25 November 2004

Man Bites Wolf

"Of all the wild creatures of North America, none are more despicable than wolves. There is no depth of meanness, treachery or cruelty to which they do not cheerfully descend." It's been one hundred years since early conservationist William Hornaday wrote those words in his 1904 book, The American Natural History. We've come a long way since then in our relationship with wolves. Or have we?

Those absorbed by the recent U.S. elections and the media circus that it comprised may recall a certain ad "approved by George Bush" that featured a pack of wolves essentially as stand-ins for terrorists. The camera, in classic cinema verité style wanders through a blurry forest, flashes of silver occasionally skirting quickly across the screen, before settling on a seemingly hungry wolf pack lying in wait for some easy prey. (You can view the ad at: wolfpacksfortruth.org) The points about Kerry are now moot; and forget about whether or not there were truths in the voice-over message. What still bothers me is the ad’s portrayal of wolves that, in one brief political campaign spot, wipes out an entire century of work to restore the reputation or at least the position of wolves in natural systems and in our consciousness.

At the turn of the last century, we had successfully replaced native bison with cattle in the diet of wolves. Stockmen all over the west were losing considerable numbers of livestock and, therefore, losing considerable dollars as well. I have no argument with their worldview; as someone who believes in market-based solutions, I think they had a right to be angry and to call for the removal of the predators. But that was a long time ago. We are more enlightened now.

In fact, forty years after Hornaday's treatise, Aldo Leopold, a hunter and game manager, wrote "I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunter's paradise. But after seeing the green fire die [in the eyes of a wolf he'd killed], I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain would agree with such a view." We now know the effects of predator removal on the health of deer populations and the unintended impacts on our forest ecosystems and home gardens.

Over fifty years after Leopold, hunter and conservationist Richard Nelson wrote in his book Heart and Blood that "Hunting is what keeps both predators and prey elusive, untamed, haunting their own world beyond the city's edge, in the freedom of forest or prairie or desert, where even a fleeting glimpse elevates our spirit."

And although there are still many who decry the return of wolves to places like Yellowstone and elsewhere, we've come a long way since we thought them despicable creatures bent on killing for killing's sake. Or so I thought until that ad appeared. Republicans all over the country should be outraged, for the party that invented American conservation has discarded an icon to a past perspective and set back our relationship with wolves by a hundred years. Can the eagle, once reviled and despised for stealing fish from the fishermen, be far behind? And will Franklin's turkey become our national symbol after all?

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