Killing for the common good? The (bio)politics of wolf management in Washington State
November 30, 2022
Washington State has been rocked by conflict over wolves, whose return to rural landscapes after their extirpation a century ago has brought them into new, often violent relations with human society. I interpret this emblematic instance of human–wildlife conflict as fundamentally a human–human conflict and a manifestation of different deep-seated sociocultural norms and values toward wolves. This social conflict hinges on two competing, underacknowledged forms of commoning—wildlife as a public trust and grazing access to public lands—that already intertwine the economy of the rural Western United States. Amid these tensions, wildlife managers seek to reduce conflict through the targeted killing (“lethal removal”) of wolves that repeatedly prey on livestock. I draw on ethnographic research examining the ongoing debate over lethal removal policy in Washington’s “Wolf Advisory Group,” an advisory committee aimed at transforming Washington’s wolf conflict through collaborative governance. Drawing together the theoretical frameworks of commoning and conservation environmentality, I frame these debates as an effort to produce shared social norms regarding wolf life and death. In this context, lethal removal of wolves functions as a biopolitical intervention targeted to affect social values, producing “social tolerance” for wolves in Washington’s rural landscapes. The paradox of wolf conservation governance is that achieving the social tolerance necessary for long-term recovery requires that the state kill wolves in the name of shared common interest and responsibility.
Author(s): Robert M. Anderson