Will Americans ever stop killing wolves?
We stopped commercially hunting whales, and the mass slaughter of bison. We no longer clearcut old-growth redwoods, or use explosives on prairie dog towns, or build massive dams on wild salmon rivers. We no longer kill egrets and herons to adorn women’s hats with their feathers.
So why shoot and trap wolves, God’s dog, the forebear of all our beloved domestic dogs? Why destroy an animal that is playful, cooperative, cunning, giving, loving, predatory, faithful, intelligent, savage and social and dedicated to family? Not unlike us.
Over the past few years, as the US Fish & Wildlife Service delisted the gray wolf as an endangered species, many states enacted laws to reduce wolf numbers, some that permitted wolves to be chased on all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles, and caught by snares . Idaho earmarked $200,000 to kill 90% of its wolves. More than 200 were killed in less than 60 hours in Wisconsin. In recent months, more than 500 wolves have been destroyed in the northern Rockies, including roughly one-fifth of those that frequent Yellowstone National Park, a prized population studied in great detail since wolves were re-introduced there beginning in 1995, after a 70 year-absence. Because of how wolf packs have revitalized the park, Yellowstone today represents a rewilding and ecological renaissance admired around the world. And this recent killing spree “is a huge setback,” the wildlife biologist Doug Smith told Science.
In southwest Montana, adjacent to Yellowstone, where anti-wolf bumper stickers say “Smoke a pack a day,” hunting and trapping ended when the total number of kills hits a threshold. Not since wolves were shot, trapped and poisoned to near-extinction a century ago has the US seen such a vigorous assault on its poster apex predator. Ranchers and hunters detest wolves for taking their livestock and big game. Conservationists prize them as essential for ecosystem health, and say wolves aren’t nearly as abundant and wide-ranging today as they once were.
Hated by some, loved by others, wolves polarize us. Why?
Autumn 1909. A few months out of Yale Forest School, 22-year-old Aldo Leopold sits eating his lunch on a rimrock in Apache National Forest, Arizona Territory, when he and a fellow Forest Service employee spot an animal far below, crossing a river. A deer? No – not a deer. When the animal reaches the riverbank and shakes itself dry, several pups bound out from golden willows to greet her, their tails high.
The young men grab their rifles and begin shooting.
When the gunsmoke clears, they clamber down to inspect their work. Many of the pups are dead. One drags itself over scree rocks, bleeding, trying to escape. But it’s the mother that Leopold will never forget. “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would be a hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”
Beginning as far back as 1630, wolf bounties did their job, allaying fears that wolves would kill livestock – or worse, eat settler’s children. Valley after valley, state by state, wolves were extirpated across a young, growing nation. In 1890, the US Bureau of the Census showed the “unsettled” American frontier – places with a population density of less than two people per square mile – gone. The historian Frederick Jackson Turner said this was significant because “the democracy born of free land, strong in selfishness and individualism, intolerant of administrative experience and education, and pressing individual freedom beyond its proper bounds, has its dangers as well as its benefits.”
Today’s American wolf killers – who say they prize life and liberty – eagerly kill an animal that embodies life and liberty. An animal that does not kill children, and at most takes only a small percentage of cattle and sheep. Cattle and sheep some ranchers raise on US public land. Cattle that belch methane and are “a worldwide curse,” according to the author and wilderness advocate Doug Peacock. Sheep that are “hoofed locusts,” according to the great naturalist John Muir. Might these same ranchers ever consider the rich human cultures that preceded them; that lived light on the land, strung no barbed wire, and seldom if ever killed wolves? Might a rancher have a crisis of conscience? An epiphany as Leopold had?
“What did you learn today?” Leopold would ask his children at the dinner table. Not what did you do but what did you learn – a big difference. By then an admired professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he would take his family north where they owned a cabin (an upgraded chicken coop they lovingly called “the shack”) and the kids could run and play wild and free. Like wolves. Three of Aldo and his wife Estella’s five children were ultimately elected to the National Academy of Sciences, an unequaled achievement for an American family.
When wolves returned to Yellowstone in the mid-1990s, they created what ecologists call a “trophic cascade.” The wolves killed some animals, but enlivened the park in ways that thrilled, informed and inspired millions. Deer and elk became more alert and on-the-move; where they had over-browsed and -grazed, aspens and willows now prospered. Songbirds returned. Soil erosion decreased. Beavers spread from one colony to nine, and built new dams and ponds. Even the rivers changed, with deeper channels, more riffles and shaded pools – better habitat for amphibians, fish and ducks.
All because of wolfes? It’s an ongoing debate, one filled with “competing and very complex arguments,” says Doug Smith. One thing is certain, however: wolves made the park wilder.
Recently, a federal judge reinstated wolf protections in 44 states, but not in the northern Rockies around Yellowstone. Conservation groups have asked US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland for an emergency relisting of the Rockies gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act. Or better, a national Carnivore Conservation Act to end the cycles of listing, delisting, killing and relisting to permanently protect wolves, cougars, coyotes, grizzly bears and black bears.
When he died in 1948, at age 61, Leopold had just completed writing a book that would become his masterpiece, A Sand County Almanac. “That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology,” he wrote, “but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.”
Wolfes deserve our protection. They have ecosystems to heal, rivers to restore.
Kim Heacox writes frequently for The Guardian about the climate crisis, biodiversity loss and threats to US public lands. He is the author of many books, including The Only Kayak, a memoir, and Jimmy Bluefeather, a novel, both winners of the National Outdoor Book Award. He lives in Alaska