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.
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He believes the ESL is one of the most foresighted wildlife protection measures in the world. The fourth-generation rancher just rues that it has become so fractious.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Can there be peace in the Wolf Wars?
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"Congress came up with what was supposed to be a sure way to negotiate coexistence, but we've turned it into a weapon to beat each other over the head with," he says.
Out West, incivility and raw emotion over the issue continue to abound – much more so than in, say, Minnesota, which has a far larger wolf population than any Western state. One reason, speculates France, a native Minnesotan, is the struggle of trying to make a living in the unforgiving landscape of the West. "In the upper Midwest, you hear all of the same arguments you do in the Rockies," he says. "But at some level, they [Midwesterners] have been having debates longer and interacting with very robust wolf populations and realizing that the world as they know it did not come to an end."
Demographics may play a part, too. Surveys show that residents in urban areas tend to have more favorable opinions of wolves than those who live in remote and sparsely populated places, which applies to much of the wolf's range in the West.
It's perhaps notable that no major politician in Wyoming, Montana, or Idaho has ever won an election on a pro-wolf platform, though all three state legislatures are filled with candidates who vowed to make them go away.
And the wolves are hardly invisible. While many Americans think the predators inhabit only remote areas, the fact is that of the 1,700 wolves in the West today, only 100 or so take refuge in national parks. The same holds true for the major packs in the upper Midwest. "The vast majority live near people," says Mr. Bangs of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Yet part of the dissonance over the issue may have nothing to do with wolves at all. It may just reflect a deeper divide in American culture. Susan Clark, a natural resource instructor at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., recently led students on a road trip across the West using wolves as a way to learn about differing perspectives. They talked to ranchers, big-game outfitters, government biologists, and environmentalists. Ms. Clark says her students were stunned to discover that, as individuals, most were nice, thoughtful people.
"The problem is not about wolves but how people understand and relate to one another in the world," she says. "Citizens continue to shout past each other. Neither side is really willing to listen to the other. It's the same with wolves as it is for talking about the future direction of the country."
No need to convince the Robinetts of that. After they lost dogs to wolves and expressed concerns about the safety of their grandkids, local environmentalists phoned and apologized, which the couple accepted as a generous gesture. Yet later, when they asked the federal government to remove wolves relentlessly preying on their livestock, they received anonymous death threats, presumably from some in the same save-the-wolf community. "People can be more frightening than animals," Jon says.
The rhetoric on the other side has been no less delicate. Some ranchers have promoted the surreptitious poisoning of wolves and resorting to the old Western saw of "shoot, shovel, and shut up" to make the animals go away. The leader of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation said that wolf reintroduction has caused one of the greatest ecological disasters in the history of the continent.