By Ben Cannon
Jackson Hole, Wyo.-George Brown has managed the Hoodoo ranch, a cow-calf operation near Cody, Wyo., for 40 years. His grandfather arrived in northwestern Wyoming in 1900. By that time, much of the American West’s gray wolf population had been decimated through private and federal bounties. By the mid-20th century the species had been all but wiped out in the lower 48 states. Brown, now 77, has a perspective on wolves that may seem a bit out of touch with a society that has largely celebrated the speedy return of a sizable gray wolf population to the northern ranges of the American Rockies.
By Brown’s estimation, the only good wolf is a dead one.
“That’s a pretty fair way to describe how I feel,” he said.
Brown is a member of an aging ranching population where financial and social influences have taken a heavy toll. The reintroduction of the gray wolf in the mid ’90s was perceived by some as the return of a nearly forgotten threat to the ranching livelihood.
It should be noted that Brown’s views may not reflect the views of the majority of people living in Wyoming, Idaho or Montana – states that will widen the doors on the killing of grey wolves once the animals are removed from the federal endangered species list. The move to completely de-list the animal and turn its management over from the federal government to the states, barring an injunction by the courts, is expected to happen one month from today.
Brown does, however, represent a vestige of the strong political voice the ranching culture continues to have in a state where the ranching industry – long a powerful cultural influence in Wyoming – is diminishing.
Only a few generations ago, ranchers – the ancestors of many of today’s old-line Wyoming families– working alongside state and federal wildlife managers, poisoned, shot and denned wolves by the tens of thousands.
In his 1978 book, “Of Wolves and Men,” author and ecologist Barry Lopez wrote that 80,730 wolves were killed for bounty between 1883 and 1918. By the time the last of the Yellowstone population was killed in the late 1930s, there was a sense of achievement that celebrated the near eradication of the wolf as a feat of man taming the Wild West.
In the late 1980s, the same wildlife agencies that at one time sought to kill all gray wolves were given the charge to revive the animals from a not entirely tenuous place (they remained throughout the Canadian Rockies and Alaska) on the Endangered Species List.
Since gray wolves were first reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park in the mid-’90s, their populations have soared to 1,500 in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. A few animals have even made it into Utah and Oregon, though in very small numbers. Neither of those states has a management plan that prescribes regulated hunting, nor do they allow the indiscriminate wolf killing permissible under a “predatory” animal status.
That is what the Wyoming management plan calls for, with the northwest corner of the state – part of Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem – set aside as a game management area that will eventually allow limited hunting. The majority of Wyoming land – 88 percent – will not be managed by state wildlife agencies, leaving the wolves that cross those invisible lines vulnerable to human predation.
Local and national advocacy groups have decried the de-listing, maintaining that the gray wolf has not been brought back sufficiently to justify its removal from the endangered list. They also say that interconnectivity among wolf packs in the three states will be severed and that the animals, over a period of time, will suffer from a lack of genetic diversity and inbreeding.
Jackson Hole, meanwhile, a national jewel of wildlife and conservationism, is situated at the dividing line between the two management zones. The boundary line dividing the trophy management area, where wolves may be hunted as early as next fall, and where they can be killed as indiscriminately as coyotes and jackrabbits, runs just south of Jackson, near the South Park residential area.
“That’s unacceptable,” said Franz Camenzind, director of Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. Camenzind, trained as a canid biologist, takes particular issue with dual management zones. He allows that while some hunting might be appropriate, low government mandates of 100 wolves in each state coupled with an unmanaged predatory status could potentially do significant harm to Wyoming’s wolf population.
“Wolves that show up south of Teton Pass or happen to pass [south of] South Park Butte could be shot at anytime,” he said. “I don’t think the community’s going to stand for that dual classification.”
The Conservation Alliance, along with nine other regional and national organizations, are filing suit against the Feds, maintaining that the wolf population is not far enough into recovery to lose federal protection. The suit will ask that the state management plans be reassessed. Though a court injunction could delay hunting, it would not protect wolves from the predatory status that in much of Wyoming will leave them open to poisoning, shooting or even intentional slaughter by vehicle.
State and federal wildlife officials have said the habitat outside of the managed hunting area is not suitable for wolves. A pack is reportedly hunting in the Daniel area, which is just outside of the protected trophy game zone.
Idaho and Montana had their respective state plans approved in 2004. Only last year Wyoming submitted a plan that the Feds were willing approve. Wyoming had earlier pushed for predator status for wolves outside of national parks. The federal government countered that the animal needed more management and protection throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
In a sense, Idaho and Montana state wildlife agencies have managed (though without hunting, under Endangered Species Act protection) their respective wolf populations, with some federal oversight.
