment. The federal government has rescued numerous species from biological oblivion and removed them from the ESL – from bald eagles to peregrine falcons to the American alligator. But never before has it revived a population of large carnivores and taken it out from under the shield of federal protection.
Editor's note: Staff photographer Ann Hermes produced this video, in which a rancher and retired biologist discuss the difficulties of delisting wolves in Wyoming.