Shades of gray: America's wolf dilemma

Manley Ranch: one of several ranches using innovative techniques to learn to live alongside wolves. Photo: Jim Wickens
Reviled by ranchers and fawned over by conservationists, the Gray wolf is highly controversial in the US. Jim Wickens travels to Montana and Wyoming to unravel the complex arguments surrounding plans to cull the animals

The elk carcass glints in the overhead sun, it's ribs picked clean, poking out of a tangled mess that lies buried beneath the blood-stained snow. It is a wolf kill, a bloody spectacle that is playing out with growing regularity across the Rockies, and dividing Americans in it's wake. 

We are on a Yellowstone park patrol, crunching over fresh packed snow with Dr. Dan Stahler, a leading wildlife biologist and renowned wolf expert employed by the National Park Service, who has been following their introduction since 41 wolves were introduced into Yellowstone in 1995-6. 

Wolf kill sites in  Yellowstone are regularly analysed, providing the Park with data that is helping to decipher the ecosystem impacts caused by the reintroduction of a predator into the Rocky mountain landscape. clutching the jawbone of the fallen elk, Dan explains the role that wolves are having on the Park ecosystem.

"To me wolves mean wildness and wild nature...I think that what we see here in Yellowstone with the presence of wolves now, is a leaner, meaner elk population..The elk out here in the landscape, there's fewer of them and there's less competition between the elk for resources such as good forage. And so I think we have a a healthier elk population now.."

Many in Montana however disagree. From an initial recovery plan of 300 individuals and ten breeding pairs across each state of the Rocky mountain range, today over 1500 wolves call it their home, thanks to prohibitions on hunting and an ample supply of game and ranch animals to devour. 

The wolf reintroduction program is a conservationist success story, but one that has alienated many. 

Hunting under threat

Mike Mullinix is a prize-winning taxidermist based in Montana, and like many he is dependent on a healthy hunting industry for his income. We meet in the quiet of his workshop, a cornucopia of half-painted moose heads, trophy elk antlers and a snarling bear that hangs off the wall.

"Hunting is a big part of our economy out here and it's gradually gotten bad. Well the intake I'm doing locally around here on my animals has probably dropped over fifty percent. Everyone has noticed the big drop. I think it's down almost seventy-five percent from what it was back in the eighties..and it doesn't take common sense to figure out what's happening here with the animals" he says.

Mike talks whilst he delicately paints the finishing touches to the side of a moose jaw,

 "I am competing with them and they need to be regulated just like every other animals. It's gotten way out of control. Our wolf season should have started ten years ago..Everybody across the country's complaining about our wolf seasons out here, but we've got to live with what's happening, they don't."

In the archery range outside of the State capital Helena, I track down Joelle Silk, president of the Montana Bowhunters Association to put these questions to her.

A sharp intake of breath. the bow tightens. A momentary silence and then a whip-like crack as she lets slip a silicon-tipped arrow, hammering into a tree trunk 30 metres distant with a determined thud. Joelle eases her bow.

"Montana falls at the bottom of the median-income scale in the nation. So hunting is a very important way in which to put food on the table for many families. A good-sized elk can feed a family of four throughout the year, so it's very important..a very economical and simple way to feed the family"  she says. " wolves have had an interesting impact to the prey and predator relationship in Montana. I hear ordinary people saying 'look We used to have tons of elk on our doorstep to go and hunt. Now there are fewer. It's almost like there's a localised impact but statewide there may not have been much, overall, reduction in population". 

In 2011 wolves were finally delisted from the Endangered Species Act, quietly pushed through the halls of power in Washington by a Democratic Senator facing re-election in a marginal Montanan seat.  "Wolves were definitely thrown under the bus for political reasons' says Mike Leahy from Defenders of Wildlife, a powerful conservation advocacy group that strongly opposes the delisting of wolves. " I think the Obama administration responded to the politics of the situation. Never before had a Secretary of the Interior taken a step to undermine the Endangered Species Act like this...the Democratic leadership in the Obama administration all went along with that. We were really dissapointed in how the politics played out there"

Delisted and now fair game, 220 wolves in Montana alone can now be shot, trapped or bow hunted each year. 

