40 years of living with things that might eat us

IMG_0280Bear shit, Glacier National Park.

The Endangered Species Act turned 40 this past weekend. With two full wolf hunting seasons almost done, rumblings of Grizzly delisting making headlines, and varied efforts at Lake Trout suppression, it is a very good time to sit in Montana and ask what sort of progress has been made over four decades.

The purpose of the ESA is clear in the original language: “…to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved…” Foundational motivations are less clear. Plants and animals with “…esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people…” are mentioned, with no further specificity. As is probably fitting, the law is clear on what, when, and how, with the why left for unending debate.

But the why is important.  It helps explain why the conflict over the ESA remains so vociferous, and perhaps why the act was necessary in the first place.

I don’t think anything in the history of the ESA, not even Spotted Owls, approaches the level of conflict wolf reintroduction has engendered.  The rhetoric is both ridiculous and sublime, my favorite being that the Canadian Wolves released in Yellowstone and Idaho are somehow a different, more rapacious species which will not mirror the behavior of the extirpated, native wolves.  Among other things, this line of thought ignores the Glacier/Bob populations, who reintroduced themselves in the early 1980s, and are equally blamed for eating all the elk, as well as sheep and calves when they get the chance.  The whole affair, now almost half as old as the ESA itself, reveals nothing so clearly as the intractibility of human and wolf antipathy.  This dislike has deep historical roots, and is profoundly irrationa, in the non-perjorative sense of being based more on things which will improbably occur than things which are likely and routine.

Historical evidence suggests that the British are to blame.  Wolves went extinct due to human predation in Scotland in the mid-1600s, an extraordinary and ignominious achievement which took place contemporaneous with the Puritan colonization.  The view of wolves as close enoguh to humans, in their social habits especially, and yet enough of a frightening adversary, in that they eat livestock, seems to have taken an early and deep hold on the British psyche.  Accounts of wolf encounters in colonial New England are rife with anthromorphopization which explained wolf predation on both wild and domestic animals as originating out of a rapacious, lustful nature.  The Freudian cliche concerning Puritanical projection is probably to convenient to be accurate, but regradless of the reason why the early English colonists hatred of wolves is inarguable.  And hatred is the precise word.

Fast forward two and half centuries and similar mindsets were at work with the Bureau of Biological Survey, and their successful quest to eliminate wolves from the western United States.  For much of the first decades of the 20th century big game hunting (for elk, deer, sheep, and goats; bison already being extinct) was banned in Colorado, not because of wolf and bear predation, because logging, grazing, and overhunting had reduced populations to minute levels, and backed them into only the most rugged areas of the state.  This exacerbated wolf, bear and coyote predation of livestock, given that in many areas they had little else to eat.  Indeed it seems that coyote colonization east of the Mississippi, generally accepted as starting in the 1930s, was correlated with (and perhaps caused by) shockingly successful attempts to decimate their natural food sources (read: deer and prarie dogs).  There is little evidence to suggest that wild predation of livestock in the American West was ever particularly severe before food stress made such behavior inevitable.  The necessity of “predator control” was ideologically necessary, with any practical justification only following and indeed created by the very act of systematically killing predators to make way for livestock.

This mindset is still with us.  Cattle ranchers want wolves premptively removed from nearby areas, rather than (for example) releasing calves to summer range later and fatter, an approach proven to drastically reduce wild predation.  Hunters throughout the west blame the wolves for lowered elk harvest rates, ignoring any roll population cycles or altered behavior patterns might play.  Earlier this month, Idaho hired a hunter to go into the Frank Church and kill wolves specifically so they might eat fewer elk over the winter.

This is the implicit base of the ESA, and the reason it is so hated and so vital.  The meaning of conservation has yet to mature beyond directly evidenced benefit to humans.  Any benefit measured in decades is unintelligable, to say nothing of those values we might not be yet wise enough to even see, let alone understand.  Until our valuation of fellow animals and plants has gone beyond the merely subjective, the ESA will need to stay.

9 responses to “40 years of living with things that might eat us”

  1. I can sympathize with the ranchers. I wouldn’t want any creature, no matter how noble, to mess with my livelihood. But I have little sympathy for the hunters. What kind of wimpy, piss ass hunters are these? One of the great things about hunting is that you eat wild meat. You don’t eat cattle, sheep or pigs — animals who are so passive or slovenly that they are used as the common slang for such. You eat wild, bad-ass animals. Deer, elk or wild fowl. Animals that scare you or make you just stare in awe. But now you are afraid of a little competition from their natural predators? What next — will you go around with a bull horn and make sure the other hunters don’t encroach upon your supply? Sounds pretty pathetic to me.

  2. Good read. I wouldn’t mind seeing a rapacious Grizzly population reintroduced to Colorado in order to control the spread of the ever increasing human populous.

  3. As with most topics in ecology, the discussion over wolves and economics is usually over simplistic or incomplete. The basic argument that wolves eat livestock, therefore they’re economically bad has permeated our culture as if we are all cattle ranchers. While this may be true, it ignores other economic benefits of top predators such as herbivore control which has positive economic effects for crop farmers. In the presence of wolves, deer populations are (1) reduced, (2) more stable and (3) less likely to forage in open spaces such as farmers fields. I’m no expert on the topic, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the net economic results are positive.

    While I might try to use economic arguments to sway others, mostly I just support top predators because they are awesome.

    1. “…mostly I just support top predators because they are awesome.”


  4. Well the economic impact that we can measure (to a point) is how man tourist come through Yellowstone to watch the wolves. I’m pretty sure the local economy as a whole gains more then it loses.

  5. Deep inside all of this lies the tension between capitalism and the natural environment. A dialectical tension that is, in my view, insurmountable. Bringing this up in mixed company is a no no, for obvious reasons in Right Libertarian America. Until we accept that the productive and distributive relation to nature is antagonistic by all measures, we will be stuck within terms of debate that are limited on both sides. F___ profit, f___ accumulation, for wilderness.

  6. A nice summary. There is something, at least for me, that makes habitat with keystone predators feel so much more vital and wild. Why the North Cascades, with only a pack or two of wolves and 30-odd grizzlies, seem electric with possibility.

    Why this article, and all the lost opportunity it represents, makes me cry:

    Click to access Trevino_Jonkel_Vol_6.pdf

    1. Thanks for the article, I hadn’t seen it before.

      In the 30s and 40s we sold a lot of poison to Mexico (among many other countries). Hopefully abatement of that sale in the last 20 years has reduced pressure on populations like the Mexican Grizz. A population of around 50 brown bears has persisted in the Pyrenees for over half a century at that very low level. Gives hope for the Mexican bears.

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