Wolf controversy is personal and cultural, not over biology
Except for the few people “on the fence” — those who have not chosen sides — the controversy over wolf restoration in the West is not really about wolves.
When the wolves were first reintroduced beginning in 1995, there was some genuine debate over whether it was the best way to restore them, whether the population would grow or wither and die, whether they would greatly reduce, or maybe even increase prey populations, and the effect of wolves on other animals and the ecosystems.
Much knowledge has been gained. There are scores of scientific studies about the reintroduced wolves: their behavior, effects, prospects, etc.
While there were those dead set against wolves or completely for them regardless right from the start, many were genuinely open to information. The militant anti-wolf narrative didn’t develop and spread until about 8 – 10 years had passed. At first, extreme anti-wolf rhetoric was led by a few prominent politicians like Republican Senator from Montana Conrad Burns (the wolves will kill a little girl before the first year is over) and later, Democratic Governor of Wyoming Dave Freudenthal who argued that the 30 or 40 wolves in the state were literally destroying the economy there.
The real drive against the wolves that was effective seemed to be related to, or at least paralleled, the rise of tea party and similar thinking. At the time, pro-wolf groups were taken to task by some of their friends for making mistakes both tactical and strategic, but there is a good argument that the current situation of a slowly declining wolf population due to human mortality along with very unpleasant controversy would have happened regardless of any moves the pro-wolf groups made.
The wolf issue fit very well into the quiver of anti-government arguments at large at the time and wolves served too well as a scapegoat to take folks’ minds off the terrible economic disruptions of the Great Recession. While the pro-wolf argument was and remains about the beauty of wolves, the need of ecosystem for wolves, and their general lack of negative impacts; the anti-wolf position tends toward apocalypse. The wolves are claimed to be the very worst thing that has ever happened to big game, the elk and other herds are said to be in great decline, the ranching economy has been delivered a blow to the gut. Worse still the entire wolf project is a giant conspiracy to bring a huge non-native beast to Idaho, Montana, Wyoming from the far away country of Canada instead of restoring the timid, little seen, and small native wolf of the Rocky Mountains, canis lupus irremotus. The purpose of the great conspiracy is to end hunting, bring more federal control (or perhaps United Nations control) for its own sake, destroy gun rights, and the like. All these things are supposedly based on malice.
Arguments over the issue are quickly personal and based on stereotypes of what one side thinks the other is like. Here is a good example from a recent letter to the editor that argues that most of the time the State of Montana claims wolves have greatly hurt the elk population, but quickly turns to the opposite argument (too many elk) when that argument is convenient. The comments about the letter are abrasive, and they don’t deal with the writer’s argument. In other words, we see cultural conflict rather than any true argument over wolves themselves.
Wolf advocates traditionally relied on the federal government to offset what they saw as the backward policies of the Northern Rockies states. Unfortunately for them, after friendly President Bill Clinton, there came two Presidents who were of no help or aided their opponents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Neither President was personally involved with wolf policy, but their appointments and nominations to key Department of Interior positions were unfriendly to wolves.
Despite setbacks to those who want more than a bare minimum recovery of wolves, the wolf population is spreading to Washington, Oregon, and perhaps California, which are more friendly states. They are also “blue” states.
While this is very speculative, perhaps twenty years from now we might see wildlife distributed not as much by geography and habitat as by politics. Red states might have big populations of a few large animals, designated as “game,” plus varying numbers of other animals, viewed as varmints. The game would be managed much like livestock, e.g., cows are “slow elk.” Elk are quick cows, good for targets.
Blue states might have a much larger variety of kinds of animals. They would be treated as wildlife as well as game. The category of varmint would be abolished.
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Photo credit: Scott Denny