The Politics of Nature: Wolves vs. People

A few years ago, I watched a PBS Nature documentary on the Druid Wolf Pack and the (“gangster” style) infiltration of one lone black wolf from the Leopold Pack. This black wolf (302) was dubbed “Casanova.”

#302 aka Casanova

I think I fell in love 302 and his unorthodox, rebel lifestyle. His behavior was completely different from known wolf behavior. Casanova broke from his pack, traveled paved roads other wolves avoided, mated with females from his rival pack (researchers believe he fathered more pups than any other wolf in  Yellowstone), knew how to “work” any confrontation (subdued, fight, run) and achieved Alpha status in his pack. Oh.. He did all of this at twice the age of most wolves AND became one of the oldest wolves in Yellowstone (yeah- he definitely had skills).

After watching, I was completely hooked on wolves and learning more about the contentious relationship we have with them.  Hence the excellent story by Elliot Woods for Outdoor Magazine below…

Twenty years after wolves were reintroduced in the Northern Rockies, many politicians would still love to see them eradicated, and hunters and ranchers are allowed to kill them by the hundreds. But the animals are not only surviving—they’re expanding their range at a steady clip. For the people who live on the wild edges of wolf country, their presence can be magical and maddening at once.

The switchbacks on the old logging road still held two-foot-deep patches of snow in late March, when we set off on four-wheelers to scout for wolf tracks in the Boise National Forest, north of Garden Valley, Idaho. The riding was easy lower down, where the hardpack traced the course of a snowmelt-swollen stream through a tight canyon. Spiny rock towers rose from the banks, disintegrating into forbidding walls of scree and timber. If you were an elk or a deer, it would be a tempting place to come for a drink, but you’d be taking your life in your hands. Wolves love a terrain trap.

As we climbed, our engines strained against the grade, mud, and snow. We were headed to a vantage point above a place called Granite Basin, where we could scan hundreds of acres of forest with spotting scopes. Zeb Redden, a 35-year-old soldier based in Fort Carson, Colorado, carried his girlfriend, Joni, on the back of his ATV. Zeb had paid Deadwood Outfitters, owned by Tom and Dawn Carter, $3,500 for the weeklong wolf hunt. I was along as an unarmed observer.

Zeb’s tricked-out, AR-15-style rifle was tucked into a scabbard built into his backpack. A couple of days before, I’d watched him drop to the prone position, press his cheek onto the stock behind his scope, and put a 7.62-millimeter round on a bull’s-eye-painted rock 600 yards away. He was deadly at long range, but he said he probably wouldn’t take a first shot at anything farther out than about 500 yards.

“I’m shooting jacketed hollow-point boat-tails, and at that distance they’ll just go right through. They won’t open up like they’re supposed to,” he’d explained. “If he’s wounded and beyond 500, I’ll keep putting lead on him. But if it’s a first shot, I’d rather get in closer.” I wondered if adrenaline would change his mind if we actually saw a wolf.

Tom Carter, left, T.J. Carter, center, and Elijah Coley, right, zeroing rifles in the Boise National Forest during a wolf hunt. (Elliott D. Woods)

Thirty-five-year-old Elijah Coley, our guide, halted on one of the switchbacks and pointed down at a patch of grimy snow, where we saw the unmistakable signature of a wolf paw. About four inches wide, a wolf’s track dwarfs that of a large dog. A little farther on we found another. The midday warmth melted the top layer of snow every afternoon, so we knew the tracks had to be fresh, probably from the night before, possibly from that very morning.

Elijah guessed that we were on the heels of a big black male wolf that he’d captured on a trail camera several weeks earlier. In the grainy images, two wolves are seen walking through scrub brush, their eyes glowing in the infrared flash. The black wolf, which probably weighed over 100 pounds, stood a hand taller than its mate, a two-and-a-half-year-old female whose collar data showed that it was whelped just up the road on Scott Mountain. It wasn’t exactly petite, either, weighing 90 pounds.

