A Wolf Was Killed. Now Let’s All Calm Down

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wolf 832f 660On December 6, a Wyoming hunter killed one of Yellowstone’s most famous wolves, 832F, outside the park’s boundaries. It was a legal kill, yet within 48 hours, news organizations across the country ran stories mourning the wolf’s death and treating it like, well, the loss of a family friend.

Wolf advocate Marc Cooke of Montana’s Bitterroot Valley lamented, “She was an amazing mother.” Wolf photographer Barrett Hedges called her “inspirational,” while others declared her to be a “rock star” and a “consummate professional.” The latter referred to her leadership abilities as the alpha female of the Lamar Canyon Pack, which resides mostly in northeastern Yellowstone.

As someone who has had the good fortune to watch 832F lead her pack across the Lamar Valley, I, too, felt a pang of sadness when I heard the news. Yet I resisted the urge to denigrate her killer and reminded myself why I supported wolf recovery in the first place.

I think we need wolves back in the West because they’re an integral part of the region’s wildlife and wildness. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone and central Idaho in the mid-1990s, the agency did so because its scientists hoped that their return would enable those ecosystems to function fully and more efficiently. It was not a matter of pure sentimentality, or because they believed that wolves share positive qualities with humans.

By assigning 832F human traits, wolf supporters effectively anthropomorphize her and allow other wolves to be judged using human moral standards as well. Although this might seem natural and even good, it is inappropriate. Wolves may share several good traits with humans, but wolves also routinely kill other animals. Of course, human beings also kill animals for food, but the problem with wolves is that we have trouble controlling when or where or how they kill their prey. And wolves can’t read our “no trespassing” or “no hunting” signs.

Wolves’ natural propensity to kill deer, elk and cattle was originally used to justify their eradication from the Rocky Mountain West. Not so many decades ago, newspapers characterized wolves as bandits, criminals and desperadoes, and a threat to human beings as well. Ranchers and other Western settlers denounced the vicious way that wolves attacked and killed their prey as immoral. This helped to make their absolute destruction an honorable task.

Opponents of wolves’ reintroduction in the 1990s often accused wolf supporters of romanticizing the animals while failing to understand the “savagery” and “cruelty” that wolves exhibit when they gang up on elderly or wounded prey. Now, by anthropomorphizing wolves as exemplary family members, conservationists risk validating this criticism. Bringing wolves back to function as predators in the wild was a smart decision biologically; it had nothing to do with wolves’ moral value.

If conservationists try to justify the existence and protection of wolves on sentimental grounds, they will ultimately lose. For as many 832Fs as have roamed Yellowstone and reflected everything good we want to see in ourselves, there have been just as many Bear Paws, Three Toes, Unaweeps, and other wolves that gained notoriety for their ability to kill dozens of livestock in the dead of night, slip away undetected, and later avoid the traps set to capture them.

If wolf supporters want to do right by the environment and its wildlife, they need to make their arguments at the species level, eschewing the urge to portray wolves as incarnates of human goodwill.

Additionally, wolf supporters must not forget that we’ve already debated whether to allow wolves to be killed. During the reintroduction process, the Sierra Club and Audubon Society took a hard-line stance that supported giving wolves full protection under the Endangered Species Act. In the spirit of compromise, groups such as the Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Foundation supported restoring wolves as experimental populations. This designation, created by the 1982 amendment to the law, gave wildlife managers flexibility in balancing the needs of endangered species and people. In the case of wolves, it also allowed managers to kill them in certain instances. Although the Sierra Club’s Legal Defense Fund sued the Fish and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on this contentious issue, wolves came back to the West without absolute protection.

If it weren’t for this concession, I don’t think wolf packs would be roaming the West today. So before you get too riled up about 832F’s death, stop and realize that killing wolves has been part of the deal since the beginning. And if wolf advocates 20 years ago had not been magnanimous enough to recognize that killing a wolf from time to time was the cost of recovering them on land shared with ranchers and farmers, no one would have had the opportunity to watch 832F — or any other wolf — at all.

Environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com. In affiliation with High Country News. Photo by OnyxDog86/Flickr

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{ 13 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Gabe

    I agree with much of what you stated in your article. However, I would argue that using the term “conservationists” to describe some of the pro-wolf advocates is incorrect. Based on their outcry, they are preservationists. I fully support wildlife conservation, which is a give and take between human use and wildlife. FYI I am pro-environment, pro-hunting, pro-fishing, but anti-preservation. It seems that many times these preservationists will go out of their way to support the preservation of wilderness at all costs, even wanting those of us that enjoy the outdoors to give up all use of natural world that might possibly interfere with non-human wildlife. Thanks for the rational analysis of the wolf issue.

  • Taz Alago

    Treating animals as only members of a population is the basis of modern wildlife management, and opens the door to a gallery of the most brutal and abusive control measures including traps, poisons, aerial gunning, the whole sorry panoply of “tools.” I don’t think that feeling an emotional attachment to animals is a weakness or a personality flaw, as apparently the author of this piece does. I think it is an exercise in compassion, a characteristic lacking until fairly recently in the general population but which is now at last becoming widespread, hopefully to the benefit of wildlife “management” the world over. The author also failed to mention that 832F’s killing was but one of eight (?) YNP collared wolves killed just outside the park, seriously damaging the YNP research program. There should be a buffer around National Parks.

  • Daryl

    Thanks for writing this article. It’s a profound thing to be just one species in an entire ecosystem. It’s unimaginable to understand ourselves as its caretakers when we are often the most sophisticated part of the problem. Thanks for pointing this sophistication out.

  • Janet

    I agree that wolf re-introduction needs a big picture view, that it must include an ecological and socio-economic perspective. I agree that anthropomorphizing animals can often be a detriment to their conservation and recovery. But I’m still pissed that hunters and ranchers shot seven (or eight?) radio-collared wolves this year. This is a major blow to a long term scientific program, one of the longest running and most in-depth scientific studies of a predator-prey system and its ecosystem cascades. This same program provided the State with information to set hunting quotas for wolves.

    So, I agree, don’t get sappy about a single wolf shot in a legal hunt, but of ~87 legally shot wolves in Wyoming last year, 7 were collared animals. If this trend continues, wolf hunts are going to be a detriment to something broader than just public sentiment.

  • Kevin

    After reading this article (linked from a friends FB page) I thought to myself “well, the first I am hearing about this issue is a reaction to the public outcry I DIDN’T hear about this issue; that’s odd.” I did a quick google news search on the term ’832F’ from a spread of dates 12/01/12-12/12/12 (the kill date was 12/6) and I couldn’t any news outlets mourning the loss of the wolf. The only news outlet I found, and keep in mind this is treehugger.com, was this pretty tamed story that mentions that it’s unfortunate when one of the wolves we have invested time and money in tracking for research gets shot. It’s hard to argue with that.

    http://www.treehugger.com/natural-sciences/obituary-832f-yellowstones-most-famous-wolf.html

  • Craig Rowe

    Both Mech and Niemeyer said in the interview linked here that the current return to wolf hunting will not impact the species’ long-term vitality, even in Idaho, where they eat dog.

    In essence, they’re back, and they’re here to stay.

    http://www.mountainonline.com/mountain-magazine/item/868-killing-the-neighborhood-wolf

    Pretty solid votes of confidence. And this coming from someone who spent days arguing with a Bible-toting dolt last year on this very topic.

  • Pancho

    “God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.”

    I think Muir’s quote applies to wolves in the same way that it applies to trees. If we think of the wolves as a resource, something that is up to us to control and exploit at our convenience, then Dax is hitting the nail on the head. However, there’s something to be said for the fact that nature does not belong to us, and that we cross a moral line when we treat them as an inconvenience to solve with a bullet rather than a being with a right to life.

  • CA

    Ten wolves were killed that day.

