One late summer afternoon in Alaska's Brooks Range, my wife and I encountered a pitch-black wolf poking its head above a thicket of willows. Standing awkwardly on its hind legs, it checked us out; then, curiosity apparently satisfied, it dropped down on all fours and loped off, wagging its bushy tail as if it didn't have a care in the world.
That was a few years ago. Today if there's one thing wolves aren't, it's carefree. Across Alaska and the far West to the upper Midwest, a new war on Canis lupus, the North American gray wolf, or timber wolf, is underway.
By the time the wolf became one of the first animals to be covered by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, it had been hunted, trapped and poisoned into extinction everywhere in the contiguous United States except Montana and Minnesota. Its amazing resurgence since then is one of the nation's great environmental success stories. But if the ranchers, hunters and other special interests prosecuting the new campaign against it are victorious, they will undermine not only the law that gave rise to endangered-species recovery but also the integrity of ecosystems in which wolves historically have played a vital role.
When the Bush administration decided recently to terminate federal protection for wolves throughout the northern Rocky Mountains by the end of this month, one Interior Department official said it was because the animals have become so numerous that they no longer need Uncle Sam to watch over them. In fact, the decision had nothing to do with numbers and everything to do with politics. Transferring the responsibility for managing wolves to Idaho, Montana and Wyoming now is a farewell gift from the outgoing president to his staunch supporters in a part of the country where hating wolves is the code of the hills.
As ranchers see it, the wolf's special status is a symbol of the Washington bureaucrats who exist primarily to shove onerous regulations down their throats. So the wolf handoff can be easily viewed as the settling of an old score. Idaho's Republican governor, C.L. "Butch" Otter, has vowed to "bid for that first ticket to shoot a wolf myself." Wyoming's Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat, goes Otter one better: "In terms of reducing the packs, that's always been a state objective from the outset."
Together, the three states are determined to whack back the 1,500 wolves currently occupying the Rocky Mountain region by as much as 80 percent, to a barely sustainable minimum of 300, even though dozens of distinguished scientists believe that assuring the future of this still-recovering species would require a population of somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000.
Wyoming has come up with the toughest wolf-management plan. In addition to authorizing an annual trophy hunt in the vicinity of Yellowstone National Park, it gives ranchers carte blanche to shoot wolves on sight everywhere else. Freudenthal says he doubts that "any packs outside Yellowstone . . . are even necessary."
The Western states lobbied long and hard to get wolves back under their jurisdiction, but it wasn't until former Idaho governor Dirk Kempthorne was appointed secretary of the interior two years ago that they began to make headway. A coalition of environmental groups has served notice that it will attempt to block what is euphemistically referred to as "lethal control" in a federal court next month -- but by then, wolves will already be under the gun. Can each of the three state game and fish departments monitor its targeted wolf packs diligently enough to ensure that they don't disappear altogether?
In Wisconsin, where I live, agitation to "do something" about wolves was on the upswing long before the state took over management of the 600 or so animals that roam here a year ago. Hunters complained about depredations on game and dogs. Livestock owners were upset about assaults on cattle and sheep. Adding fuel to the fire was the usual hyperbole about wolves attacking children, menacing hunters and chasing joggers. The other day, I saw a bumper sticker on a pickup truck parked outside a local saloon that proclaimed: "Wolves: The original terrorists!"
Polls show that most Wisconsin residents are laissez faire about wolves, but those who loathe them wield far more political clout. On April 14, an influential sportsmen's group will ask its members statewide how they feel about a "public harvest." This is almost certainly a prelude to the initiation of hunting and trapping seasons aimed at bringing wolves -- now concentrated in the north, but dispersing southward -- more in line with the state's "target population" of 350 animals.
There's a huge disconnect here. Deer populations are out of control, especially in the southern part of the state. If, in the absence of wolves, deer overrun their habitat, the inevitable result will be a ruined environment and starving animals.
This is what I see going on in my neck of the woods, in the southwestern part of the state. Hungry deer are swarming over our evergreens and fruit trees like hooved locusts. Native plants are disappearing, and most of the wild-growing cherry, oak and maple saplings have long since been chewed up. Just as alarming, scientists have discovered a link between overcrowding and the spread of chronic wasting disease, a deadly brain infection that affects deer. And deer aren't the only problem. A number of national parks and forests in the West are contending with the severe environmental consequences of exploding elk populations. One solution some planners are considering involves, wouldn't you know, reintroducing wolves.
So here we are. We understand that wolves are a cure for what ails us, and yet we're getting ready to start slaughtering them all over again. The only thing that can prevent this is an aroused public, which has yet to show any signs of materializing.
This brings us back to Alaska, where recent history is instructive. In 1991, the governor announced plans to start killing wolves as a way to provide more moose for hunters. It wasn't long before the threat of a nationwide tourism boycott compelled him to beat a hasty retreat. But when the Alaska Department of Fish and Game went ahead with an even more ambitious eradication program four years ago, popular outrage was conspicuous only by its absence. Since then, nearly 750 wolves have been gunned down. If a bill now before the state legislature removing the few remaining restrictions on wolf-control passes, which seems likely, the carnage is certain to get even worse.
Yesterday the wolf was the poster boy of the American conservation movement. Today the only poster it's on says, "Wanted: Dead." It's a sad comedown for what had been a stirring comeback.
Jim Doherty is a former editor whose articles and nature essays have appeared in Audubon, Sports Illustrated and the New York Times.
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