Originally published on January 30, 2024 in The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2024/01/30/opinion/wolves-repopulation-colorado-polarization.html?unlocked_article_code=1.Rk0.B0Rb.BdFVhJ44QKdQ&bgrp=t&smid=url-share
By Erica Berry
Ms. Berry is the author of “Wolfish: Wolf, Self, and the Stories We Tell About Fear.”
For generations, America waged a war against the wolf; now with the animals repopulating the Mountain West, the wolf war has taken on a new shape: pitting neighbors against neighbors as they fight over how to manage wolves.
Environmentalists believe that wolves not only deserve a place in the environment but also can help repair it, while livestock producers often feel they shoulder too many costs of living alongside an animal that city dwellers simply want to gawk at. These disagreements have boiled over into fraught political battles, most recently in Colorado, where conservative ranching interests fought a narrowly passed ballot measure to reintroduce wolves to the Rockies right up until mid-December, when 10 wolves were released into the wilderness.
But there’s another way to see the latest chapter in the story of America’s wolf population: In expanding pockets of the West, citizens across the political spectrum are finding common ground as they adjust to living beside the wolf. It’s a lesson in how even in extremely polarized times, it’s possible to make heated issues less divisive.
The predominant narrative of the Big Bad Wolf, which has its roots in biblical stories and Northern European fairy tales, arrived with colonization of America. Government-funded extermination programs incentivized the killing of wolves, largely as a project of “civilizing” the wilderness, an offshoot of Manifest Destiny. By the mid-20th century, wolves in the contiguous United States had been shot, poisoned and trapped almost to extinction, with just a few stragglers in the Upper Midwest.
Public opinion began to shift with the birth of the modern environmental movement, and in 1974, wolves were among the first animals to receive protection under the Endangered Species Act. But by the time wolves were reintroduced to the Rocky Mountains in the 1990s, the animal had become a pawn in a proxy war over American values. One portion of the country saw a chance for atonement for a desecrated wilderness and the promise of a restored ecosystem. Another — big game hunters and livestock producers — saw wolves as a threat to their livelihoods. Protected by federal law, the wolf became a vessel for their larger resentments about governmental overreach.
In his memoir “Wolfer,” the trapper-turned-government-wolf-biologist Carter Niemeyer recounted seeing an Idaho sign in the 1990s that read, “Kill all the goddamn wolves and the people who put them here.” The more polarizing wolves became, the more their fate got caught in volleys of partisan legislation. In 2020, the Trump administration decided to remove wolves from the Endangered Species Act, and four months later, Wisconsin authorized wolf hunting during breeding season. Within three days, 218 wolves had been killed, and before long, conservative state legislatures throughout the West were allowing hunters to shoot and kill wolves with impunity. Ed Bangs, the biologist who led wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told a journalist that the slate of wolf-hunting legislation was all “about making snowflakes cry.”
Today an estimated 6,000 wolves live in the lower 48 states, occupying less than 10 percent of their former territory, much of which has been divided by highways and suburban developments or put in service of cattle and crops. But according to a 2014 study by the Center for Biological Diversity, the United States could support almost 10,000 wolves. Environmental activists hope to see populations rebounding around the country: the Mexican gray wolf in the Southwest, red wolves in the Southeast and the gray wolf throughout the Rockies and Great Lakes. As apex predators, wolves can influence entire ecosystems, and their return would offer benefits for both humans and the environment — accomplishing everything from reducing car collisions with deer to increasing ecosystem resilience in the face of a changing climate.
Still, activists have met resistance from the livestock producers and farmers who see wolves as a threat to their animals, aware that the predator’s habitat is not only rugged mountains but also the lower elevations where they follow prey in colder months. By helping to shoulder ranchers’ costs, conservationists have won supporters in unexpected places.
One rancher, Ted Birdseye, who, for a few years, had more confirmed dog and cattle losses from wolves than anyone else in Oregon, became the first in the state with a five-foot-tall 7,000-volt electric fence around his property to protect his livestock from wolves and other predators. The fence was funded with federal grants and state wolf compensation programs, as well as crowdfunding from supporters of an environmental conservation group. Livestock producers like him are more likely to tolerate wolves — and much less likely to shoot, shovel and shut up, as the saying goes — when they receive support for effective deterrents.
Colorado has found other creative ways to ease the tension between ranchers and wolf advocates, such as offering more compensation — in the case of livestock killed by wolves — to ranchers who have worked to minimize conflict. Though some people don’t want the federal government telling them what they can do with their land, officials have learned that stakeholders will come together over shared desires to manage the land well and see fewer livestock deaths from wolves. Colorado is also taking it slow. Though its new management plan for the wolf population, put in effect in early 2023, allows the release of five more wolves this season, state wildlife officials decided not to release any more until next winter.
Matt Collins, who works on reducing conflict between humans and wildlife for the Western Landowners Alliance, says a focus on cultivating a “radical center,” a term popularized in conservation by the Arizona rancher Bill McDonald, is paying off across the region. The group has a free handbook that urges wolf advocates and officials to avoid potentially inflammatory terminology — words like “coexistence,” which imply a harmoniousness that might never be felt.
The alliance is working with the Heart of the Rockies Initiative to funnel $22 million from the Department of Agriculture to livestock producers in five Western states for exploring nonlethal approaches to managing predators like wolves. “We’ve seen people more willing to reach across the aisle and seek resources from folks who they may not agree with,” Mr. Collins told me. In Montana the Blackfoot Challenge, a community conservation group, uses the metaphor of barbed wire to talk about finding shared values. It’s easy to focus on the barbs, but a majority of fence line is smooth.
A 2016 study found that 61 percent of Americans reported positive attitudes toward wolves, so it’s worth remembering that stories about wolves polarizing us can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a survey taken the year before the Colorado ballot measure passed, 84 percent of voters said they would vote yes for wolf repopulation; only 50.91 percent actually did. A separate 2022 study by the same researchers found that some respondents might have been influenced in the last year of the campaign by media coverage, which more often emphasized negative effects of reintroduction, such as threats to livestock and wild prey populations. This aligns with national research showing that local news has tended to cover more arguments against wolf repopulation than for it.
In reality, the more people live with wolves, the less controversial the animals become. And the inclusive model of community-led conservation spearheaded by Colorado and the Western Landowners Alliance can be applied to other environmental and social issues. The Blackfoot Challenge refers to its consensus-based approach as the 80/20 rule: Focus on finding the 80 percent that participants agree on, then build trust and relationships as you approach the final 20 percent. In our age of polarization, it’s a ratio that policymakers and the rest of us should remember. Finding shared values — a sustainable future, say, and safety for our children — is the first step to overcoming disagreement. Every canyon is also an opportunity to build a bridge.
We can seek the recovery of American wolf populations while acknowledging that they share habitat with growing human populations too. Colorado has a new “Born to be wild” license plate featuring a pearly gray wolf stepping out of snowy mountains. The state collects an annual fee of $50 for the plate, but it goes to the wolves — by funding conflict resolution for the livestock producers.
Erica Berry is based in Portland, Ore., and is the author of “Wolfish: Wolf, Self, and the Stories We Tell About Fear.”