    From the CEO of the Humane Society US Wayne Pacelle’s blog: 12/13/12 Wolves Under the Gun:
    “It’s been the worst year for wolves in North America in more than half a century. Wolf killing, including by aerial gunning, has continued, as in years past, in Canada and Alaska. But on top of that, there’s been a huge expansion of wolf killing in the lower 48 states. Michigan’s legislature passed a bill yesterday to make the wolf a “game” species and allow the Natural Resources Commission to set a sport hunting season. Five other states have continued or launched hunting and trapping seasons. Earlier in the week, news reports from Wyoming confirmed that hunters had killed 10 wolves that had been collared and studied in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, as the animals have strayed outside the boundaries of the parks. The victims included Yellowstone National Park’s most famous wolf, 832F, the alpha female of the beloved Lamar Canyon pack.

    This past summer, Stephanie Boyles Griffin, the senior director of The HSUS’s Wildlife Response, Innovations and Services section, had the privilege of seeing 832F and her pack while visiting the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone:

    “At dusk, I approached Rick McIntyre, Yellowstone’s biological technician who hasn’t missed a day of wolf watching in 8 ½ years! That’s what I call dedication! Anyway, I asked him if I could shadow him that evening and he obliged. We were parked along with a large group of fellow wolf-watchers just west of Soda Butte, and at some point, I heard Rick softly say ‘Stephanie.’ I spun around and saw her — 832F and her pack trotting down from the bluffs and across the road into Lamar Valley to hunt for the night. Once the adults disappeared into the sage brush, we all set up our spotting scopes so we could watch the adolescent wolves babysitting and playing with the pups of the year up in the hills above the road. I think we all smiled so long and hard that it made our faces hurt.

    “I’ll remember that night for the rest of my life. When I think of the people who travel to Yellowstone from all over the world just to catch a glimpse of a wolf like 832F and her pack, it makes me sick to think that it ended when one single person put her in their crosshairs and pulled the trigger. It’s just wrong. This wolf, arguably the most famous in the world and clearly the most famous in Yellowstone, was worth more — both to her species and to our species — alive than dead. We’re better than this.”

    Killing 832F was legal under Wyoming’s ruthless “management plan.” In fact, that plan allows wolves across 80 percent of the state to be shot on sight, even though only a few hundred survive in all of Wyoming. Last week, The HSUS and The Fund for Animals filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore protections for wolves in Wyoming, in light of the reckless execution of these creatures, and the management plan.

    Hunters and trappers have also killed hundreds of wolves in Minnesota and Wisconsin this fall, and we’ve filed notice of intent to sue there, too. Now Michigan is poised to join them in opening trophy hunting of wolves, even though there are fewer than 700 wolves in the state. We’ll have something to say about that in the days ahead.

    Wolves are a vital part of healthy, functioning ecosystems in these states, which are native habitats for these animals. People don’t eat wolves and it is already legal, as a selective control strategy, to kill wolves in order to protect livestock and pets. The sport killing and trapping programs aren’t driven by need or management, but by a selfish desire to obtain a trophy pelt or head. It’s a shame and an embarrassment for our nation.”

    No anthropomorphizing in this HSUS article, but advocating for income based on tourism vs hunting licences. Fish & Wildlife gets $ from hunting licenses. Wolves are competition for hunters & eliminating the wolves means more hunting and more $ for F&W. Think Sarah Palin advocating shooting wolves from airplanes & I’m guessing we’ll be split into one of two polarizing directions. It’s the same reason why local fisherman illegally shoot seals: the seals are the primary competition for fish. Legal in one scenario, illegal in the next. People are driven by money. If the wolves are worth more as a tourist attraction than dead, that’s what will ultimately save them.

  • jonnywwdb

    I think is is absolutely sad that someone feels the need to point a gun at anything and want to kill it. I wonder what feeling of satisfaction they get from it. I remember being a kid and shooting gophers. I used to get quite a thrill out of it. It gives you some sort of feeling of superior control. Then I grew up and realised how sad and unfortunate that feeling was. The animals are mammals and feel the same pain that we do, so how ridiculous was i that I would walk around killing them for some sort of cheap thrill. When I see hunters, I realise that they are still those kids that never grew up and still like a kick out of the thrill. The thrill of being able to take another creatures life if they choose. It is sad that an innocent animal has to endure pain and loss for us to get this feeling.

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