You are here

Guest Column: Pondering The Proposal To Remove ESA Protection From Gray Wolves


How should the gray wolf be viewed by humans? US Fish and Wildlife Service photo by Gary Kramer.

Editor's note: Earlier this summer the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to remove Endangered Species Act protection from the gray wolf. In this guest column, ecologist Barbara Moritsch, author of The Soul of Yosemite: Finding, Defending, and Saving the Valley's Sacred Wild Nature, questions that decision.

This morning as I washed the breakfast dishes, I pondered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposal to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list. I considered arguments I had read that contested this proposal: wolves had not yet fully recovered in the lower 48 states; after spending so many millions of dollars to re-introduce wolves, it is stupid to de-list them prematurely and allow people to hunt them; wolves play an important role in natural ecosystems, and are proving to be an asset to ecosystem processes; and wolves have a right to life, just as humans and all other species have such a right.

I agree with all of these points, and I am strongly opposed to the proposal to de-list wolves. But as I considered how I wanted to frame my comments to the agency, something kept nagging at me. My heart told me that the wolf controversy, of which this recent proposal is only one element, goes much deeper than ecological principles and species recovery. The wolf controversy, particularly the strident and very ugly anti-wolf campaign, is a pure reflection of a very dark side of human nature—a side that does not bode well for the future of any living thing on the planet.

To wolf advocates, wolves symbolize wildness, freedom, and big, open country. To wolf haters, the animal may symbolize everything that is wrong, evil, or vicious in their lives—a scapegoat. To trophy hunters, the killing of a wolf may symbolize strength and manhood. Note my use of the word “may” on these latter two—I am speculating because I neither hate nor hunt wolves.

It suddenly struck me with great force that the wolf symbolizes something much greater, something much more important than these fairly superficial human emotions. The wolf symbolizes, as perhaps no other species does, the inability of many humans to co-exist with anything that competes with or threatens them in any way—even if that competition or threat is largely imaginary. The wolf symbolizes the mistaken opinion that, when push comes to shove and either a human gets to hunt the elk or the wolf gets to hunt the elk, the human has the greater God-given right to that elk.

This opinion holds true for cows and sheep, as well as elk. The attitude of too many humans toward wolves epitomizes selfish human nature, at the expense of all other species, as well as their habitats.

Anyone who is paying attention knows that the human tendency to take whatever he or she wants from the Earth with little consideration for the long-term consequences is quickly catching up with us, and the consequences of our inattention may be dire. The truth is, unless we change our ways rapidly or there is a massive die off of humans, we will experience shortages of clean water and food, probably in the not-too-distant future.

Given how poorly we are coping with wolves, I can’t help but wonder how we will react when we are faced with these shortages, and there is not enough to go around, when instead of wolves, we are “competing” with other humans. A lot of people think things will get ugly, and they are stockpiling weapons and ammunition, so they can fight for “their share.” Do you really want to live in a world like that? I don’t.

It’s time to change our collective ways. It’s time to view the Earth and all of its inhabitants as important and precious. It’s time to learn to share, instead of compete. Learning how to make peace with and co-exist with wolves and other species is the first step in this shift.

Some Native Americans believe the wolf symbolizes the teacher. I believe we have much to learn from our brother the wolf, and these are lessons we need to learn quickly. Transmute the anger, transcend the fear, and embrace all other life with compassion and reverence—this is how we will survive and thrive as conditions on Earth change



This is one of the very best articles I've ever seen in Traveler. Thank you, Barbara. And as you pointed out, the attitude that is directed toward wolves is also seen in other aspects of modern life -- like economics.

Another thing to consider is the apparent difference in attitudes toward wolves in different parts of our country. A few weeks ago, I was on the shore of Lake Superior and heard wolves howling twice while I was there. I asked some locals -- not NPS people, but real locals -- about it and they expressed pride in the fact that wolf howls are frequently heard around there. I asked a couple of them about the feelings of farmers in the area. One of them told me that he is a farmer and that he has about twenty head of cattle. A few years ago he had a calf killed by a pack of neighborhood dogs, but has never lost one to a wolf. Game for hunting is plentiful -- too plentiful when deer get into his crops. And, he explained, if a farmer loses an animal to a confirmed wolf kill, he is paid for the loss by both the state and Federal governments. "In fact," he said, "when the market for beef is down, I wish the wolves were hungrier."

