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.