Wolves and ranchers

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Salt Creek Summit , Wallowa National Forest, Wallowa County, Oregon

I learned to love the wilderness because of wolves. In high school, after I tired of the gossip and judgment I always seemed to find at summer camp, I decided to try something different. I signed up for a week-long wolf tracking expedition run buy Wilderness Awareness School in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, a few hours outside of Boise, Idaho. On our first night, the counselors asked our group of twelve to sit in a circle with our eyes closed.

“I want you to think about the wolves,” our counselor said. “Now, I want you to feel them. Feel yourself connecting with the wolves and point in the direction you feel them in.”

Skeptical as I was, a part of me felt pulled. I pointed, extending my left arm in a tentative line.

“Open your eyes,” we were told.

I looked around and saw our entire camp (except my best friend, who was never one for hippie-inspired exercises) pointing in the same direction. That night, the stillness of the meadows was regularly punctuated by howls. And the next morning, we saw an entire wolf pack in that same direction.

By the end of the week, I was a convert. I’d dissected an elk kill, made plaster casts of tracks and heard the story of the fight over wolf reintroduction in the Rockies. I came back for two more summers, then continued to follow the wolves’ story religiously. When US Fish & Wildlife began to talk about delisting wolves, I wrote pleading letters to members of Congress and federal bureaucrats, begging them to reconsider. When I found out the decision had been made, I cried. The idea of hunting wolves seemed more than just repugnant; to me, it bordered on sacrilegious. I understood why wolves were controversial. I knew ranchers and hunters had legitimate reasons for wanting to keep wolves from living near them. But the physical act of picking up a gun and deliberately setting out to kill a wolf was utterly incomprehensible to me.

I had come to equate wolves with wildness, freedom and hope for the future of all threatened creatures. Wolves were a symbol of redemption, proof that we could atone for out past wrongs and restore wild places to what they were before we came along to pillage and conquer. Killing a wolf would be violating that commitment to right our past wrongs; implementing a policy allowing hunting would allow no respect for the life on an individual wolf.

That was before I learned about how we respect individual wolves. In a single season, the take for wolves in Idaho was 188 wolves, a small but not insignificant percentage of the state’s total population. In that same period, the state killed over 200 solves for various reasons, mostly related to depredation. Even in the eyes of the agency reintroducing them, the life of an individual wolf appears to carry little weight.

But should it? Does that wolf matter as much as I thought it did? Is it as important as a cow? A person’s ability to make a living?

I thought I had clean answers to these questions, but as it turns out, wolves are tricky animals. While native to most of the United States, the populations in the west are in a sense artificial, brought here by humans. They’re natural, but they wouldn’t be here without us. Of course, without us, they never would have gone extinct in the first place, but their status seems to hover somewhere between “native species” and “experimental population” in a way that defies easy answers.

And then, of course, we met the ranchers. They told us about regulations they have to comply with to keep from hurting salmon, and as they talked, they seemed to have a lot in common with the fish. Salmon have been driven to the brink of extinction by a large variety of factors—overfishing, habitat destruction, and of course, dams. Would cattle crazing near spawning grounds by the straw that broke their back? Ranchers fear for their existence just as strongly as environmental groups fear for the salmon. They have to comply with regulations about grazing on public lands, have to keep cattle out of riparian areas, all while seeing their children grow up and move to the big city to find a job where you don’t have to work seven days a week starting at four-thirty in the morning. They work hard all year and barely turn a profit, and they do it all while being demonized by people who believe there shouldn’t be any cattle grazing on public lands. Still, they survive, but barely, and if you listen to them speak, they’ll tell you—wolves are going to drive the American rancher to extinction.