For Joelle and many hunters like her in Montana however, the delisting of wolves is viewed positively. " People felt outside the management picture as long as they remained listed, and so that did create tension within Montana certainly..Since the hunts have started up, we've regained that sense of empowerment, self-sufficiency, involvement in the process..that's really important for us as a state that has the hunting traditions that we have: says Joelle.  "

Yellow stone wolves in the firing line

In recent months the wolf hunt has been dramatically thrust once again into the limelight, this time with the high-profile killing of a particular wolf that spent much of her life within the protected confines of Yellowstone park. Known as 832F, the Lamar Valley pack alpha female was known to tourists the world over.  "She was extraordinary..she was one of the best hunters we've ever seen..the American public and the whole world was drawn to her" says Dan Stahler, the biologist who painstakingly followed her radio-tracked movements for 6 years, before she was shot dead 15 miles outside of the park this winter.

The loss of 832F was felt around the world, but also, surprisingly in the midst of Montana itself. Nathan Varley and his wife Linda, are a couple whose economic survival is intricately intertwined with that of the wolves. But unlike those in the elk hunting industry, Nathan and Linda needs wolves alive. Growing up within the park community Nathan knows Yellowstone better than most, working first as a wolf biologist and then 7 years ago setting up a wolf watching eco-tourism company, one of several to have sprouted up in the wake of growing national and international interest after wolves were reintroduced. Today Nathan and Linda take small groups of tourists on foot into the Park, relying on expert knowledge and careful reading of conditions to guide paying members of the public to witness the spectacle of wolves in the wild. 

"We do look at the livelihood debate a little differently becuse we do feel like there is such a big economy based around the wolf. So it is not just the livestock producer's livelihood or the elk hunting outfitteres livelihood that we are talking about in this Western wolf debate. There are a lot of tourism livelihoods at stake here too".

Nathan quotes Montana University economist data which suggests that visitors who come to see wolves, are spending somewhere on the order of $35 million every year in the communities around Yellowstone.

"The main thing people want to see are wolves..A lot of the big fans of Yellowstone wolves are following the lives of the actual individuals. They are the attraction. These become the stars of the show..And to have them hunted is even harder for our guests to understand.. If that individual is important enough and so many people care about it, then it does have an influence on whether they want to come back to Yellowstone and it could influence their decision to visit the park in the future." he says. 

The iconic value of individual wolves versus the indiscriminate nature of the Rocky Mountain wolf hunt quota, is a conundrum that Montanan auhtorities are yet to settle on. Fearful of a PR backlash at home and abroad, it has put outgoing Montana Governor Schweitzer in an awkward position.

"How do we run a hunt in Montana and Idaho and Wyoming and say to people 'well you have a license to shoot a wolf in order to conrtol the population at a sustainable level..Then say to that same hunter, unless you see that pretty girl that often times lives in Lamar Valley and so many tourists love seeing her around, and she even has a name' How's the hunter going to deal with that? It is called wildlife. these are not pets. Just because somebody recognizes one of these wolves does not make it a pet", he laments.

"I get thousands of emails per year castigating me as a terrible human being, because we allow hunting of wolves in Montana. Many of these emails are from Europe or Latin America or Asia. People who have never come to Montana and who will probably never come to Montana and what they need to understand it that there are only a few places on the planet that have made accomodations for wolves, and we are one of them. We are actually getting the job done", he says.

Trial by media

Carter Niemeyer is a veteran wildlife service trapper, wolf expert and best selling author, who played a central role in the early struggles around wolf reintroduction. We meet on a windy mountainside on the edges of the state capital Helena, to hear his expert views on how the wolf issue has become so divisive in recent years. 

"The media is definitely guilty of keeping it polarized, because killing wolves whether we are hunting them, trapping them, or removing a problem wolf periodically, it really shouldn't be news anymore. We don't announce everytime someone shoots a coyote or someone kills a mountain lion or a bear. Wolves are not weapons of mass destruction".

As the government-sanctioned necropsy expert in the Rocky Mountains, for many years Carter's job was to inspect suspected wolf kills on livestock, so that ranchers could pocket compensation that they were entitled to if their animals had been lost to wolves. Using forensic tools and methods unused in the past, Carter made a startling discovery that has earned him few friends from the ranching community he knows so well. "In the early years maybe five out of every hundred livestock that i looked at were actually killed by wolves. 

