Swans Commentary » swans.com May 5, 2008  





by Martin Murie



Pic: "The Wolves Of Mount McKinley," Sketches by Olaus Murie. National Park Service, 1944. - Size: 9k
The Wolves Of Mount McKinle
Sketches by Olaus Murie. National Park Service, 1944.



(Swans - May 5, 2008)   The door opened and the wolf walked in. A big one, white with black markings. We humans, an auditorium full of academics and activists, were absolutely quiet. Soft touches of the wolf's claws on the hardwood floor the only sound. The wolf, on a leash held by its handler, was accustomed to these shows. She had been carefully raised, from birth, in captivity, and yet she retained that wolfish intensity, staring into our faces, locking onto our very eyes, occasionally choosing one face for a longer stare. It was as though we were being judged.

This wolf was a northern wolf, Canis lupus laocon. (1) Two other subspecies exist in the United States, the red wolf, now established in North Carolina and Tennessee and apparently doing fairly well, and the Mexican wolf, Canis lupus baileyi, now leading an extremely hazardous life in the mountains of the Arizona-New Mexico border. The subspecific name, baileyi, is ironic; Vernon Bailey of the Bureau of Biological Survey was a promoter of wolf eradication to favor increase of wild ungulates and ranchers' cattle. Late in life Bailey invented a more humane trap, Verbail, consisting of a small chain loop under tension held open by a metal plate that collapsed when stepped on, allowing the chain to close tightly around the leg.

Looking at the evidence and making a complete turnaround in biological philosophy is exemplified in dramatic fashion by Aldo Leopold, as recounted in his famous essay, one of the most quoted statements in the environmentalists' lexicon, Thinking Like A Mountain:

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 the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves meant hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the deer nor the mountain agreed with such a view. (2)

However, at the 1930 annual meeting of the American Society of Mammalogists, Albert K. Fisher, the first head of the Biological Survey's Division of Economic Investigation (predator control included in this division), spoke as follows:

The Englishman went over the earth and made it better for civilized people because he is a meat eater, a beef eater. Now we are running short of beef and it is our duty to save all the beef and mutton that we can. Is there anyone who wants to pay 75 cents or a dollar a pound for steak? If we kill off those things that are destroying our meat, we will have more meat for our increasing population. We should have more meat and the only way I know of getting it is to save it, and if necessary in certain places to exterminate the destroyers of it. (3)

There are many other stories in the history of the early years of the twentieth century. One of them is the Bureau of Biological Survey's internal, and sometimes intense, conflicts between defenders of predators, like Leopold, and defenders of the Division of Economic Investigation's collusion with ranchers and western states' governing classes in elimination of any and all animals that might cause economic loss to farmers and ranchers, from mountain lions and wolves to prairie dogs and field mice. The book of choice for this thoroughly annotated and documented history is Michael Robinson's Predatory Bureaucracy. (See Note 3.)

Let's go now, bypassing many a fascinating story, to the year 2008. A man named Mike Miller is quoted by High Country News as admitting he put cattle in a place where he knew a pack of Mexican wolves had a den and that his intent was to provoke the "three strikes" provision of the Fish and Wildlife Service: Three cows killed in a year sanctions re-trapping the "bad" wolves to move them back into captivity, or else shoot them. Mike Miller now denies making these statements and his foreman has ordered him to keep his mouth shut. The ranch -- Adobe Slash ranch -- comprising 275,000 acres, is owned by a rich Mexican, Elloy Vallina, whose phone number is unlisted. It will be a tough case to bring into court. (4)

That's the way it is with wolf kills. By the time the rancher or one of his cowboys discovers a dead cow, sheep, or horse, wolves and accompanying scavengers -- coyotes, ravens, crows, eagles, et al., have eaten their fill, removing traces of the cause of death.

Ranchers know this and it is one of their black marks against introduction of wolves onto their ranges. Besides, compensation at "fair market prices" (a service by the World Wildlife Fund), doesn't always compensate the rancher. Market prices fluctuate. If the kill happens to be a prize bull, thousands of dollars are lost with that bull's death. (Not too many bulls are killed by wolves, but when one goes down we can understand the wrath.)

It's an interesting, and very important, fact that hatred of wolves is mixed thoroughly with hatred of federal interference. That hatred, in New Mexico and Arizona and Texas, is identical to the traditional "hate-the-feds" in Wyoming and other western states. But we have to remember that according to the Northwest Ordinance, the feds own all land not bought under various land provisions, or granted to, for example, railroad builders to support the transcontinental railroads, beginning in the eighteen sixties. Therefore, land not taken up by farmers or ranchers or other varieties of homesteaders has from the beginning been owned by the federal government, headquartered in far-away Washington, D.C. That holds for lands bought (Louisiana Purchase), stolen (Lone Star State), or won (by invasion of Mexico, 1878). Some ranchers admit that the latest "invasion" of their rights by wolves is a sideshow; the main show is, and always has been, struggle over ownership of the land.

The feds have had a long spell of intimidation by big land owners that held, and still hold, in some states, the ruling minority. Reasons why big land holders are rendered such respect by the feds and by citizens of the west are revealing and important, but I better stick to wolves. Mexican wolves released on the Arizona-New Mexico border are in serious trouble.