Meanwhile, the Wyoming State Legislature and Gov. Dave Freudenthal’s administration worked to put together a plan that Wyoming could get behind, while making only limited concessions to the federal government.
Why the hold-up in an agreeable plan between Wyoming and federal government?
“Part of that is the whole state-fed thing in Wyoming,” said Ed Bangs, the wolf recovery coordinator for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Bangs came south from Alaska in the late 1980s to help spearhead the gray wolf reintroduction, based on a 1987 environmental plan. He personally oversaw the first wolves relocated to Yellowstone from Canada and Glacier National Park, in far northern Montana.
Bangs was in Washington, D.C. debriefing lawmakers on the gray wolf de-listing when he was interviewed for this story.
“The whole thing about wolves is that wolves and wolf management have nothing to do with reality, it’s all about how they’re seen,” he said.
Bangs called the different state plans somewhat appropriate for each state’s philosophy not only toward wildlife management but, perhaps, the perception of bureaucratic interference from afar.
Many, particularly those in ranching, have had some degree of antipathy toward wolves since the first plans to reintroduce them to the region.
“They feel like they’ve had it crammed down their throats,” Bangs said.
Beginning in the late ’90s, Jackson Hole resident Mason Tibbs roped for one of the largest cattle associations in Wyoming. Looking after roughly 3,000 head of cattle in the Upper Green River Valley north of Pinedale, which falls within the trophy hunting area, Tibbs sometimes saw as many as 70 calves go unaccounted for, likely due to wolf predation, he suspects. Federal programs have paid fair compensation for cattle loss, but the burden of proof – and wolves often devour most of the proof – has fallen on cattle managers.
“We don’t want to kill all the wolves but we ought to be able to kill the ones that are killing our cattle,” said Tibbs, who also said he thinks the presence of a limited number of wolves in the area is “cool.”
But what of the popular bumper stickers that read: “Wolves: Smoke a Pack Today,” or “Save a herd, kill a wolf”?
“When you get into other parts of the state you don’t have the importation of people you have [in Jackson Hole],” Tibbs said. “When people that don’t live in this area tell you how to live, that goes against a man’s grain out here.”
Even Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., who currently is championing clean fossil fuel technologies for coal-rich Wyoming, had strong words for those that would interfere with gray wolf de-listing from the endangered species list.
In a press release put out when the de-listing announcement was made last week, the senator said, “The special interest groups advocating keeping the animal on the list wouldn’t know a gray wolf if it blew their house down.”
Those rather standoffish words may convey a deep-rooted Western sense of frustration towards Washington’s rule from afar, or – even worse – California-based tree huggers. Sen. Barrasso, one would expect, assumed he was safely addressing his constituency. But that rhetoric also offended people like Franz Camenzind at the Conservation Alliance.
“I’ve probably been around as many wolves as any non-agency person,” Camenzind responded, somewhat dismayed upon hearing Sen. Barrasso’s statement. He then recounted a handful of experiences with the animals at close range; even in the last week Camenzind observed wolves from among the some of valley’s three known packs.
But Camenzind also recognized the origins of such outsider-wary emotions. “[Wolves] can be a stand-in for the frustrations people in the West feel about the federal government,” he said.
Through a spokesperson, Barrasso’s camp later backed away from the comment, saying it meant to “differentiate” between informed, helpful input and exterior “special interest” groups.
Louisa Wilcox is a Livingston, Montana-based senior wildlife advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a worldwide conservation group that boasts 1.2 million members and a whole cadre of scientists and attorneys. NRDC is also involved in the lawsuit against de-listing.
Wilcox and her team poured through thousands of public comments submitted about the Wyoming wolf management plan.
“The dirty little secret is that overwhelmingly the public strongly opposed de-listing,” Wilcox said. “Seventy percent of Wyoming residents opposed this plan.”
When asked if wolves in the West are stand-ins for other, deep-rooted feelings, she replied yes.
“They symbolize very strong and different things to different people,” she said. “To some they are a symbol of America’s lost wilderness. To others they’re Satan’s Dog – a lustful, vengeful killer. There is a war of symbols and wolves.”
Bangs, who has as much wolf management experience as anyone in the United States and maybe the world, sees the handover of control to state managers as one of the major accomplishments in wildlife reintroduction. Or, at least, it might be – once humans accept both wolves and wolf management and state officials have time to demonstrate sound plans with healthy mechanisms.
That might take time.
“It’s not a success until everybody stops treating them so special,” Bangs said. “Wolves aren’t that good and they’re not that bad. The minute we keep them off the pedestal this process will be much more successful.”