Wyoming Wolves In Crosshairs

Members of the Basin Creek wolf pack chase one another in an open meadow. Yellowstone National Park, WY

We had heard from the lookout warden on Mount Sheridan that the Basin Creek pack – in our direction of travel – were active and we had a good chance of spotting them. Marla and I were backpacking in the Yellowstone backcountry, on a lollipop loop that circumnavigated Heart Lake. We added the hike up Mount Sheridan that afforded us a commanding view of Heart Lake and the Two Ocean Plateau, an enormous swath of wild country that’s perfect for wolves. At Basin Creek, we watched five or six wolves, one of them black as coal, playing like dogs on the forest edge. The next morning, they appeared in fog, rising on hind legs to play fight, then chased one another all across the meadow. A pair of cow elk entered the meadow, sniffed the air, then moved swifly to the forest sanctuary, their heads up as they sprinted away from their natural enemy. It was one of the most memorable wild experiences of our lives.

The Endangered Species Act is supposed to protect wildlife and recover the species – get them de-listed. Opponents say it doesn’t work because the list keeps growing and animals are perpetually endangered. But consider where bald eagles and gray wolves would be without protection. And what about black-footed ferrets, still hanging on by a thread, but hanging on nonetheless? The Act works, but suffers from lack of political will, inadequate funding, and a sort of elitism that favors more charasmatic creatures. In the midst of mass extinction, many people (who consider themselves separate from nature) have difficulty finding empathy for a mouse, a frog, or an insect. And there’s the argument that the ESA works against business, the whole spotted owl mess when a few owls got in the way of government subsidized deforestation. What does any of this have to with wolves? Everything frankly. There will always be a great divide about this creature; irrational judgements made by those that love and those that choose to hate wolves. Wolves are supremely skilled hunters that sometimes overkill, and they are among the most socially evolved creatures. Many choose to hate wolves because they sometimes prey on livestock, while spreading irrational lies. What emotion lives in man that would drive him to slaughter animals with extraordinary cruelty, killing with intent on extinction? Our government, apparently sick and tired of managing a controversial apex predator, just took the unprecented action of moving gray wolves from endangered to common vermin (predator) status. This article in Wildlife News details many ways that it’s legal to kill wolves in Wyoming.

We have spent many millions of dollars recovering gray wolves in the Lower 48. And it’s been a spectacularly successful recovery in spite of undying hatred and the SSS – shoot, shovel, shut up creed that prevails in many corners of the West. Wolves have played an important role in the recovery of riparian areas and aspen forest in Greater Yellowstone, restoring a balance that’s impossible to achieve without an apex predator. It hasn’t been perfect, but our job is to make certain that the recovery is sustainable and manage the species. If that means there’s a hunt in places where wolves are misbehaving near residential areas, preying on livestock, or overkilling elk herds, that’s ok – it’s managing the species. Ethical hunting gives stakeholders a vested interest in sustaining wildlife – hunters are conservationists. Turning our back on wolves and making it open season – just because they are wolves – is a horrible decision that promises to undo nearly two decades of recovery. Get ready for mass killing, poisoning of females and pups in dens, cruel snowmobile chases over many miles, aerial gunners wounding animals and leaving them to suffer until they freeze to death. And get ready to re-list gray wolves, if we still have an Endangered Species Act in a few years.

That all sounds too apacolyptic, right? Consider this from Barry Lopez’s “Of Wolves and Men”:

“The belief that man could kill without moral restraint, without responsibility, because the wolf was only an animal, would take on terrifying proportions during the strychnine campaigns in ninetenth-century America. The European wolf hunter of 1650 might kill twenty to thirty wolves in his lifetime; a single American wolfer of the late 1800’s could kill four of five thousand in ten years.”

Those attitudes still live in the West. We have learned absolutely nothing.

3 thoughts on “Wyoming Wolves In Crosshairs

  1. I think you hit the nail right on the head with this line, “…many people (who consider themselves separate from nature) have difficulty finding empathy for a mouse, a frog, or an insect.”

    It seems like the westward moving scourge of population wants museumized nature rather than real, wild nature. Just enough space for them to go feel like they’re in the great outdoors and enough infrastructure to get them there, but dare they encounter any risk from the wildlife exhibits and the land managers just aren’t doing their job to keep them safe. The question arises: Who separated these people from nature? (I think I know, so it’s just food for thought.)

    Keep us updated on the wolf situation. There are those who want total dominion over the land, and a total eradication of predators.

    1. Things are really complicated with wolves – hard-wired hatred, ignorance, and apathy are among the toxic elements in the brew. Even if you knew nothing at all about wolves, can you imagine Congress taking the animal straight from Endangered Species to a shoot on sight predator? And try to have a discussion with someone who’s not directly involved – you may as well talk to your dog. But we’re cool, we’ve got national parks, right? All of the animals are in Yellowstone and Rocky, aren’t they?

  2. Absolutely — the ignorance about the role of the national parks on ecosystem health and the needed range for wildlife habitat is tragic. National Parks are great and all, but to the general public, they might as well be museums, complete with mechanical displays for their entertainment. When the exhibits start eating tourists (who may have smeared bacon grease on their clothes, then got in their tent for the night) and other exhibits, it’s time to get in and regulate with a heavy hand. It would be nice if the public could learn to value true wildness and the world around them, rather than aesthetics and the growth-dependent economy that eats into truly wild places.

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