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Why We're So Divided Over Saving Wolves

Wolf preservation has been called 'the abortion issue of wildlife.'

Until recently, very few people had ever seen a wolf in the wild. But thanks to the success of the recovery program in Yellowstone National Park, more and more people are getting the chance to appreciate this iconic animal. But for many ranchers, wolves—like coyotes—are regarded as varmint to be eradicated. For hunters and trappers, they are exciting quarry.

In Wolf Nation: The Life, Death, and Return of Wild American Wolves, Brenda Peterson takes us inside the world of these top predators—and the cultural war being waged over them. Speaking from her home in Seattle, she explains why the battle over wolves is like the abortion debate, how removing protections in six Western states has led to the deaths of more than 3,000 wolves, and why so many wolf advocates are women.

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You are today a passionate advocate for wolves. Yet you were born on the other side of the tracks, so to speak, into a family of hunters and wildlife managers. How did you make the transition—and how does your early experience inform your work?

Wonderful question! I was raised in the enemy camp, so to speak, in the Plumas National Forest, in the high Sierra, northern California, by hunters and wildlife managers. But many hunters do not believe in killing wolves; they believe in sustainable hunting and fair chase ethics. I was raised with some of these hunters, who told me, “There is the big good wolf.” I think this gave me a certain authenticity when it comes to talking about wildlife and endangered species. Because I come from within the culture that once eradicated them, I can speak to hunters and ranchers—and search for common ground.

You write, “wolf preservation has often been called ‘the abortion issue of wildlife’.’’ Why are the sides so polarized?

You’re dealing with a fault line between cultures and, as we know from earthquake studies, fault lines are very volatile and active. On either side, you have people who have a sense of righteousness about their cause. One side, the hunters and ranchers, has been dominant since we began as a country. Now, all of a sudden, you have voices coming from the public, who are often urban and have an environmental passion.

There is a passion that goes deeper than politics. It goes to the sense of, I am in this culture. I belong to the anti-wolf culture, or the pro-wolf culture. And they don’t speak to one another, just like in the abortion issue, where you have people who have a strong, religious pro-life stance and others who are pro-choice. One of the ways to change that is to have a conversation.

You claim that USDA killed at least 3.2 million wild animals in 2015, including hundreds of bears, wolves, mountain lions, and bobcats. Can you explain these shocking figures to our readers—and where wolves fit into those stats?

This is Wildlife Services, which the New York Times accused of operating in the shadows of government. They’re the ones who are called in to cull a wolf pack accused of depredation, and they have no limits. Wildlife Services is a SWAT team against wildlife. Because they operate in secret, and it’s hard to find out statistics, they’ve done what they want to do. It’s only now that they’re coming out of the shadows and being held accountable.

Photographing the Wild Wolves of Yellowstone

Hear photographer Ronan Donovan describe the challenge of photographing one of Yellowstone National Park's most elusive and iconic species.

How many of that 3.2 million is wolves?

Of the 3.2 million native wildlife killed by USDA/WS in 2015, according to the data from their own report, 415 of those animals were gray wolves. However, USDA/WS is not the only threat to wolves. In 2011, federal protections for wolves were lifted in six states—Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. The Center for Biological Diversity estimates that, since 2011, in these six states, more than 3,762 wolves have been killed by private citizens during state-sanctioned hunting and trapping seasons.

President Trump and the Republicans want to dial back the Endangered Species Act and take federal lands out of public hands. How will this affect wolf populations?

This is a disaster for wildlife, all wildlife. This is a president who doesn’t have any experience of nature. He’s a city boy; his sons’ relationship to nature is big game hunting. And you have a congress that is invested in gutting the Endangered Species Act.

We made great progress with the reintroduction in the 90s but this is a real regression; and it’s a scary time for all wildlife, especially wolves. I was interviewing a woman last week from Defenders of Wildlife, and she was distraught. She said that in Wyoming, which has just lifted protections for wolves, a man called her to brag that he had gotten on his snowmobile, chased a wild wolf for 30 miles, until the wolf collapsed from exhaustion, and then he shot her.

I was surprised to learn that wolves now have lawyers. Tell us about this great lady Amaroq Weiss—and why so many women are involved in wolf advocacy.

I found that really interesting. I’ve spent a lot of time with whales and dolphins, which are my other wildlife passion, and most of those people are men. They are now discovering that wolf packs are matrilineal. And women like Amaroq Weiss are on the forefront of conversations about wolves. I asked Amaroq, “Why do you think so many women go into wolf recovery and research?” She said, “It takes a pack, and women are really good at cooperating.”

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In Idaho, ranchers and conservationists have worked together to protect both sheep and wolves.


