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Guest Opinion: Who has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf?

The Independent, 12/31/14

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Written by Greta Hyland

A hunter shot a grey wolf near Beaver a couple of days ago. It appears that it was a mistake, as the man mistook the wolf for a coyote and only realized his mistake when he saw the collar. While I would question how a hunter cannot tell the difference between a coyote and a wolf, I would mark it down as a tragic but honest mistake. Unfortunately for this hunter, he was not in the section of Utah where it is okay to shoot wolves, so the one he shot was federally protected. Mistake or not, the man should be charged. But I would argue that the more guilty culprits in this instance are the state of Utah, bad coyote and wolf policies, ignorance, and my favorite, politics.

All of the four above mentioned culprits go hand-in-hand. Utah does not want wolves in the state, even though wolves were here before we were and they are beneficial carnivores. The state wolf management plan will not allow wolves to establish anywhere in Utah and there are many waiting with baited breath for all wolves to be de-listed from the endangered species list so that they can fully implement the wolf management plan. A strange eagerness permeates this plan in my mind as nary a wolf can be found in Utah, with the exception of the lone wolf that mistakenly wanders into the state, like the one that was just shot.

Couple the wolf policy with the Utah Mule Deer Preservation Act, which offers $50 a head for coyotes, and you have the accidental wolf shooting. But that’s only half of it. Add the dollars the state makes on hunting tags, the hunting lobby who doesn’t want any competition for those prized deer, and the agriculture lobby and ranchers that don’t want wolves and you have a complete anti-wolf package tied up in a pretty political bow. Wolves don’t stand a chance here whether a hunter can tell the difference between it or a kangaroo.

Don't get me wrong, I do understand why a rancher would be angry over lost livestock to wolves, I’d be angry too – heck, I might even want to shoot them myself. But I get angry when deer eat my garden too and it’s not okay for me to shoot them. Furthermore, there aren’t any hunting non-governmental organizations out there willing to compensate me for my loss. That is the bitter-sweetness of life – living with the good and the bad. How we deal with the bad or inconvenient is what defines us. Killing everything that we don’t like shows an utter lack of respect for not only life, but for the intricate web of life that we are a part of.

I am not opposed to hunting and I believe there are times when shooting an animal are justified, but the aggressive, almost feral attitude towards wolves specifically, and predators generally, is shocking in light of the evidence revealing the necessity and benefits predators provide – to say nothing of the ethics involved in exterminating an entire species. 

Aldo Leopold, if you don’t know him, was a forester and a hunter in the early 1900s. He worked for the Forest Service in Arizona and New Mexico and hunted bear, wolves, and mountain lions for ranchers – but also for the love of hunting. Early on he believed that without predators, the mountains would be a hunter’s paradise. But after eradicating predators he found that without them, ungulates became pests that left mountains scarred and ravaged, and anything but a paradise.

He described wolf-less mountains as ravaged places where every edible bush and tree was razed “as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise.” He went on to suggest that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. But he didn’t just come to that conclusion after watching what uncontrolled populations of deer can do to a mountain, it was after he and some friends engaged in a shooting frenzy at a pack of frolicking wolves.

After the shooting Leopold and his friends walked over to inspect their handiwork, whereupon he watched an old wolf die. He said he watched a fierce green fire die out in her eyes. In that moment he realized there were some things he did not understand – some things that people don’t understand – that maybe we should. He then went on to become one of America's greatest conservationists and foremost apologist for wolves.

In his short essay titled, “Thinking like a Mountain,” he suggests that we have succumbed to living a life hell-bent on safety, prosperity, and comfort and that our striving has left us dull and lifeless; and furthermore, that too much safety only leads to more danger. Being an ecologist he certainly knew what he was talking about. In Yellowstone where wolves have been reintroduced, scientists have discovered an ecological effect called the “trophic cascade.” Trophic cascade is harmony and balance in an ecosystem. The reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone has created this effect and subsequent ecosystem balance than hasn’t been seen in the park in over 65 years.

A trophic cascade is basically an approach to ecosystem health that starts at the top of the food chain rather than at the bottom, i.e., with the predators. Due to the reintroduction of wild wolves to Yellowstone, all the animals and vegetation are healthier and stronger.  Let me explain: when wolves chase elk during the hunt, the elk are forced to run faster and farther.  As the elk run, their hooves aerate the soil, allowing more grasses to grow.  Since the elk cannot remain stationary for too long, aspens and willows in one area are not heavily grazed, and therefore can fully recover between migrations. 

Out of control coyote populations are ironically kept in check by the wolves also. In Yellowstone the coyotes have been out-competed and essentially reduced by 80 percent in areas occupied by wolves.  The coyotes that do remain are more skittish and wary.  With fewer coyotes hunting small rodents, raptors like the eagle and osprey have more prey and are making a comeback.  Even the endangered grizzly bears are benefiting. They successfully steal wolf kills more often than not and thus have more food to feed their cubs. And the list goes on and on.

What this demonstrates is that a frenzied policy carried out with guns is not the smartest choice when it comes to wolves. What Yellowstone reveals is that the coyote and wolf policies of Utah actually work against each other. But they also go against nature, hurt the ecosystem, and probably costs money in resources that could be better spent in other ways. Basically, the policies here are unnaturally fighting what nature has successfully done for millennia. Smarter not harder comes to mind.

Aldo Leopold said that only a mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf. I tend to agree, sadly. Even with all of our science and evidence to the contrary, we still don't get it. At the end of his essay Leopold said that the folly behind seeking safety is perhaps behind Thoreau's dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. He then ended his essay by suggesting that wildness may in fact be the “hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.”

The hunter who shot the wolf is only the symptom of a much more corrosive illness. The mistaken belief that we can be good stewards of land, life, and resources while exterminating certain species in order to benefit from others, offering rewards for evidence of killing nuisance species, and working against the natural order of life is foolishness on a level that even a child could see. Until the mentality toward life here changes, we will continue to see not only accidental shootings, bu the more insidious intentional ones as well. Life isn't convenient, but it is beautiful, and will only remain that way if we learn to protect and respect it. It would be an unnecessary tragedy if the howls of wolves were never heard again.

Greta Hyland has a Masters degree in Environmental Policy & Management and has worked for the BLM and the NPS as well as for non-profit organizations. She is a regular contributor to the Utah Adventure Journal and is the Copy Editor at the Independent. She writes regularly on her blog about environmental policy issues affecting the southwest, as well as personal narratives about outdoor recreation and simple living. Her blog can be found at www.thesouthwestjournal.wordpress.com  A Utah native, Greta is a consummate desert rat and loves exploring the southwest. She can be reached at editor@infowest.com.

This Guest Opinion was published in The Independent.

Photo courtesy of Chris Muiden

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