There’s a photo of this female on Deadwood’s website now, under a tab that advertises wolf hunts, because it was subsequently killed by Tom and Dawn’s son-in-law, Joe Woodcock, who dropped it from 600 yards. In the image, the wolf looks enormous in its thick winter coat, its forelimbs dangling over Woodcock’s arms as he holds it.

We rumbled up to the overlook above Granite Basin and settled in for a couple of hours of glassing. Elijah spotted a big bull elk resting in a draw about a thousand yards away and noted its impressive antlers. A logger by trade, Elijah goes “shed hunting” every spring to earn extra cash. Wholesalers pay a few bucks a pound for dropped antlers, which might end up on the medicinal market in China, next to powdered rhino horn and elephant tusk. Decorative-furniture makers pay as much as $600 for a matching pair from a trophy bull like the one we were watching. But the elk’s calm attitude suggested that the wolf we’d tracked up the hill was long gone. We soon left, too.

Zeb’s ATV crapped out on the way down. While Elijah rigged a tow rope, I stood with my hands in my pockets, wondering how the others felt about getting skunked.

“What would you do if that wolf came trotting around the corner right now?” I asked no one in particular.

“Shoot it in the face,” Zeb replied.

In the 2013 season alone, hunters and trappers killed a total of 598 wolves in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. Statistics for the previous season are about the same. The fact that wolves are killed in such numbers strikes many people as ironic. U.S. taxpayers paid tens of millions to restore and reintroduce Northern Rocky Mountain wolves under the Endangered Species Act, only to have hunters start blowing them away as soon as they were delisted. But another contingent sees wolf hunting as a public service, a way of reducing livestock depredations and boosting elk numbers at no cost to the public. The political impact that wolves have is grossly out of proportion to their ecological significance or their effect on the regional agricultural economy, but they continue to polarize the West. The relationship between the two factions is toxic, and it has only worsened with the advent of wolf hunting.

Idaho’s and Montana’s wolves lost their endangered species status in 2008, but lawsuits placed them back under federal protection until 2011, when they were finally delisted by Congress. Because of Wyoming’s singularly aggressive wolf-management plan, the state didn’t regain the right to manage wolves until 2012. Since then, Wyoming hunters have killed several high-profile collared wolves on the periphery of Yellowstone National Park, triggering viral outrage among wolf lovers around the world. But Wyoming’s wolf-hunting days were short-lived: in a September 2014 ruling on a lawsuit filed by conservation groups, U.S. District Court Judge Amy Jackson restored federal protections to Wyoming’s wolves indefinitely.

gray wolf idaho sawtooth mountains
Gray wolves in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. (Jim and Jamie Dutcher/National G)

Conservationists are hoping for a similar victory across the border in Idaho, where the state’s wolf population has dropped 23 percent since 2009. “Idaho has been given control over its wolves again, and it has destroyed its breeding populations, driving them down by 60 percent already,” says Don Barry, senior vice president of conservation programs at Defenders of Wildlife. Barry says Idaho’s use of professional sharpshooters and trappers to kill wolves in federal wilderness areas violates the Wilderness Act, and that the Defenders will use every resource available, including lawsuits, to pressure the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to intervene.

If they take legal action, they’re in for a fight. At his confirmation hearing in January 2014, Idaho Fish and Game commissioner Brad Corkill said, “If every wolf in Idaho disappeared, I wouldn’t have a problem with it.”

Corkill was appointed by Governor C. L. “Butch” Otter, who’s been accused by Defenders of Wildlife of launching a “war on wolves.” Defenders and other conservation groups say that the recent creation of a Wolf Depredation Control Board by the Idaho legislature, at Otter’s urging, is part of a larger effort to push the wolf population over a cliff.

The governor’s office and spokespeople for the Idaho Fish and Game department told me that there are no plans to severely reduce wolf numbers, but the legislators who created the new board have been perfectly clear about their motives. In an e-mail to a Defenders representative sent last March, state senator Jeff Siddoway wrote: “The effort here is to reduce the wolf population to what was agreed to by the State and the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife] Service—10 packs or 100 wolves.” That would mean killing around 550 wolves, or 80 percent of Idaho’s current population. read more

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