Amaroq lives in San Francisco with her husband and is the West Coast wolf advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. Because she understands the rural mind set, she also works with ranchers and wolf advocates teaching them how to give testimony on behalf of the wild wolf. She says, “My client is the wild wolf.” It’s pretty cool.

You write, “Some wolves, like humans, are legends.” Tell us the amazing story of the wolf known as 06 (or 832F)—and why she caught the nation’s attention.

06 was the world’s most famous wolf. She was born in 2006, which is why she has the name “06.” Her story, like many of the Yellowstone wolves, is legend. She was very independent. When she disbursed from her pack, which was starving, people thought she would die too, because only 20 percent of wolves are ever alone. They’re usually looking for new packs or love. But 06 spent a year on her own, which took a lot of guts and courage to survive the winter!

When she finally found her mates, they were two brothers who were young and kind of clueless. But she made a decision that two might be better than one mate. Over time, she taught them to hunt, and they had many pups together. She was often seen hunting even when she was pregnant or nursing. Eventually, the two brothers caught on and became really good hunters in their own right.

If you got to see 06, you never forgot her because she was so beautiful, handsome and powerful. She could take an elk down alone. A 700-pound elk? That’s extraordinary!

Did she die a natural death?

Tragically, no. And this is why everyone’s very worried now that there’s going to be hunting again. Wolves don’t understand that they’re in a “park.” But if they put a foot over a boundary, they are suddenly open game for wolf hunters. Because 06 had a big family to feed, she and her family sometimes ventured outside of Yellowstone Park. The first time, one of the brothers was shot dead. They all scurried back to the safety of the park. But when they went outside the park again, a hunter shot 06. It was “a shot heard around the world,” like the one that killed John Lennon.

A study by the University of Cambridge, England, looked into the howling repertoires, or “vocal fingerprints,” of wolves. What did they find out?

Scientists call the howling among wolves social glue. It is like people around a campfire singing together. It builds social connection, intimacy, and loyalty. Having heard many wolves howl in the wild, I believe they sometimes just sing to make music, like us.

The scientists at Cambridge even found that wolves had 21 different dialects. Through the sonograms and wave patterns of wolf howls, they found that, like whales and birds, wolves were controlling their singing and subject to cultural influences. A huge discovery!

I begin every talk that I give with a group howl. I play the howl of wild wolves, then I ask everyone, how many of you have ever heard a wolf howling in the wild? It used to be, there’d only be one person, usually a wolf researcher. Now because of Yellowstone and Denali, there’ll be perhaps 10. Then I say, “Every one of you and every one of your grandchildren—this is your birthright, to hear a wolf howling in the wild.”

A rare example of wolf advocates and ranchers working together is occurring in Idaho. Tell us about the Wood River Wolf Project—and why it could be a model for nationwide coexistence?

I’m so glad you asked about that because with all the sad stories about wolves, there are some that are really positive. Idaho, where the project operates, is one of the most anti-wolf states. Yet, in the middle of this virulent, anti-wolf zeitgeist, ranchers are working with conservationists to protect the sheep along what is known as the Super Sheep Highway.

Every spring, from May until October, they move 10,000-25,000 sheep along this highway. And in the last nine years, not one wolf has been killed and they’ve only lost 30 sheep! This shows that ranchers, livestock, and wolves can get together. The main focus is not killing wolves but prevention. They use red plastic flags that flap on fences and frighten wolves, livestock guardian dogs, usually Great Pyrenees, or range riders, like in the Old West. This is the key to the future.

How many livestock do wolves actually kill each year?

The idea that wolves kill vast numbers of livestock is a myth propagated by the livestock industry. Wolves are responsible for approximately 0.2 percent of cattle and calf deaths, and slightly more for sheep and lamb deaths. The biggest source of deaths is not wolves or any other predators. It is respiratory and digestive problems, disease, weather, and birthing complications.

At the end of the book, you quote Doug Smith, the project leader in Yellowstone, who says: “Wolves are back because people wanted it.” Explain how public opinion is helping shape the future for wolves—and how our readers can add their voices, or even howls, to the debate?

[Laughs] Wildlife management has been the purview of ranchers, hunters, and the government, which has been beholden to the interests of the livestock industry, since the beginning of our country. But now, because so many people have seen wolves, they want to step up and have a voice in wildlife agencies.

One of the best things you can do is volunteer to take part in the wildlife agencies. They used to be only appointed by the governor but now anyone can apply. I would also join a grass roots organization, like the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, or the Natural Resources Defense Council.

I say to kids, adopt an animal and spend your life learning, understanding, and protecting that animal, because as Jacques Cousteau said, “People protect what they love.” One of my favorite organizations is Kids4Wolves, founded by a girl called Story Warren. It is completely devoted to the Yellowstone wolves. Right now, the Trump administration is regressing. But I don’t think they’ll be in forever. So I think there is hope. But we all have to get involved.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.