From The Brink Of Oblivion And Back Again?

By Jim Robertson

For hundreds of thousands of years, wolves played a central role as keepers of nature’s balance across the American landscape. The personification of untamed wilderness, wolves have little patience or tolerance for the human world. Their presence is a sign of an ecosystem relatively intact.

Meanwhile, man’s efforts—both historic and ongoing—to rid the world of his best friend’s canine cousins, are part of a grand design to dominate wild places and control Mother Nature herself. The right of a species not to be hunted to extinction is a relatively new advancement. It’s still about the only right extended to non-human animals thus far in American history. The 1996 reintroduction of wolves to the northern Rocky Mountains in Yellowstone and wilderness areas of Central Idaho as mandated by the Endangered Species Act—along with protections against hunting and trapping all too briefly afforded them under the ESA—gave the wolf a temporary reprieve and allowed Nature to reign again over some of her sovereign lands.

But the return of the “big bad” wolf struck terror into the hearts of little red-state, redneck riding hoods, who habitually hate what they fear. Bigotry against wolves has thrived across the country since colonial times and wolves have long been the object of unwarranted phobias. Today’s wolf-haters panic at the thought of natural predators competing for “their” trophy “game” animals and loathe anything that might threaten their exploitative way of life. They view the federal government as the enemy in their ongoing combat against wilderness, and grasp for local control of species like wolves and grizzly bears, who, until recently, were all but extinct in the continental U.S. Far from being their foe however, the federal government has actually been a fervent ally. The recent removal of wolves from the federal Endangered Species List, long before they were truly recovered, fits right in with a centuries-old, historic norm.

Despite remarkable advances in the understanding of wolves’ social behavior and necessary place in a healthy ecosystem, willfully ignorant ruralites in the tri-state area of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming have no more regard for wolves than those who caused their near extinction in the past. The posture they assume on the subject of wolves is as warped and ill-informed as any Massachusetts witch hunter’s.

The Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition, backed by a well funded trophy elk-hunting industry, filed an initiative petition for the 2008 ballot demanding the removal of “all” wolves from the state “by whatever means necessary.” Fortunately, even in a state famous for militias and neo-Nazi compounds (not to mention, potatoes), the petition failed to collect the required number of signatures to move forward with that avaricious initiative. Still, the Idaho state government is quietly implementing the “by whatever means” line of attack, adding aerial hunting (a method especially dear to Sarah Palin’s heart) and trapping to their wolf decimation arsenal. No wonder some Idahoans feel they can get away with a call for the renewed obliteration of an entire species: their governor, “Butch” Otter, openly boasted he hoped to be the first to shoot a wolf when they lose federal protection.

Meanwhile, Wyoming’s current state “game” management plan calls for wolves to be shot on sight anywhere outside Yellowstone National Park, supposedly to safeguard range cattle (who are actually 147 times more likely to fall prey to intestinal parasites than to wolves). The removal of this tormented canid from the federal Endangered Species List in 2009 played right into the hands of anti-wolf fanatics and cleared the path for the bloodiest butchery of wolves in almost a century. Case in point: it took less than a week for hunters set up just outside the park to kill all of the adult wolves in Yellowstone’s well-known and much-loved Cottonwood pack, leaving their pups to starve.

Since wolves were reintroduced to the Northern Rockies, their population has fluctuated, reaching a high of about 1500 individuals in 2007. An impressive figure perhaps, unless you consider that 5,450 wolves were murdered in 1884 in Montana alone, after the first bounty was instated there. With a return of widespread wolf hunting, it could take just a few seasons for today’s anti-wolf bigots to send this misunderstood embodiment of wilderness back to the brink of oblivion.
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