Saturday, February 27, 2010

Big bad wolves

One day, while I was driving back to Helena from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, some 20 years ago, I decided to stop for the night in the eastern Montana town of Miles City (a cattle town named after a famous Indian fighter). I grabbed a motel room, and walked to another nearby motel with a bar and a restaurant. I sat at the bar, had a drink, and let another patron strike up a conservation.

Turns out he also was a journalist - specializing in agriculture in the west - and the conversation turned to wolves. I made some comment about how we should find some common ground between ecologists' understanding that wolves are important to the eco-system, and ranchers' concern for their stock.

The bar turned silent. The temperature turned very cold. All eyes turned toward me. "But," I said, placatingly, gulping a lot, looking for pistol handles sticking out of big western belts, "maybe I need to learn more."

Douglas H. Chadwick, a stunningly good writer about wildlife and the west for decades, said in a current National Geographic article the obvious, but he said it very well: "(G)ray wolves are the planet's most widespread large land mammals after humans and their livestock and - in the Northern Hemisphere - have long been our most direct competitors for meat."

So how could there not be hatred for wolves among ranchers, especially since nearly every one of them grew up on their grandfathers' knee, learning about how wolves would go into a frenzy, killing livestock just because they could, crazy, murderous animals that must be annihilated before an honest rancher's livelihood had a chance.

As I sat at that bar, nervously sipping a scotch and water, I fully realized that much of that wolf frenzy circa 1900 was caused by humans who, by nearly wiping out deer, elk and other large wolf prey, were the ultimate cause of the frenzy. But that didn't change the carnage found in a rancher's field. And I didn't feel like arguing the point.

Years later, as an editorial page editor, I received letters from people afraid to venture into the wilderness where wolves might lurk. And more letters, of course, from sportsmen upset that their prey - big game - were being diminished. Others, conservationists, demanded to know how the natural system of prey and predator could be kept in balance without natural predators on hand.

Those interested in this stuff know that in recent years wolves have been released into the wild and wolf packs now dot the Rocky Mountain Northwest. Pro-wolf folks agree that reimbursement for livestock killed by those packs is necessary. Anti-wolf folks are not impressed, apparently making a distinction between predator kills and slaughterhouse/hunter kills. After all, those latter kills benefit people. Wolf kills do not. Or, ultimately, do they?

Chadwick's article is a thoughtful look at the situation. It's worth a read.

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