"Once the media started putting out the information that wolves were in the landscape, nearly all the reports coming in were assumed to be wolf damage and so the assumption was that wolves were causing a lot of problems..But there are many things that killed them besides wolves; you have disease and birthing problems and a multitude of things that kill livestock. I would say death loss by wolves on sheep and cattle, it is well under 1%, I think you are talking a quarter of 1% at the current kill rates that we are looking at..there has been a dislike in the whole concept of putting wolves back on the Rocky mountain landscape, so part of the problem I think to having wolves back were that people anticipated and almost wanted them to be a problem"

To an outsider driving through the vast snowy uplands of Montana, the scale of this sparsely populated landscape drowns the senses. A state the size of France with just 2 million residents, Montana's enormity is in itself an obstacle to discussion, a barrier that restricts face-to-face communication around the wolf; further heightening the acute power of the mass media in determining the narrative around wolves.

Watched from afar through news columns and evening news bulletins, the complexity of the Rocky mountain wolf debate seems to have been reduced to bite-sized chunks of polarised hysteria. Wolf haters vs Wolf 'overs, 'crazies' the lot of them. But It is a position that frustrates many in Montana who belong to neither camp; individuals who are quietly seeking to build bridges within the entrenched battleground over the rightful place and number of Rocky mountain wolves. 

Steve Primm is a biologist and predator consultant who works with ranchers who are keen to mitigate potential wolf problems with livestock. "Why aren't the middle ground voices heard? I think that's a good question..I think there's a lot of drama associated with the conflict.. The stories we have to tell about trying to live with wolves is far more complicated than one about do not kill any wolves or kill all of the wolves. i think it comes down to us not having tidy soundbytes."

Rancher Becky Weed agrees. "It's incredibly frustrating because there really isn't any very good data on what the grass roots individual ranchers feel. All we read about in the newspapers is what the mouth pieces say to the media and I think it's a gross oversimplification of what's really happening out on the landscape" she says in her ranch outside Bozeman, talking as she busily spins out a roll of of hay for her sheep from the back of a tractor.

An enormous dog sits close to Becky's feet; 'Max' a cross of several European breeds that she uses to protect her flock from predation. He is part of a new method of ranching that enables her to sell 'predator friendly' certified wool to markets at home and abroad. 

"He's unbelievable, he's our main tool..We also use pasture management strategies, We don't just let the sheep wander all ove the it's really a matter of vigilence and adaptability. If there's anything consistent in this whole carnivore game, it's that it changes from year to year..wolves to me are really one part of a much larger package and I tend to feel somewhat allergic to this oohing and aahing over a single species..wolf predation is not the biggest problem that ranching in Montana is facing right now"

The Blackfoot challenge

It's 4am and a siren on the coal train screams as it races by, a thundering percussion of endless carriages brimming with Montanan coal on a passage west to Pacific ports and then on to the power stations of China. Our home for the night is Drummond, 'population 338'. Across the road from the motel a ghostly spectre of a giant longhorn skull lights up in passing headlamps; it is a used cow lot, last port of call for ranch animals sold for a steal, that await the butcher's knife. 

Ranching is everything here, modest family farms form a patchwork of fencing amidst the forests and mountain peaks that surround the town. And today 50 wolves have made their home around this 800,000 valley known as the Blackfoot, a mixture of Canadian, Idaho and Yellowstone-descended wolves thriving in these elk and livestock rich lands. But where the wolves go, so do the problems. The chuckling fondness with which a resident regales how a wolf was shot dead and strategically hanged under a stop sign on the highway here, speaks volumes about the recent history of wolf relations in these parts.

But what makes this places special is the way in which ranchers have grouped together to learn to live with wolves. This is the Blackfoot challenge, a community-centred initiative using science, sound management and a healthy dose of common sense, to help ranchers co-exist as best they can with grizzles, and in recent years, with the wolf.  

Tracey Manly points wearily to the ditches on the edge of his ranch "Most of the time they come right down these draws..they won't just come charging right in..they're going to wait until one kind of chooses itself by being behind the rest of the herd and that's the one they'll get. One will grab the top of the back and the other one will grab the throat..once they have it down, it's done pretty much" he says, describing the premature fate that has befallen many of his cattle over the last decade.

"You were helpless. Your hands were tied and there was a lot of shoot, shovel and shut up type deals because you are talking about your livelihood" he says, describing the frustration felt by many ranchers at not being able to shoot problem wolves for so many years. 

There is little doubt that the steadfast refusal of both the Federal Government and great swathes of the conservation movement, to accept delisting for so many years - the wolf reintroduction program reaches it's official target figure of 300 wolves over a decade earlier in 2002 - has pitched ranchers even more strongly against wolves and Washington; a prickly libertarian-flavoured backlash that strikes a fertile chord in this heartland state.

