Through Different Eyes

Public sentiment is everything. Without it, nothing can succeed. With it, nothing can fail..”
— Abraham Lincoln

TEN YEARS AGO, on a biting cold winter morning in the world’s first national park, I witnessed the release of two wolves brought from Canada into a one-acre acclimation pen on the Blacktail Plateau, a “pre-release” that was the first phase of a wolf reintroduction plan for the 2.2 million acres of Yellowstone National Park. After skiing in to the acclimation site, our small group of journalists and observers saw the first cage brought into the pen and the cage door raised. Instantly a black-as-night wolf bolted out, long black tail low to the ground, and dashed around the perimeter of the pen, gulping snow and looking for an escape. There was an audible gasp from our small crowd. The second wolf, also deep black with grayish underbelly, followed suit, its long, lean legs with hand-size paws covering a lot of ground quickly. This close-up look at a powerful predator left us awed and speechless; we skied and snowshoed away in silence.

Today, ten years after these reintroductions into Yellowstone and the huge wilderness area of central Idaho, and over 25 years since Barry Lopez wrote his seminal book about attitudes towards wolves, Of Wolves and Men, I am still intrigued by a central question: Have we seen a shift in attitudes and perceptions, a shift in values toward wolves? If so, why? And maybe most importantly, what difference does it make to us or to those responsible for wolf management?

Some of the stories I’ve encountered reflect active shifts toward resolution; other stories still create strong tremors that shake our moral ground in all directions, like wolves being poisoned near Clayton, ID with Compound 1080, a poison with no known antidote that causes extended convulsions and suffering prior to death; or of wolves, like wolf #230, who was most likely shot illegally a couple of years ago near the Yaak Valley in Montana, its radio collar found — cut — in Yaak Falls. And then there are the stories of over 153,000 people to date — among countless millions of visitors — who have been lucky enough to have sighted wolves with their own eyes in Yellowstone.

In our attitudes towards wolves we perceive, seemingly, three different species: One wolf has devil horns on his head; another has a halo; and the third wolf, well, she’s just a wolf — a breathing, howling, running, hunting, shitting wolf. How do we ask the necessary questions to determine which is the “real” wolf?

“The whole wolf issue has nothing to do with reality,” says Ed Bangs, Rocky Mountain wolf coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), “It has everything to do with symbols. If you’re a big cycle person and believe that everything works together, you tend to like wolves. If you believe people are on top of everything, you tend not to like wolves.”

Attitude goes a long way in how one regards and responds to a keystone species like wolves. The symbols Bangs refers to, for example, may have been carried here from the Europe of the Middle Ages. “The medieval mind,” writes Barry Lopez, “more than any other mind in history, was obsessed with images of wolves.” Little Red Riding Hood, The Big Bad Wolf, and other fairy tales and mythologies helped spawn a broad cultural bias. And sayings like “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” “wolves at the door,” and “a real wolf with women,” seem to reflect our culture’s continuing antipathy for wolves.

These biases sailed over the Atlantic with the first settlers and were vigorously perpetuated in the New World. In the Puritanical black and white view of things, domestic livestock (cattle and sheep mainly) were perceived as innately good and “innocent,” whereas wolves were perceived as evil and “guilty.” Wolves were openly targeted and, starting on the eastern seaboard and moving westward with expansion, wolf killing became a deliberate act toward the extirpation of a species believed by some to be the devil incarnate.

In the Great Plains, wolf killing was common practice between 1850 and 1900. With buffalo herds greatly diminished by railroad buffalo hunters, wolves turned to domestic livestock for prey. Hired wolf killers followed, kind of animal mercenaries paid by ranchers and later by our government. Strychnine was a popular method, with Lopez recounting that poisoned meat meant for wolves was laid in lines as long as 150 miles. But everything that ate the meat died: ranch dogs, eagles, and children. And of course wolves. No one counted, but it’s conceivable that during that 50-year period as many as one million wolves were killed.

But they weren’t just killed. The killing was accompanied by an irrational and fierce hatred and vilification. One wolf killer wrote about one of the last “holdout” wolves he and his companion trapped: “We each threw a lasso over the neck of the doomed wolf, and strained our horses in opposite directions until the blood burst from her mouth, her eyes glazed, her limbs stiffened and fell limp.”

