The new war on wolves

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Congress removed wolves in Montana and Idaho from the protection of the Endangered Species Act in April. And this fall, the killing began.

As of Wednesday, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game reported that 154 of its estimated 750 wolves had been “harvested” this year. Legal hunting and trapping — with both snares to strangle and leg traps to capture — will continue through the spring. And if hunting fails to reduce the wolf population sufficiently — to less than 150 wolves — the state says it will use airborne shooters to eliminate more.

In Montana, hunters will be allowed to kill up to 220 wolves this season (or about 40% of the state’s roughly 550 wolves). To date, hunters have taken only about 100 wolves, prompting the state to extend the hunting season until the end of January. David Allen, president of the powerful Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, has said he thinks hunters can’t do the job, and he is urging the state to follow Idaho’s lead and “prepare for more aggressive wolf control methods, perhaps as early as summer 2012.”


Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead recently concluded an agreement with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to save 100 to 150 wolves in lands near Yellowstone National Park. But in the remaining 80% of the state, wolves can be killed year-round because they are considered vermin. Roughly 60% of Wyoming’s 350 wolves will become targeted for elimination.

What is happening to wolves now, and what is planned for them, doesn’t really qualify as hunting. It is an outright war.

In the mid-1990s, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released 66 wolves in Yellowstone and central Idaho, most of the U.S. celebrated. The magnificent wolf, an icon of wilderness that humans had driven to extinction in the United States, would now reoccupy part of its old range. But in the region where the wolves were introduced, the move was much more controversial.

Part of the reason was the increase, particularly in Idaho and Montana, in paramilitary militia advocates, with their masculine ideal of man as warrior who should fight the hated federal government, by armed force if necessary. They were outraged by what they saw as federal interference in the region spurred by environmentalists, and their ideas found a willing reception among ranchers, who view wolves as a threat to their livestock — even though they ranch on federal land — and hunters, who don’t want the wolves reducing the big game population.

The factions have reinforced one another, and today a cultural mythology has emerged that demonizes the federal government, the environmental movement and the wolves themselves. Many false claims have been embraced as truth, including that the Fish and Wildlife Service stole $60 million from federal excise taxes on guns and ammunition to pay for bringing wolves back; that the introduced wolves carry horrible tapeworms that can be easily transmitted to dogs, and ultimately to humans; that the Canadian wolves that were brought in are an entirely different species from the gray wolves that once lived in the Rockies, and that these wolves will kill elk, deer, livestock — even humans — for sport.

The false claims may have had particular resonance because they built on a long tradition in Western culture. During the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church ruled that wolves belonged to the devil: Demons could take the shape of wolves, as could witches. Puritans brought similar ideas to America. Cotton Mather called New England before it was settled a “howling wilderness.” Asked to investigate Salem’s alleged witches, Mather concluded in his book, “On Witchcraft” (1692): “Evening wolves” (werewolves and witches) were but another of the devil’s tests as New England passed from “wilderness” to the “promised land.”


And that attitude has persisted. Gary Marbut, president of the influential Montana Shooting Sports Assn., wrote in 2003 that “one might reasonably view man’s entire development and creation of civilization as a process of fortifying against wolves.”

Politicians from both parties in Western states have been eager to help with the fortifications. In Idaho, Republican Rep. Mike Simpson and the state’s governor, Butch Otter, made removal of wolves from the Endangered Species Act a political priority. In Montana, Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg has made delisting wolves central to his 2012 Senate campaign against Democratic Sen. Jon Tester. In April, Tester in turn persuaded fellow Democrats in the Senate to approve his inserting a rider in a budget bill that delisted wolves.

In early November, Sen. Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, made his own political contribution. Thrilled at the testing of a drone aircraft manufactured in Montana, Baucus declared: “Our troops rely on this type of technology every day, and there is an enormous future potential in border security, agriculture and wildlife and predator management.” A manufacturer’s representative claimed his company’s drone “can tell the difference between a wolf and a coyote.” Pilotless drone aircraft used by the CIA and the Air Force to target and kill alleged terrorists now appear to be real options to track and kill “enemy” wolves.

How far we have fallen since the mid-1990s, when we celebrated the wolves’ reintroduction. During the 2008 presidential election, candidate Barack Obama declared: “Federal policy toward animals should respect the dignity of animals and their rightful place as cohabitants of the environment. We should strive to protect animals and their habitats and prevent animal cruelty, exploitation and neglect.”

The president now should make good on that promise.

J. William Gibson is a sociology professor at Cal State Long Beach and the author of “A Reenchanted World.”