Since the Blackfoot began to quietly offer innovative solutions to reduce livestock-wolf conflicts however, attitudes have dramatically changed for Tracey and his neighbouring ranchers, 

"It's definitely thawed" says Tracey. "Even if your just damn the wolf, and they make you mad or whatever..that doesn't get anything accomplished. Your still losing livestock, so why not try to build a corral or build an electric fence around your lots and see what works..just banging your head against the wall saying 'kill them all' isn't going to happen", he says, a markedly different tone to the situation several years ago.

Jim Stoner, rancher and Blackfoot Challenge Founder, crouches down on the hill side, furiously hammering away at the frozen earth to anchor in another pole with which to suspend the fladdry he has just unrolled from the back of his RV; hankerchief-sized pieces of red fabric flapping off a single electronically charged wire. "If a neighbouring ranch has a problem with wolves we can load this machine up and go down and we can deploy a mile or two of this prduct in short of an know it's a new product and people kind of look at it and go wow thats lind of crazy.. but we've seen it work ourselves. We've seen wolves on one side of it and our cows on the other" he says grinning.

Fladdry systems are part of a wider package of measures that the Blackfoot ranchers have taken in close co-operation with government agencies, including range riders who track wolves to keep ranchers up to date and carcass removal schemes that remove the welcome mat for wolves from ranches before they even get there. 

Seth Wilson is a conservation biologist who helps to co-ordinate the Blackfoot Project, "by employing these non-lethal measures we have been able to keep livestock losses fairly minimised. From 2006-12 we have documented 14 confirmed losses. When we got to other valleys we have has as many as 20 livestock killed over a two year period by comparison, and many, many wolves removed; these are the sort of collisions between livestock production and wildlife that we want to avoid" he says. He cautions against quick-fix solutions however. "This stuff takes time, and community-basd conservation, building trust, earning the respect of the livestock producing community in Montana, that takes time..we act as the forum for bringing people together who normally would not potentially even talk to one another..that is the key to our success, communication in these ways that are respectful." 

Jim Stoner reflects upon his handiwork with the Fladdry, dozens of pieces of red fabric tied to the wire in an impromptu fenceline and blowing in the breeze. "Really when it comes down to it, it's about people. about bringing communities together. "Wolves" he ponders, "mean opportunity".

After a week on the road in Montana, meeting, listening and probing discussions around wolves with people from all walks of life, it's clear that the polarised hyerbole published so often in the media either for or against wolves, is a gross distortion of reality for those who live and labour on the ground in Montana. Whilst court cases continue to rage in Washington around the fate of the Gray wolf, it is perhaps the quiet and courageous voices from communities in Montana who need to be heard the most. If the black and white can finally be replaced by a shade of gray, Rocky mountain people may just find a way to live in balance alongside wolves for generations to come.

Jim Wickens is one of Britain's leading investigative journalists and the co-founder of the Ecologist Film Unit and Ecostorm, the environmental media agency. Jim has spend the last decade documenting unreported issues around the world, including exposing illicit whale-meat smuggling networks in Japan, filming the brutal Namibian seal hunt, documenting soya-related murders and poisoning in Argentina, breaking the story of fracking problems in the US, and filming illegal trawlers far out to sea on the Burmese border.



Add to StumbleUpon
Environmental Investigation Agency: meet the original eco spooks 
The EIA has been at the forefront of investigative campaigning for over 25 years, tackling the illegal wildlife trade, timber trafficking and ozone-depleting CFCs. Matilda Lee gets a debriefing
Harrison Ford on the illegal wildlife trade 
Tigers - subject of this month's unprecedented conservation summit in St Petersburg - are just one species being devastated by the illegal wildlife trade, as this unique advert featuring the Indiana Jones star explains
WildAid: How to end the illegal wildlife trade 
WildAid's Steve Trent on why only robust anti-poaching operations, undercover investigations and high profile prosecutions can save the remaining wild rhinos, elephants, tigers and sharks
On patrol with Zimbabwe's wildlife defenders: the last hope for black rhinos?
The illegal wildlife trade threatens Zimbabwe's black rhinos with decimation. Ruth Styles reports on the Malilangwe Trust and safari company Singita's attempts to reverse the decline
Is there room for wildlife as Africa grapples with development? 
How poaching for the illegal wildlife trade, intensive farming, climate change and population growth all threaten Africa's unique wildlife



More from this author