I want to be an ecologist

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: Baker National Forest, Baker County, Oregon
context: We watched a documentary about a few OSU ecologists doing field work in Yellowstone National Park and documenting the way streams have recovered after wolf reintroduction, because wolves keep elk populations in check, preventing them from overgrazing stream banks.

God, I want to be an ecologist right now. It’s the cheesy music. The cheesy music always get me. And the wolves, the pictures of wolves running through snow and the hope that if I live long enough, I might see that happen someday. I love the way nature works so well. Ecology is like peeling back the layers of an onion. Today, it doesn’t seem scary. All we need to do is bring back wolves and cougars and lynxes and everything else will come back. It seems to beautifully simple and happy. Until you get to the people, and the politics. That screws everything up. Why did I have to pick ES-politics? ES-Bio is full of the possibility of redemption. Politics makes for good papers, good thinking and studying but no optimism. I’ve watched C-SPAN, and even on issues everyone agrees are important, half the things people stand up and say are ridiculous, tangential or obstructive. What chance do wolves have?
I love the fact that you can’t replace wolves. We can try to mimic their ecological functions, but we can’t impart that same fear in elk populations. We shoot indiscriminately, construct fences and do our best to be seen as the top predator, but we can’t pretend to be wolves, try as we might. Wolves live because of elk. The two are intimately intertwined in a way we could never hope to equal. Which is why we need them, so much, to keep that ecological balance.
And I hate the idea of shooting wolves. It pains me so much, viscerally, to think of that bullet piercing through layers of grey hair, the wolf falling, bleeding onto the ground. But I think that hunt might be necessary for wolves to live with ranchers. If you take control away from people, they feel powerless. They act on their own. I think, I hope, that allowing a hunt will help bridge that divide. I hope those few wolves that are shot will help the rest survive. I hope wolves will learn to fear humans, to run at night, to make themselves invisible. I know, if we let them, they will survive. They’re fighters by nature.

Wolves revisited

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.

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.