Science, Mythology, Hatred, and the Fate of the Gray Wolf
Date: Tuesday, April 14, 2009 @ 19:13:27 EDT
Topic: Wolves


For the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to find a way to accept the decision by Ken Salazar, the new secretary of the interior, to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list in Idaho and Montana.

It was a relief to have a sensible conversation with newly appointed interior officials after eight years of hearing almost nothing but distortion and duplicity from the top figures in the department. It was also a relief to hear them say, in describing the way they reached this decision, that they were simply following the guidance of career scientists. And yet I still can’t accept it.

The reintroduction of wolves in the Rocky Mountain West has been an overwhelming success. It began with 65 wolves in 1995 and 1996, and the population has now reached approximately 1,600 across the region, with about a hundred breeding pairs. The numerical standards of the original recovery plan have been more than met, and there is new evidence, according to Interior Department scientists, that enough intermingling is taking place among separate populations to ensure a healthy genetic diversity.

Unfortunately, very little has been done to change the behavior of humans — who drove wolves to the brink of extinction. The way the wolf has been delisted, this time, is a reminder that what we are really doing when we protect endangered and threatened species is managing our own species.

Under the proposed delisting for Idaho and Montana (wolves in Wyoming will remain on the endangered list), the wolf will be protected by state management plans that more or less acknowledge the wolf’s right to exist.

C. L. Otter, the Republican governor of Idaho, has pledged “to continue our policy of responsibly managing wolves for a viable, sustainable population that can coexist with our ungulate herds, our livestock and our people.” The very first step in “responsibly managing” wolves will be a wolf hunt.

And Mr. Otter’s idea of coexistence between wolves and humans doesn’t bear examination. He has said he’d be the first in line for a wolf hunting license, and he has also said he favors reducing the wolf population in Idaho to 100, way below the current level of more than 800 and well below the number required by the state management plan.

When it comes to wolves, federal law has been protecting what is, fundamentally, a mythic species. And when it ceases protecting them, they will be exposed to the worst aspects of that myth — a deep, ancestral hostility to wolves based on ... nothing.

Wolves do not kill humans. They are responsible for a minuscule number of livestock deaths in the West — less than domestic dogs — and there are federal and state programs specifically designed to compensate ranchers who lose stock to wolves.

To hunters, killing wolves is both an end in itself and a way of reducing their predation on elk and deer. And it is more than that. Killing a wolf is also a way of participating in the myth of the West. That myth nearly drove the species to extinction.

I would be happy to see wolves taken off the endangered species list if they were not hunted. It is that simple. Their reintroduction has been an unequivocal boon for the ecosystem — the return of a top predator to a system that is biologically unbalanced without it. There is more than enough game for wolves and humans to share. There are adequate protections for ranchers. There is every good reason to try genuine coexistence. No one shoots a wolf to keep from going hungry.

So far the political pressure in the West is too great to allow this. And that, in the end, is the trouble with Mr. Salazar’s decision. It may indeed have been based on the science, and on the numbers called for in the recovery plan. But that plan surely needs revaluation, and in any case the administration clearly was not eager to defend it. The announcement was made on a Friday (like so many Bush-era decisions) and without much warning to environmental groups. Several of those groups have now filed suit to block that delisting.

Mr. Salazar — a Coloradan and a rancher — now faces the very difficult task of making certain that Idaho and Montana adhere to the letter of their management plans. As for the wolves, they have been brought back only to be killed again.


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