The Wolf Wars Resume

seeing_greenwolfBY Will Stahl

In the past I have been hesitant to write about the Wisconsin wolf issue, obscured as it was by too much smoke and heat and not nearly enough light. Besides, the law seemed settled in place; we were having a wolf hunt no matter what I or anyone else might think.

But a recent court decision relisting the grey wolf as an endangered species has brought the issue to the fore again. The judge’s decision basically said that in the delisting process, the states of the western Great Lakes, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota would take a scientific approach to their management of their wolves. In the judge’s opinion, they had not done so, and the wolf should be back on the list, which seriously limits what individuals and the DNR can do about wolf management.

The reaction by wolf hunters has been apoplectic. Already Reid Ribble has sponsored legislation to remove wolves from the endangered species list and prevent them from being relisted. Wildlife biologists see dangerous precedent there.

Though I have heard wolves at night in the Northwoods here, I have seen only two wild wolves close up. With three other people I was floating the Noatak River in arctic Alaska. Rounding a tight, fast bend with a stiff wind in our faces, we came upon a wolf at the mouth of a small ravine, drinking water from the river. Looking up, it saw us, clearly startled, and after a moment’s hesitation, it turned and ran back up the gully, but it quickly circled back and stood atop the steep cutbank, watching with interest as we passed.

As we paddled out of the bend, we saw on the opposite side of the river another wolf, standing on top of the cutbank, maybe fifteen feet above the water. It watched us approach, and as we drew closer, it began to pace and prance. We landed at the foot of the bank.

A member of our party, a long-time Alaskan, stepped out of her boat with her camera, saying, “I want to see how close he’ll let me get.” As she climbed the bank the wolf intensified its dancing and spinning until suddenly it turned and bolted across the tundra.

Neither wolf showed any sign of hostility or threat. The overwhelming impression was how “doggy” they were––they behaved exactly as any of our domestic dogs would when confronting something it was both curious and anxious about.

It seems to me that the wolf’s manifest “dogginess” is part of the emotional content of the controversy swirling around the wolves of Wisconsin. Some people see a kinship between wolves and their own companion animals, so they feel a bit of kinship for the wolf.

Those who are virulently anti-wolf or pro wolf hunting, which their rhetoric seems to make nearly synonymous, also see the dog in the wolf, but they see evil dogs, preternaturally cunning, vicious, and living only to kill the most helpless prey they can find.

The pro-wolf emotional set is colored by stuff such as calendar pictures and videos, showing wolf parents doting on their adorable pups and wolves standing with fierce dignity in the winter snow. It was fed at the root by Farley Mowat’s quasi-fictional Never Cry Wolf, which depicted wolves as benign, almost friendly members of the wildlife community and promulgated the notion that no one in North America had ever been killed by a wolf.

That claim turned out to be less than true but not really such a huge stretch. Wolf attacks on humans in this country have occurred, but they have been few and far between.

The pro-wolf view has been shored up lately by the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, which has proved beneficial to the park’s environment. Yellowstone, like several other western parks, has been overrun with elk, and they had eaten most of the streamside willows, removing the shade that cooled the water to fish-friendly temperatures, destroying the habitat of some birds, allowing the banks to erode and muddy the water, and removing the food of the beavers whose ponds had created habitat for all sorts of creatures.

Wolves keep the elk moving and the streamside vegetation has grown back. Fish are thriving in the re-shaded water and the beavers have returned. The elk population has declined by half. Indications are that wolves are helping to restore conditions to what they were in pre-settlement times. Wisconsin wolf supporters point to these results and preliminary observations that our local wolves are having similar effects, keeping deer moving and preventing them from over-browsing particular areas. Wolves are a part of the naturally functioning ecosystem.

In the views of the anti-wolf and pro wolf-hunting segment of the population, easily found on the Internet, wolves are vermin that have no redeeming characteristics. They have all the bad points of poorly trained dogs (mean, eat anything, destructive) and no good ones.

They drive deer away from the family hunting lands, and probably kill way more deer than the DNR will admit. The DNR will not acknowledge that Wisconsin has many more wolves than its numbers show. The DNR said we have 850; I have seen Internet speculation that Wisconsin has between a thousand and four thousand wolves. The level of hostility and paranoia directed against the DNR and anyone else who wants to limit wolf hunting is rather startling.

The bear hunters are angry because their dogs get killed when they wander into wolf territory. Coyote hunters are angry because the wolves kill or drive away the coyotes. Farmers and ranchers are angry because wolves kill or threaten their animals.

Deer hunters are angry because they aren’t seeing the number of deer they used to see.

Many Northwoods commenters say they don’t feel their pets and children are safe, though the number of actual pets (not hunting dogs) killed has been very small. Last year, it was four in the whole state. No attempts on children have been reported.

Wolf supporters point to the official numbers and say wolves are not much of a hazard. The science hasn’t really been done yet; let’s see how many the state can support. Some wildlife biologists believe that the population was running up against natural limits when it was in the 850 range.

