My relationship with the wild has always been intimately tied to wolves. I went on three week-long wolf tracking expeditions in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho during high school, and those three weeks did much to solidify my love of spending time outside, not showering and sleeping under the stars. Even after camp ended, I followed the wolves’ political situation intensely, especially when US Fish and Wildlife began to talk about removing the Rocky Mountain reintroduced populations from the Endangered Species List (wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park and Central Idaho in the mid-1990s after being driven to extinction by humans). I wrote letters and tried to get other to do the same. When they made the decision to delist wolves, I cried. Their removal from the list meant wolves would have a hunting season and could be shot by anyone with a permit—something akin to sacrilege in my mind.
This week, I got to understand the other side of the wolf story. I thought I understood the opposing views well enough. Conservation groups wanted wolves back because they were a fundamental part of the natural ecosystem that our actions had carelessly removed. Ranchers objected because wolves might kill cattle, but coyotes already killed cattle, and Defenders of Wildlife had set up a fund to compensate ranchers for wolf depredation. Hunters objected because they wanted to hunt elk, but elk populations had overshot the ecosystem’s carrying capacity and were overgrazing. Obviously, conservationists had the better set of arguments, and everyone else could learn to adapt to wolves.
Of course, it isn’t that simple. I knew it wasn’t, but I never heard the other side of the story from someone who’s lived it, not just from the Defenders of Wildlife website. But yesterday, we got to talk to a group of five ranchers in Wallowa County who have seen the effects of wolves on their cattle (wolves have now migrated into Eastern Oregon from Idaho, with about 14 wolves in two packs). As it turns out, depredation is only one of the many ways wolves cause losses for ranchers, and even when compensation is available for livestock losses, it seems laughably inadequate. One rancher told us last year, wolves killed 20 calves out of the 450 he had out (typical losses for ranchers in this area are about 1%). He was able to get compensation from Defenders of Wildlife for one of those animals. In addition, calves often weigh less due to stress from increased predation. In total, he estimated losses per cow from all wolf-related sources at $250 per head—a large chunk of income for a rancher barely making ends meet. Another rancher pointed out that by far the largest losses experienced with wolves in the area were property losses on the ranch itself, because no one’s interested in buying a ranch with wolves in the area.
Listening to the ranchers speak, I was reminded of salmon. Salmon have been driven to the brink of extinction by a variety of sources—dams, habitat destruction, overfishing and cattle grazing in spawning grounds. Every time a new dam is proposed, environmentalists say this is it, this is going to be the straw that breaks the salmon’s back. For ranchers, that straw is wolves. The American cowboy is a dying breed—the average age of a rancher in the US is 58. Ranchers are subject to ridicule and hate from almost every environmental group in the country over their use of public lands for grazing. They have to comply with environmental regulations about salmon habitat and riparian areas. They’re often booed when they go to meetings about policy to give their perspective or barred from participating in the first place. And even when they don’t have to deal with the politics of ranching, they’re lucky to break even by the end of the year. So naturally, they feel threatened.
I still think wolf reintroduction is important. I think wolves have an important role to play in the ecosystem. But if we want to keep wolves, we might have to compromise. We might have to move slowly. We absolutely have to listen. I don’t like the idea of hunting wolves, but if they need to be hunted to stay here, I might be able to live with that. I don’t know what the life of a wolf is worth, or how you measure it against the life of a cow, the lifestyle of a rancher or the value of a living ecosystem. I know there aren’t easy answers to these questions, and I know things are never as simple as they seem between the walls of a classroom.