Curiously, the killing of these last wolves (even so, there still remained a few stragglers here and there) brought some sympathy, and new stories began to emerge from the likes of Adolph Murie and Aldo Leopold. “He was way ahead of his time,” one observer said of Murie. Those who were interested “came to realize [wolves] had to eat too, just to survive. The thinking changed.” Leopold’s now-famous story of when he killed a wolf as a young man was part of the shift in values toward wolves. He wrote, “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes — something known only to her and to the mountain.”

A larger cultural shift was happening too; in the 1940s and ’50s a “new” culture materialized when populations migrated from the ranch to the city, from rural to urban. Jon Coleman, the author of Vicious, a recent book on humans and wolves, writes, “Americans used to empathize with their meat… Wage earners living in apartments (now) own goldfish, not cows, and as the sting of livestock depredation faded from many Americans’ lives, so did their hatred of wolves.” Television, too, played a role in a shifting view of wolves, with contemporary nature programs depicting photogenic wolves in new, up-close and personal ways.

The general environmental awareness of the ’60s and ’70s added to this mix, helping to create an atmosphere conducive to a major shift in public consciousness and attitudes toward other species. New wildlife policies were enacted, and in 1973 the Endangered Species Act was passed, with wolves being listed five years later. Ed Bangs told me, “The ESA is the only reason we are where we are today.”

But the old thinking didn’t go away quietly; the old values didn’t give up without a fight. With fear, ignorance, and a lingering fealty to the old stories, it was tooth and claw at the Yellowstone and central Idaho reintroduction hearings in Helena, MT, Boise, ID, and Cody, WY, among other places. Just before the hearing in Cody, I remember seeing an anti-wolf parade, with signs reading, “The wolf is the next Saddam Hussein.”

In those instances the Endangered Species Act held firm. Overall public opinion spoke decidedly in favor of reintroduction in Yellowstone and central Idaho, and the research and fieldwork kept spilling out, supporting a reasonable, scientifically-based compromise: the experimental “non-essential” listing. (Part of this listing meant that while wolves were largely protected, ranchers could still shoot them on private land if they were caught killing livestock.)

Mike Phillips, restoration project leader in Yellowstone until 1997 wrote, “Nothing less than a major shift in public attitude had to occur before one could imagine the howl of the wolf echoing once again through the valleys and forests.” But that shift did occur, and from the 31 wolves (total) reintroduced into the Park in 1995 and 1996, there were about 167 wolves in 16 packs using Yellowstone National Park in 2004, and 301 wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

IN THE TEN YEARS SINCE the reintroduction, interestingly, the basic conflict between prevailing attitudes doesn’t seem to have changed a great deal: By and large, those who were pro-wolf ten years ago are still pro-wolf, and those who were against wolves are still against wolves. The extremes however (the way crazy stuff, like government conspiracy theories of “planting” wolves to “bring down” the rancher), are less tolerated.

Nonetheless, the culture of the west continues to be transformed gradually by an influx of people holding different, perhaps more modern, values. The old-timers are fading away and, like it or not, the new west is taking hold. Surveys show that if you’re about fifty years old or more, you probably hold a pretty negative attitude towards predators; but younger people think the whole idea of killing off all the predators is a joke. It’s kind of a funny statement, but death and retirement are part of what is gradually changing the general attitude toward wolves in the western states. And more people have come to understand that you can’t cry wolf on both sides of the issue. That is, those with anti-wolf sentiments realize that there haven’t been huge problems with wolves, and even wolf advocates realize that wolves can be a pain in the ass sometimes.

Now the reintroduction program is no longer about recovering wolves, about restoring them to the northern Rockies. That has been successfully accomplished. Now the program is about how to manage problem wolves. For instance, wolves are killed earlier. Managers have found that it’s better to kill a wolf after, say, two livestock depredations than after a half-dozen. That’s better for the wolf population as a whole, and it’s better for public opinion and public support, which is key. The general feeling is that the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service has been responding adequately. (The FWS is the federal agency ultimately responsible until management is handed over to the states.)

There also appears to be a shift in the last decade among livestock owners. When the reintroduction was proposed, a fair number of ranchers thought FWS was the worst game in town. Now, due to quick responses, FWS has gained some credibility among ranchers. Ironically, it is now some wolf advocates who don’t favor FWS as they did during the first stages of reintroduction, due, for example, to the FWS-proposed delisting of wolves that some wolf conservationists feel is premature. It’s like the pro-wolfers and anti-wolfers have moved out of their deep trenches and a more nuanced dialogue is taking place.

