What happens when three people from different backgrounds and different ideologies come together to talk about wolves? If they listen to one another, they find common ground.
Cultural history often celebrates an integration of wildness and the unknown into our identity. There are multiple pervasive symbols of the wildness of the American West. For many, wolves symbolize the spirit of the West, wild and untamed. For others, the symbol is the cowboy on horseback driving a herd of cattle or infinite herds of free-ranging elk and deer. How we view recolonizing wolves often aligns with how we identify with the wildness of the West.
Wolves, once on the brink of extinction, are recolonizing the landscape following years without large predators. The return of this native carnivore is the result of natural migration from Canada, and from the reintroduced populations of Yellowstone and central Idaho. Supported by Endangered Species Act protections, the gray wolf has re-established itself throughout a portion of its historic range and is dispersing into areas that haven’t seen wolves in almost a century.
The gray wolf is currently in danger of prematurely losing ESA protections. It remains functionally extinct in 85% of its historic range, with 70% of suitable habitat remaining unoccupied. Protections must remain in place to allow wider dispersal.
Wolves need ESA protections. Hunters need assurance that elk and deer will continue to thrive. Ranchers need support to mitigate predator conflict. If we want wolves on the landscape, we have to understand the impact they are having on our neighbors and reach over the fences that divide us and support one another.
Wolves are impacting our livestock industry. Practices can be adapted to their presence. Livestock cannot be left unprotected on private and public lands. Scare devices and human presence must become the standard and to mitigate carnivore risk, but will not prevent all loss.
Wolves play a key role in ecosystem health, keeping deer and elk populations in check, benefiting plant species. Wolf kills redistribute nutrients, providing food for a number of other species.
The wolf is “re-wilding” deer and elk, contributing to the perception of fewer wild ungulates. A study released by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife demonstrates this is not the case. Research tells us that wolf populations do not require hunting or trapping seasons to “manage” their numbers. Wolves self-regulate and will not outgrow the prey base they need to survive.
Working together, we can have prosperous rural communities and thriving ecosystems. We recognize loss of livestock and healthy game populations can have dire economic impact. We must step up to help one another. We lose a piece of the “wild” when we kill predators. Conflict is likely to continue; we have an obligation to do everything we can to mitigate it.
Conflict mitigation strategies include radio-collaring cattle and wolves to track location and using herd riders to keep them separated. Herd riders observe herd health and behavior, reduce conflict with wildlife, and monitor forage use for better grazing management. Night-penning livestock allows observation and protection in a confined, defensible space.
Humans have been hunting and gathering for 2 million years. Agriculture has been around for 5,000-10,000 years. Hunting and agriculture offer unique opportunities to be responsible for our food and the actions required to attain it. Hunting offers a chance to understand the true cost of eating meat and reawakens our connection to the land.
If we desire to live in a world with wild places and wildlife, we owe it to ourselves to be mindful of the consequences of our actions. If we have learned anything from the actions of our past, it is that we have tinkered natural systems out of balance. Predators on the landscape help restore that balance.
We live in unprecedented times. Human population growth and conversion of natural habitats has led to environmental change unparalleled in history. Thanks to the industrial revolution and modern agriculture, the sustenance humans have struggled to attain over thousands of generations now comes neatly wrapped on the grocery store shelf. This convenience has freed up time for innovation and growth, but disconnected us from the natural world.
We need to know the true cost of obtaining our sustenance from the grocery store shelf. Convenience comes with a price tag. Can we pay another 1 or 2 cents per pound of beef to compensate ranchers for the added work that goes into raising and maintaining a healthy herd in the presence of natural predators? To restore balance, we need to share the cost of responsible stewardship of the land. We must do everything we can to maintain healthy populations of plants and animals in a time of rapid disappearance. Our very lives may depend on us paying our debts to the land and seeking balance between a growing human population and the diminishing resources of our planet.
Regardless of our cultural identity –rancher, hunter, wildlife advocate or a multicultural cross pollination of all – we must come together. We all care about the heritage of the West. Working together, we can find common purpose and support one another as we adapt to our changing world.
The three of us are committed to an ongoing dialogue that can take us into the future, collaborating and making the case together that wildlife and wildlands need protection. We invite you to join the conversation.
Beth Robinette, Lazy R Ranch, Cheney;
Bruce McGlenn, Human Nature Hunting School, Kettle Falls;
Chris Bachman, Wildlife Program Director, The Lands Council, Spokane
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