Wolf haters say the official numbers are crap and if they let the wolves keep multiplying, no one will be safe. They recite anecdotes of neighbors whose livestock was killed and mutilated or a bird hunter whose devoted lab was killed and eaten. That those incidents are rare compared to other forms of animal death doesn’t figure emotionally. The atavistic dread of the wolf overshadows the statistics and negates the compensation the state pays for losses.

It is the bear hunters who are the key players in this drama. In Wisconsin hunters can use dogs to chase and tree bears. Seems a bit unsporting to me, but other states do allow it.

What is unique to Wisconsin is that if a wolf kills a bear hunter’s dog, he or she is compensated $2,500. That money is paid even if the hunter is in an area designated by the DNR as having serious wolf danger. It’s paid even if he or she is hunting illegally, with a revoked license for example. This is apparently to maintain the bear hunters’ acceptance of wolves in Wisconsin though it hasn’t worked. I have never understood why their opinion was so important.

What if I take my kayak down a wild river that is supervised by the DNR and wreck it on some rocks? Am I entitled to compensation because the DNR allowed the rocks to be in the river? I voluntarily set out down this river, knowing it had rocks and I could hit them, but since it is the DNR’s river, and they want rocks in it, they are at fault and should pay for my new boat.

When you have a group that can carve a deal like this out of the state’s limited funds, the debate is already distorted. Add in the deer hunters, the ranchers, the Northwoods pet owners and the fairy-tale believers and you have a powerful constituency for diminishing or eliminating the wolf in Wisconsin.

Before the wolf was initially de-listed, I participated in Sierra Club executive committee meetings when we debated whether to support the measure. We (I am a Sierra Club member) and other state conservation groups supported it based on an understanding with the DNR that they would undertake a five-year study before any hunting would be allowed. Wolf numbers were in the 850 range then.

Some in the conservation community were in favor of maintaining endangered species protection until the grey wolf had re-occupied much of its previous range. Some, myself included, felt that was unrealistic. In my view what we were doing was conducting a scientific experiment to try to understand if and how humans and wolves could live in close proximity.

If the DNR kept to its word and used the wolf’s de-listed status to manage problem wolves and observe how wolves behaved as their population pressures moved them closer to human settlement, they might have found some important information. So much was unknown. My assumption was that hunting would at some point be necessary. Wolves must think people are dangerous.

Of course about a day after the wolf was de-listed, Wisconsin’s Republican legislature passed the most inclusive wolf-hunting bill that wolf haters could have wished for.

Under this bill, hunters could take wolves with bait, traps, dogs or hunting from vehicles. Even hunting at night though that was later dropped. No other state allows wolves to be hunted with dogs. The season is about five months long and extends through denning and breeding times. The anti-wolf community was gleeful.

The wolf had been delisted from an endangered species because the states said they would undertake the scientific management of the population. Wisconsin did no such thing. Its legislature immediately set out to please the segment of the voters that wanted the wolf minimized or gone. No other voices were heeded.

At the heart of this debate the wolf brings to a head the concept of what we want Wisconsin to be. Do we want it to be a game park, tree farm and resort, managed only to have plentiful game, make money and live out in shady quiet places? Or do we want it, as much as possible, to restore and sustain the historical relationships among its native living beings? The wolf is a menace to those who want the first Wisconsin and a symbol of revival to those who want the second.

The wolf debate in Wisconsin is a microcosm of the whole debate about how to live on our Earth. It plays out in controversy over forests, minerals, rivers, farming, hunting and fishing. It is between those who see the Earth itself as a commodity or source of commodities freely available to the highest bidder and those who see the Earth as the home of a community of life that we can use to the extent that we fit ourselves and our needs into it rather than remake it to fulfill our every desire.

The wolf had long ago been flushed from the natural community and it was on its way to retaking its place, but that was short circuited before we could find out what that place might be. With little hope, given the legislative steamroller already firing up, I suggest we take a deep breath and use this moratorium to do some serious science on Wisconsin’s wolves.

Some common-sense measures are readily available that would limit wolf depredation. For one, we could stop paying bear hunters for dogs they deliberately put into danger. Donkeys, apparently, are effective wolf deterrents when grazed with sheep and cattle. Perhaps the state could subsidize the training and purchase of donkeys rather than pay out compensation for lost livestock. The DNR could foster education about the realities of living with wolves. The state could seek to reduce the wolf’s status to “threatened,” which would allow more options for dealing with problem wolves.

Finally, after the state has demonstrated some scientific management, it could apply to have the wolf de-listed again and hunting could resume, without dogs, and with quotas set so most wolves would be taken from areas with the highest concentrations of them or where the most wolf/human conflicts have occurred. Such was not the case with the previous hunt.

Surveys show most people in Wisconsin, including many in wolf country, believe the wolf has a place in the wild lands of this state. Hysteria, rage and sentimentality are not good inducements to responsible wolf management. Firm science and calm deliberation would work much better. Let’s choose that way.

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