By Erik Molvar
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife announced in April that wolf populations in the state grew by 16 % last year, which is good news and worth bragging about. The state agency also reported that two wolves had been killed in 2021, one by state officials and one by a rancher holding a state permit.
We’re glad that the state-sponsored depredations on wolves are at a seven-year low, but that number needs to be reduced to zero, and that requirement should be formalized by either regulation by the state Fish and Game Commission or by state statute, whichever one it takes.
When the word “depredations” is invoked, it’s usually describing wolf depredations on cattle and sheep. It’s kind of a dirty word, especially in rural circles, and describing wolves as doing the depredating is a slick and crafty way to make ranchers look like the victims. But more often than not, it’s when the ranchers push their cattle out onto public wildlands – which are the wolves’ homes – that these conflicts occur. So, really, aren’t the ranchers creating the problem by moving tasty treats into wolf habitats, at times even unloading the cattle truck right next to known wolf den sites?
Let’s talk instead about the depredations of the livestock industry, and state and federal agencies, on native wildlife. It’s not just state agencies gunning down wolves. It’s entire U.S. Department of Agriculture programs dedicated to killing or poisoning wild species for the benefit of farmers and ranchers. It’s about county extension agents poisoning native rodents that are a key role in native ecosystems or trapping beavers to disrupt healthy rivers and streams. It’s about individual ranchers carrying rifles in their pickup trucks to gun down anything large enough to notice. This is a result of a failure of these groups – and by extension, our broader society – to coexist and live harmoniously with the natural world, because they are too busy laboring to dominate or destroy it.
Now, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has issued a kill order for two wolves from the Togo Pack, in response to livestock losses. That adds to four wolves likely poached in Northeast Washington in February.
The contrived outrage over wolves eating cattle and sheep, whether on public land or private, looks a bit hypocritical given that most of these animals are raised for the slaughterhouse, for human consumption. Humans have been predators, too, for hundreds of thousands of years. If we’re going to eat meat, as wolves do, can we really claim a moral high ground to condemn wolves to death, when they kill and eat an animal that we were planning to kill and eat instead? I don’t think so.
At the root of this controversy is the agriculture industry’s assumption that the Earth was placed here for humans to domesticate and pacify and make productive, for the benefit and profitability of that selfsame industry. Our public lands – the National Forests, the sagebrush basins managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the crown jewels managed as Wildernesses or National Parks – these are basically the last remnants of wild nature we have left. These are the only places where healthy native ecosystems have half a chance to become re-established, and too often this outcome is frustrated by the logging, livestock grazing, drilling and mining that seek to push humanity’s greed and profit-motive into every last corner of the continent. We need to shift away from exploitation, and toward stewardship, on these lands.
Public lands are wolf habitat, elk habitat, bighorn sheep habitat, trout and salmon habitat. This is their highest and best use. And while we do have greedy industries filled with obstreperous lobbyists and business owners clamoring to stake their claim on the last of what’s wild and good in America, we the people have a vested interest in keeping these lands wild, and healthy and natural. