Riding the Fence: Embracing the Wolf Population in and Around the Yellowstone Park
October 3, 2010
I was born in Montana, but unfortunately, my mother likes to remind me I was conceived in the back of a Chevy van in the Mojave Desert. My family is a mix of old-school, tough-as-nails cattle ranchers, and fun-loving, treehugging hippies. My father, for instance, taught me about wildlife and the critical importance of the balance of nature. He cussed in disgust at the sound of a distant motorcycle crawling up the hillside, and if we came across a fence built to contain cattle on forest service land, we would destroy it. I was an eco-terrorist in training, and in my dad’s eyes, the world was a much better place without the presence of man or cattle. My mother, on the other hand, would take me to the family ranch, where we would spend the hot summer doing chores, including fixing barbed wire fences. While looking for wear and tear in the fences, we would also enjoy riding loud, erosion-causing 4-wheelers. I was an absolutely confused and blatant hypocrite, but I grew up seeing both sides of the argument in action, which makes me appreciate differing opinions about the environment and sustainability issues even to this day.
The Greater Yellowstone area is one of the most intact ecosystems in the world. Yellowstone National Park is surrounded by cattle ranches, which are actually some of the most ecologically-stable pieces of property in the area. The large and undeveloped landmasses of a cattle ranch can serve as sanctuaries from urban sprawl and development where the wildlife enjoys the peace and security. Animals like the elk and bison take advantage of this, especially during the cold and snowy winter months, wandering out of the park onto neighboring lands in search of food. By the early 90s, the elk population reached its peak and became a menace to ranchers’ livelihood, which led to the increase in hunting quotas in order to restore balance. For the ranchers, it was like killing two birds with one stone, since the increased quota translated to more work for hunting outfitters during the off season.
In 1995, government wildlife officials came up with an additional solution to the increased elk population: the introduction of a group of wolves into the national park. It was a bold attempt to strike balance back into the Yellowstone ecosystem, with hunting forbidden within the park boundaries. The wolves quickly adapted, doing what wolves do best — being an apex predator. They not only hunted elk and restored the desperately needed predator-prey balance, but also began to hunt livestock in the surrounding area. It did not take long for the local livestock growers to wage war against this new threat on their livelihood. In response, some pro-wolf organizations set up endowments for the ranchers, but in order to be compensated for the lost livestock, one had to prove, without a doubt, that the wolves killed the animal. This is not as easy as you think, since animals could die of natural causes just as muchasf an unnatural cause such as a prey, and the “evidence” is often destroyed by scavenging critters, including wolves.
In speaking with those who are affected by this situation — who would love to see the wolves move back to Canada — I realize we share many of the reasons for living where we do: Open spaces, freedom, and simple living, plus all of the wildlife living in the area. I believe they would love having wolves around too, if the wolves’ presence wasn’t so closely tied to their livelihood. While I respect and understand their perspective, however, I believe eliminating the wolf population is not the answer.
The endangered-species protection, by design, contributed to the increase in the number of wolves. When it was removed, increased hunting activities, coupled with disease and other negative factors, put the wolf back on the endangered-species list. Such reactionary measures seem counterproductive, as logical hunting management quotas would allow ranchers to feel they had some control and let the wolf exist as a critical predator in the ecosystem. Instead, in our polarized battle of values, we are on a roller coaster of devastation: If ranchers can’t make a living, they will be forced to sell their land to development, to the detriment of the wolf and other wildlife. If the wolf is gone, then we will continue cascading to ecological failure, and all of the wild and wonderful reasons people call the Yellowstone area home will eventually vanish.
Having been exposed to very different approaches to environmental issues in my family, I believe a good dose of compassion and compromise will be the most productive approach to bringing a resolution. There are progressive ranchers and compassionate environmentalists, but not enough of both. There are many ways to make it all work, where ranchers and wolves live in the same valley in peace, including but not limited to range riders, shepherds, electric fences, proper livestock loss compensation, logical hunting management plans, grazing cattle in wolf-free zones, and so on. Let’s listen well, and respect our neighbors like we used to. Let’s find coexistence and let the wolves run free and the cows grow fat, turning unproductive tit-for-tat into hearty handshakes and hippie hugs, the way we should always treat one another.
All new episodes of Expedition Wild with Casey Anderson continues on Nat Geo WILD on Monday, October 4 at 9pm ET/PT, as Casey takes a look at the critical role gray wolf plays in restoring the health of Yellowstone’s ecosystem. For more information, visit www.natgeowild.com. Also, check out Casey’s book, “The Story of Brutus: My Life with Brutus and the Grizzlies of North America.”
Follow Casey Anderson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/grizanderson