There is no wild animal in America today more revered and reviled than the gray wolf. In Yellowstone National Park, wolf watchers line up along the Lamar Valley like paparazzi stalking pop stars. Meanwhile, in Catron County, New Mexico, schools build cages around bus stops, and a doctorsends a paper (pdf) to the federal government warning of the potential for PTSD among children living near wolves.
“Wolves are symbols,” explained John Vucetich, a population biologist at Michigan Tech, when I asked him about the animal’s peculiar power.
When we’re talking about wolves we’re often talking about our relationship with nature over all. That, as I’m sure you know, is not a subtle sort of thing in our country.
Symbols and nature. The truth of Vucetich’s statement came into sharp focus on 13 June, when the US Fish and Wildlife Service releasedradical proposals to alter its management of wolves. Since then, scientists, conservationist, ranchers, and rural communities have largely responded with censure.
As an inner-city liberal, my instinct here is probably predictable: protect the wolves at all costs. Never mind that I don’t live near them and have never seen one in the wild. Simply knowing they exist gives me satisfaction; they are part of the imagined wilderness I use to reconcile my urban lifestyle. Anybody anti-wolf is ignorant and wrong.
But I also know this is a knee-jerk reaction, ignorant in its own way. Indeed, it is crucial to step back and recognize how emotions and fantasies color debates about wildlife. Reactions to the agency proposals show a wolf with split personality disorder: icon of the wild by day, malevolent monster by night. Either the wolf is nature’s Jekyll and Hyde, or there’s more at play in this discussion than just the Canis lupus.
Here are the facts. Gray wolves already have been removed from the endangered species list in seven states of the Northern Rockies and Western Great Lakes, where the combined population sits at around 6,100. Now the agency proposes to remove federal protection across the remaining lower 48 states – in effect, to “delist” wolves entirely. It also proposes to relist the Mexican gray wolf as an endangered subspecies in Arizona and New Mexico and to increase recovery efforts.
So far the Federal Register has logged more than 31,000 responses, with the comment period recently extended until 17 December. Although many comments count as personal pleas (“they are gods animal” [sic]), some are detailed legal arguments from rancher and game coalitions. A group of 16 conservation biologists has also released a letter (pdf) of “serious concerns”.
Gary Frazer is assistant director for Ecological Services and heads up the Endangered Species Program at the US Fish and Wildlife Service. In a telephone interview, he explained that the agency made its proposals so it could shift resource to “the only other population of wolves that is in danger of extinction” – the Mexican gray wolf.
Taking the facts, many perspectives on wolves today infuse them with a measure of myth. For example, at the sympathetic end of the spectrum wolves are wilderness incarnate, sometimes appearing on t-shirts howling at the moon or framed by an Ojibwe dreamcatcher. The ancestor of domestic dogs, “man’s best friend”, the wolf is easy to anthropomorphize because of its intelligence and family groups (it is like us). Those wolf watchers in Yellowstone have even been known to follow the ins and outs of inter-pack relations like the twists of a daytime soap opera.
Biologists may take a less romantic view, but much scientific discussion also treats the animal as intrinsically valuable. Wolves are “apex predators”, which means, as Vucetich explained, “they have disproportionate effects on the ecosystems in which they live”.
Biologists see this in a positive sense, but the effects of wolves – both real and imagined – motivate the side of opinions where the wolf is seen as “the beast of waste and desolation” (a concept discussed by Barry Lopez in his seminal book, Of Wolves and Men). The wolf is something threatening now: the wild, unpredictable element in dogs; an uncivilized mirror of man; a pernicious competitor for livestock. “The US Fish and Wildlife Service can say that the wolf is never going to attack a person, but they’ve got their fingers crossed,” said Jess Carey, Wildlife Investigator in Catron County, when I asked him about a passionate document subtitled “A County in Crisis” (pdf) that he submitted to the Secretary of the Interior in 2012.
The main question, of course, is whether coexistence is possible given the polarity of these views. True, the situation is not exactly black and white. Advocacy groups like Defenders of Wildlife acknowledge the problem of wolves preying on livestock. Paul Schlegel, director of environment and energy policy at the Farm Bureau, is also open to the idea of ranchers adapting to the presence of wolves on the range. “I don’t see that that’s a dead end at all,” he told me.
But as the US Fish and Wildlife Service deliberates over its next move, the conflict around wolves hints at an even older question: What is the place and value of wilderness in modern America?