Wolves. Can you think of a more controversial animal? The slightest invocation of the word evokes polemic images ranging from Little Red Riding Hood to silhouettes of a howling wolf set against a full moon backdrop. People either love or hate them – not many soft expressions have been uttered in the name of Canis lupus.
Which is why I appreciate finding a staff biologist willing to return a phone call about the plight of wolves. This January, I interviewed Jim H with Idaho Fish and Game, who shares with us his experience, perspectives and aspirations for a sustainable future for Idaho’s wolves. After spending 33 years in his field, he’s now spending the past three working on wolf management for Idaho F&G.
Excerpts from this interview are not a precise verbatim account of our conversation as much as a synopsis. As an ecopsychologist – not a journalist — I have as much interest in understanding the philosophy and underlying motivations for the actions as I do with concern for the actions themselves. Ecopsychology hails from a discipline encouraging reconnection with Nature, with a goal of healing reciprocity, both for Nature and the human species itself. In healing Nature, we heal ourselves. It is from this perspective that I remain interested in understanding the ways in which we can move the dialogue forward to create a more “peaceful” environment for wolves and people living closest to them.
Idaho continued the work for wolf management previously done by the Nez Perce Tribe I Idaho, during post-delisting (as an endangered species) transition period. The Tribe, previously monitoring and reporting on wolf activities during this 5-year period, is situated close to where the wolves have been relocated and was extensively involved in their reintroduction. After that period ended, management resorted to the individual states in which wolves were reintroduced – Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
Recently, Jim H has been working on Idaho’s new management plan for wolves in preparation for this summer. Chiefly, he shared:
I have the science available, am given policy, and try to combine those two into management. And sometimes that policy doesn’t mesh with the science, but may still override it.
I knew going in that Jim H is on the forefront of wolf controversy. These days, he says, he spends much of his time responding to public concerns about wolves. In general, he reports, the wolves are doing just fine.
As any wolf lover knows, public concerns about wolves means an ongoing threat, so I inquired about the status of these concerns:
What’s the real problem going on for wolves these days?
As before when I interviewed a different staff biologist with Idaho F&G, Jim H echoed similar sentiments: heart weary, exhausted from controversy, and battle-worn from rhetoric — On both sides – he shared.
The real problem as I see it, Jim H explained, is that we achieved the goals for wolf recovery, but some people won’t accept it for what it is. That’s even affected plans to reintroduce the grizzly into the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness Area. The track record with wolves is that some will want them still on the Endangered Species List even after recovery criteria are met, so why would anyone expect something different with a grizzly transplant?
The goal under the Endangered Species Act, which brought the Gray Wolves back into the Recovery Areas, was to establish 30 breeding pairs of Gray Wolves in each of the three Recovery Areas – Idaho, Montana, and Yellowstone – 150 wolves each. The numbers in Idaho now, roughly eight to nine hundred, are well beyond.
For me, the more wolves, the better. And no, I don’t live close to them – I live instead with moose in my woodlands. Still, moose pose mortal danger to me and my dogs, one of which survived being trampled this past autumn — every time I surprise one of them in our woodlands.
If I did live close to wolves, a scenario that may become reality as they are migrating into Northern Colorado, I’d have to be far more vigilant than I am, particularly at night.
Was I ready for wolves in my own backyard?
We’re never going to get down to just 150 wolves, Jim H shared. They’re resilient.
I asked Jim H about the method of lethal wolf management undertaken in the name of science by the government and often disputed by biologists, to boost elk
What about Wildlife Services, aerial hunting, baiting, denning, even?
The response I got was that this wasn’t affecting the sustainability of the wolf populations. It was a contentious techniques issue. Acknowledging it was more emotionally evocative for wolf lovers, he understood it was still hard for us to accept that this aspect of life and death for wolves had become part of the wolves’ new reality. I reserved the argument for a later conversation with a federal wildlife official. Jim H sensed my apprehension to accept this as a conclusive response, but we moved past it for the moment.
Idaho is committed to having wolves here, he stated definitively.
And yet, those outside of Idaho feel wolves are in persistent peril. The wolf controversy is as heated today as it was in 1995. Jim H
There is continued controversy because wolves evoke strong feelings on both sides. My message is that acceptance of wolves themselves and acceptance of lethal wolf management both need to grow…Acceptance of wolves is growing (more rapidly) now that people feel there is management regulating the wolf population, rather than having to experience unbridled growth. In sum, people have been accepting wolves more readily here, he explained, since they’ve been able to manage them.
By manage, you mean kill?
Yes. With management (regulation) of wolf numbers, those impacted (or feeling impacted) by wolves are indeed experiencing fewer impacts, which have led to better acceptance of wolves on their local landscape. Not carte blanche, but to an improvement that will continue to improve with time.
I find “lethal wolf management” as hard to swallow as euthanizing homeless dogs. It’s a new reality for reintroduced wolves that may ease over time, but in the meantime, in the interest of finding some common ground I reined in my advocacy energy for later moments and conversations.
Still I have to wonder, Why do we need to have such ultimate authority over that which threatens us, taking its life in order to resolve some inner conflict or fear about it?
Jim H offered insights from his own work on wolves, on the primal fear and devout worship of them. Again — equally intense feelings arise:
It goes back to our ancient fear of them some 30,000 years ago, when they crossed the Bering Strait Land Bridge. They were feeding on humans – people were understandably in primal fear of them.
Are we not yet over our kill-or-be-killed base mentality? To my mind, that’s where education – and better animal husbandry practices – enter in. Which leads to a real problem for those living close to wolves:
Mitigation. Currently, there are minimal federal funds distributed to Idaho for loss mitigation to cattle ranchers. There used to be more – from Defenders of Wildlife – until the wolves were delisted as an endangered species. Jim H was hopeful for future improvement.
Compensation for financial losses for cattle could go a long way toward acceptance. The effectiveness of non-lethal management of wolf predation is more effective for sheep, which often band together, than for cattle, which tend to be more scattered. Mitigation (payments for losses or ‘compensation’) has been available for both sheep and cattle.
I hesitated to dispute oft-cited numbers of actual losses – some 1% — attributed to wolves. On this point, Jim H reaffirmed what I’ve heard from other ranchers: It means a lot if it’s your family.
It may be debatable when a steer dies at the jaws of a predator as to exactly how it happened – but it’s no less real to the rancher suffering therefrom.
It made me think of a panel of both ranchers and wolf lovers at the University of Colorado years back:
Imagine, a rancher’s daughter shared, you’ve raised a calf from birth to adult, your prize breeding bull. It’s earning you thousands of dollars annually. And you appreciate the life of that animal, for all it’s giving. You care for it, protect it. Then a pack of wolves comes along and rips it to pieces. How would you feel?
That particular panel ended with a little more appreciation for the feelings on both sides. As with any human conversation, where both sides are willing and authentically open, hope for resolution becomes possible.
Jim H and I ended our hour-long discussion on a cheerful note:
I’m optimistic about wolves, he said. We’ve seen acceptance for bears and in time, I think people will become even more accepting of wolves.