Except for the uninterested, and there a quite a few of them, the 21-year old controversy over wolf restoration in the West is not really about wolves. Unfortunately instead, it has become another “values” contest. To some degree it has also become another red versus blue dispute.
When wolves were first reintroduced in 1995, with a second batch in 1996, there was some genuine debate whether this was the best way to restore them to their native range in Idaho and Wyoming, or whether it was best that they slowly come back to the Northern Rockies on their own by southward migration from Alberta and British Columbia.
Experts and average folks alike discussed whether a wolf reintroduction would grow or wither and die, whether the wolves would reduce (or maybe even increase) elk and deer populations. Would they kill thousands of cattle and sheep each year?
Much knowledge has now been gained. There are at least a hundred scientific studies about the reintroduced wolves. I thought about making this column a summary, but there is way too little space for that.
At the outset, there were those dead set against wolves no matter what. They came mostly from public land ranching and some agricultural related interest groups like the Farm Bureau Federation.
Other people were completely in favor of the new wolves regardless, right from the start. However, many folks seemed genuinely open to new information. The militant anti-wolf narrative didn’t develop and spread until about 5 years had passed.
Politicians played an important role spreading this opposition narrative. In 1995, a Republican Senator from Montana, Conrad Burns, predicted the wolves would kill a child within a year. It didn’t happen, nor did anything like it happen in the wolf recovery zone in the next 20 years. However, in the U.S. Senate Burns was able to cut off funding for the scheduled second wave of reintroduction in 1996.
The wolves were brought south that year anyway using some departmental excess funds, donations from non-profits, and volunteers. The Democratic Governor of Wyoming Dave Freudenthal repeatedly told the media that the 30 or 40 wolves then in the state were doing the impossible — literally destroying Wyoming’s economy. Soon other politicians, almost all from Western rural areas took up the anti-wolf cause.
This rural geographic base of political support for anti-wolf gives it a political advantage because localities can elect people (all American elections except for the President are from geographic districts). Pro-wolf opinion is often the majority nationwide and often even in Western states. It comes mostly from the cities of the West and is scattered throughout the nation. It is nowhere concentrated enough to win elections.
Those familiar with politics will recognize the political logic of a concentrated local viewpoint in opposition to widespread, and maybe more numerous, but a nowhere densely clustered view in the other direction. This breakdown is common in political issue after political issue. This is one of the most important lessons to be learned about practical politics.
Pro-wolf groups have also been taken to task by some of their friends for making mistakes both tactical and strategic, but there is a good reason to believe that the current situation of a slowly declining wolf population due to human mortality coupled with very unpleasant anti-wolf rhetoric would have happened regardless of any moves the pro-wolf groups made.
For example, from the beginning pro-wolf groups have given financial compensation to livestock owners who lost animals to wolves. A number of well executed public opinion surveys have shown that giving compensation has in no way improved rural perception of wolves or changed the idea that they drive owners of livestock to the wall financially. The non-violent demeanor of wolves toward humans — no dead children, no attacks on people period — has made no difference either.
The wolf issue fits very well into the quiver of anti-government arguments at large that emerged after 2008. They served as a scapegoat to take some folks’ minds off the terrible economic disruptions of the Great Recession.
The pro-wolf argument was and remains about the beauty of wolves, the need to restore a natural ecosystem, and that wolves have few negative impacts and many positive ones.
On the other hand, the anti-wolf position hardened into apocalyptic tirades. The wolves are said to be the worst thing that has ever happened to big game with the elk and deer in an advanced state of decline. Moreover, they say the agricultural sector of the economy has been delivered a blow to the gut.
While no group is immune to believing conspiracy theories, the anti-wolf position relies on them. The nice thing (or actually the bad thing) about conspiracy theories is that they are almost immune to facts. For example, presenting a clear factual disproval of a conspiracy theory usually just leads its believers to simply say it shows the fact giver is part of the conspiracy.
Regarding the wolf restoration, many anti-wolf people believe it to be a conspiracy to bring a massive non-native beast to Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, from the “far away land” of Canada. Instead, they say, efforts should have been to restore a supposedly timid, never seen, small native wolf of the Rocky Mountains, canis lupus irremotus.
It is further said that wolf recovery is part of a greater conspiracy to end hunting, destroy game animals, bring in more federal control (or perhaps even United Nations control under something named Agenda 21), destroy gun rights, and the like. The motivation for the conspiracy is malice and under Agenda 21 the removal of the residents of small towns and rural areas.
Wolf advocates have traditionally relied on the federal government to offset what they saw as the backward policies of the Northern Rockies states toward endangered carnivores.
Unfortunately for them, after friendly President Bill Clinton, there came two Presidents who were of no help or who 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 ranged from being uninterested in to against wolf restoration.
Despite these setbacks for those who support wolf restoration, the wolf population has only declined somewhat in Idaho and Montana since their congressionally forced delisting.
The wolf population in Wyoming outside of Yellowstone Park is now growing again after the Wyoming wolf hunt was stopped by a federal court decision taking wolf management away from that state. In fact, it is now at its highest point since the restoration began. Wolves have also naturally spread to Washington, Oregon, and northern California. These states seem more favorable to a concept of wildlife that includes more than animal’s value for hunting and trapping.
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 couple kinds of large grazing animals, designated as “game,” plus varying numbers of other animals, deemed to be “varmints.” The game would be managed much like livestock, e.g., cows are privately owned “slow elk.” Actual elk are public owned quick cows, good for hunting adventure.
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.
The issue will remain unpleasant because it is really about the cultural values of rural versus urban and suburban areas. Reason will not prevail. The facts be damned!
Dr. Ralph Maughan of Pocatello is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He retired after teaching there for 36 years, specializing in voting, public opinion and natural resource politics. He has written three outdoor guides, including “Hiking Idaho” with Jackie Johnson Maughan. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.