Ed Bangs told me that he’ll take the conservationists’ ire: if they are upset or dissatisfied with him or FWS, they call him some names or take FWS to court. But if anti-wolf folks get pissed, they kill wolves. Bangs says he’ll take the personal abuse over dead wolves.

ITALIAN WOLF BIOLOGIST LUIGI BOITANI believes time helps to increase tolerance. He writes, “Prolonged coexistence with the wolf allows development of understanding and appreciation of the species as it is, whereas lack of close contact fosters the deeply irrational image of the wolf and the potential exacerbation of this image by the mass media.”

But a whole different take on the “time” factor is seen in the eastern U.S. where red wolves were reintroduced, and the controversy has been minimal. This is partly because wolves have been gone from the east for a couple hundred years — and so the old stories there have faded, and the generations don’t remember as well. In the west, one can still hear stories of someone’s father or grandfather who was involved in wolf killings. It is closer to the heart.

Ed Bangs talks about the “famous white wolf of Stanford, Montana,” one of the last wolves killed in the state, in 1919. It was stuffed and put on display in the courthouse, and every school class, every grade, every year, saw that wolf and read the newspaper article of 1919 that depicted, for that time, the “real” wolf — how it had killed hundreds of livestock, and dodged bullets left and right; it was like a superwolf. Legends and old stories die hard. The legend of the white wolf is still remembered today on the Stanford, Montana website: “The school mascot is the Wolves, after the legendary white wolf that held a reign of terror on cattle and sheep throughout the Little Belt Mountains for over fifteen years until it was shot by A.C. Close.” (For perspective, a wolf living in Yellowstone National Park, a fully protected and rich habitat, will be lucky to live ten years.)

We continue to need new stories to replace the old ones. Boitani writes that in Italy, “wolves and humans can (and do) live in an integrated coexistence in the same area rather than having to be segregated forever in separate districts.”

And new stories are coming from Canada, where attitudes toward wolves are changing in part due to the dialogue between wildlife researchers and cattle producers. Erik Butters, who raises cattle on more than 20,000 acres, is working with the Central Rockies Wolf Project. “People are becoming more and more tolerant of the wolves’ situation,” Butters said.

MILLIONS OF DOLLARS ARE POURED into psychological studies of our attitudes and the complex behaviors that result. And that psychology is used to tap into some hard-wired parts in our brains: how to be bigger consumers, to buy the next best thing, and then the next, and the next. Pulitzer Prize winning scientist E.O. Wilson believes humans are hard-wired to the natural world as well. He calls it “biophilia,” our “innately emotional affiliation with other living organisms.” Ninety-nine percent of our human history, Wilson says, has been in contact with the earth and has depended on the earth for survival. “In short,” he writes, “the brain evolved in a biocentric world, not a machine-regulated world,” and it would be almost impossible to erase this kind of learning in our recent evolutionary history.

This innate connection, which Stephen Kellert affirms with Wilson in the book The Biophilia Hypothesis, is not a matter of choice they say, but an essential ingredient of our biological makeup. We are compelled to realize that our very lives, the heart and soul of our lives, depend on the rest of creation. As we recognize this dependency, this hard-wired connection, the hypothesis goes, we begin to see a major problem: biodiversity is seriously threatened as species continue to go extinct at astounding rates. The result of species extinction then is the draining of our lifeblood, with the human species in need of a transfusion to stay alive — a transfusion of “big cycleness.”

I don’t know how to tap in, like the ad industry, to our hard-wired psyches, to the biophilia in all of us. Maybe the 153,000 people who have been thrilled by wolf sightings in Yellowstone will help to spread that connection, to maintain that tie, that cord, that lifeblood.

To be sure, turning “big cycle” with wolves, so much like us in family structure and behavior, has been slow going. In a new afterword to his 1978 classic Of Wolves and Men, Barry Lopez reflects on our progress. “The wolf… continues to generate more adamant positions and to trigger more powerful emotions than any other large predator in the northern hemisphere, especially if the question is about where wolves might fit in a landscape shared closely with humans.”

That there are still differences in individual perceptions is self-evident; and different values among us will continue to clash. But these differences do not have to represent roadblocks or even regressions in living with the real wolf. We may be able to inch closer together and make room for the wolves even as our dialogue continues. The significance of this reflection lies in our ability, as a human community concerned for the welfare of other species, to take one another’s attitudes and values into consideration in our collective decision-making. As Lopez writes, “Someone else does not have to be wrong in order that you may be right.”