Do wolves attack humans? There is very scant evidence in North American annals. A recent attack in the southwest, reported by J. Zane Wally, is not definitive. A suburban Tucson family -- husband and wife, two daughters, and a dog named Buck -- set up camp at a place where Mexican wolves had recently been released. Two wolves appeared and one of them tangled with Buck. The man shot the wolf and it died. Buck was badly mauled; according to family testimony, Buck never fully recovered. The problem here is that wolves often meet dogs, and dogs usually defend territory and the humans they accept as part of their pack, or family. Or, wolves have been known to mate with dogs, and hybrids appear to be more aggressive toward humans.

The wife said, "Buck saved us and then God saved Buck. If Buck hadn't gotten between my daughters and the wolves, they would have attacked them."

The family was caught in a dilemma: The fine is very high for shooting a wolf if the wolf is not attacking humans or livestock, and along with the fine goes a year in jail. It was only natural that the husband and wife emphasized, over and over, that their daughters were in dreadful danger. The presence of the dog spoils that argument. We will probably never know the truth. Eventually the case against the husband was dismissed. (5)

Tom Lynch, editor of El Lobo, makes a perfectly rational statement on this matter:

It is extremely unlikely that Mexican gray wolves will seriously injure or kill someone, but it is not impossible, and if we don't accept that possibility, then how can we justify the restoration of animals elsewhere that do maim or kill human beings, like grizzly bears. . . . the re-introduction program should not be predicated on that impossibility. (6)

But wolves do kill cattle and on that reality the ranchers' opposition thrives. Tom Lynch includes in his valuable collection an article by David E. Brown who went to Europe to check out the presence of wolves in Greece, Italy, and Spain. He discovered two interesting facts. One, the raisers of livestock hate wolves with a vehemence as strong as in the western states of America. Two, the tradition of co-existing with wolves taught rural people to guard their animals. They bring them back to the farm each evening and they keep dogs with the stock in the daytime, along with a herder or two. (7)

In the western states the public lands have always been contested. The tradition became established in the seventies and eighties of the nineteenth century that public land not homesteaded was there to be used for grazing and it was cheaper to let the cattle, later sheep, roam at will all summer long, accepting but complaining about wolf, and even coyote, depredations.

Alison and I and our three daughters spent some time in various Italian and Swiss rural areas. In one sizeable town a young person was chosen to be the goat herder. He walked through town each morning, collecting a considerable number of goats, took them up toward timberline and kept watch, herded them back in the evening and distributed them to various households throughout the town. This is an entirely different system from huge ranches in the western states of our country, but let's not dismiss the thought that maybe in this case "small is beautiful," and that huge herds of cattle owned by one rich rancher, sometimes non-resident, is not the best way of using the land.

The difficulty of enforcing federal law in the wilds of the west is due to the power of money, so says Rick Bass in his article in El Lobo:

It's an amazing aspect of our democracy: how the money of so few can purchase such sweeping powers, and how the furious passions of so few can similarly influence the law based solely upon the power of their anger or fear or in some instances, hatred. (8)

Rick Bass gives us some statistics: Seventy-nine percent of residents in New Mexico support wolf re-introduction, as do 61 percent of Arizona residents. According to Bass, it's the livestock barons who, in their "disconnectedness," fearing loss of their traditional power, raise the ante about wolves and the feds.

Another statistic: of the 30,000 ranchers with permits to graze cattle on public lands, a sizeable fraction, 21 percent favor wolf re-introduction. Bass also credits the media -- TV, radio, newspapers -- with a strong, meddling hand in the tangled web that is New Mexico these days. They look for fringe -- i.e., rare events -- from either the varmental side or the rancher-government-corporate complex, hype these up, disregarding the depths of society's day-by-day life, and foster the belief that "these are the way things really are."

These responses can mask the greater attributes of a community -- the hidden, permanent well-springs of hope; the willingness to help anyone down on his luck; the members' great friendliness and loyalty among themselves. Tenderness, goodness is as prevalent in these communities as anywhere in the country, and more so. (9)

Both Tom Lynch and Rich Bass, each in his own words, issue a caution to varmentalists: We too have to do a very tough remodeling job on ourselves, do without our accustomed arrogance, feel a greater tolerance toward members of our own species, while at the same time standing tall in defense of principles.

Those principles include The Others, their lives, their existence on this earth, all of them, from Mexican wolves to the flower-loving fly. We might practice not only the art of tuning our ears to the eerie wail of the wolves, but to the words of our opponents, whether we meet them at the mall or on the Blue Range of the White Mountains on the Arizona-New Mexico border. Enough water under the bridge. It's time to make this revolutionary shift.



1.  The occasion was a conference of ecologists and activists in Saratoga Springs, New York.  (back)

2.  Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac. With Essays on Conservation from Round River. Oxford University Press, 1949. Round River, Oxford University Press, 1953.  (back)

3.  Albert K. Fisher, speaking at the 1930 annual meeting of the American Society of Mammalogists. Cited in Michael Robinson, Predator Bureaucracy. The Extermination Of Wolves And The Transformation Of The West. University Press of Colorado, 2005.  (back)

4.  John Dougherty, Agency Probes Wolf-Baiting Claims. High Country News, March 6, 2008.  (back)

5.  Tom Lynch, El Lobo. Readings On The Mexican Gray Wolf. University of Utah Press, 2005. J. Zane Walley's article is entitled "Caught Twixt Beasts And Bureaucrats: New Rules From A Softer Society, Far Removed From The Land." Page 176, 1998.  (back)

6.  ibid, page 4.  (back)

7.  ibid, David E. Brown, A Tale Of Two Wolves. Page 138, 1992.  (back)

8.  ibid, Rick Bass, The Feds, from The New Wolves, 1997.  (back)

9.  ibid, page 161.  (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published May 5, 2008