It appears that wolf attitudes may fall into two categories: Those based on facts and actual experience, and those based on folklore and fantasy.

Thanks again, Barbara.

Thanks for your article, Barbara.

And for your comments, Lee. Were those locals dairy farmers? Because they see their cows twice a day, their presence tends to discourage wolves - so it's easier to coexist.

Honestly, Bob, I'm not sure. But he did mention beef prices . . . . . and I did see a lot of what looked like beef cattle in some places. (I was never a farmer myself, but worked on a dairy farm when I was a kid, so I think I can tell a milch cow when I see one.)

Whatever the difference may be, there didn't seem to be the unreasoning fear of wolves that I've seen in western states. People seemed proud to have them around.

I agree that it is premature to lift protection for gray wolves. They have only recovered a small part of their ancestral range. Wolves are starting to repopulate Oregon and I look forward to hearing their howls in the mountains and forests of Northern California in the near future.

I subscribe to several western State Fish & Game agencies, for their special reports on wolf-doings. I'm just west of the Elwha River, on the Olympic Peninsula.

Washington and Oregon are anxious not to make missteps; to get in the dog-house with the Federal people, or to tie a rope around their own neck that wolf-advocates can use to drag them into court, hog-tie them, etc. Oregon is currently wearing a funny-looking scarf, to hide fresh rope-burns.

Idaho, Montana and Wyoming continue to work very closely with the same Federal people that WA, OR and CA are all careful staying in lock-step with, even though the first 3 are substantially 'on their own', now.

Similar relationships pertain, in the Upper Midwest.

Idaho of course is having a tough time meeting the harvest levels that their own biologists & Federal agencies agree are compatible with maintaining a solid genetic pool of wolves. Few 'old time'-style hunters & trappers (some of whom are "old", but plenty of whom are just "old-style") are surprised that hunted & trapped wolves continue to spread, out-reproduce harvest-levels, and are getting better at evading hunters as time goes by. We know from the High North, where trapping & suppression have been ongoing, that they get very cagey.

While we do see heated exchanges on the Internet, those who have 'established' themselves as hunters do not usually have a "personalization-thing" going on, with the critters. They have a high esteem for the resource, the population, and their actual 'take'. Difficult or challenging hunting & trapping undertakings do produce an 'excitement', at certain times during the effort, and upon actual success.

This thrill, though, is about the success of the effort, rather than at vanquishing or destroying, say a wolf, because it is a predatory species, etc. That some animals are predators, and some are prey, is something that hunters already have straight. Wolves don't have a theatricized persona, for hunters. No more so than bears or coyotes or cougar, etc. Same thing, wildlife-wise.

It does appear, of course, that the Fed want to 'hand it off' to the states. Get them up to speed on a program both can agree on, and then step back from it and have the states doing actual management. WA & OR are still in rapid flux: populations remain small, but are growing & spreading. Conflicts continue at pretty high levels. This suggests that they should remain in a dependent status, and be 'baby-sat' by the Fed, for a little while yet.

It is possible, though, the Fed will just bail on them, any ol' time now, and then deal with any issues as/if they arise.

Attached is a post from someone, a sheepherder (and author) who actually lives with dangerous predators in the Western U.S. as opposed to the author of this piece, who only dreams of predators.

Predators are part of our environment and should be a point. So should people and property. Hate isn't a part of this sheepherders feelings about wolves or bears. Give him the same consideration regarding his opinions about predators.

Thank you, Lee Dalton and Ted Clayton, for your comments and information. And thank you MikeG, for the link to Stephen Bodio's blog--I am sorry to read of Mr. Bodio's losses. I do suggest, though, MikeG, that you do not load your comments with crass assumptions about me, my life, or my experiences with predators--you do not know about any of it. Granted, I do not raise sheep or work dogs in wolf country; I would never choose to put any of them--the sheep, the dogs, or the wolves--at risk in that way.

I would never choose to put any of them--the sheep, the dogs, or the wolves--at risk in that way.

So no one should have sheep or dogs anywhere that wolves might have roamed? Sorry, the human does have the greater God given right.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide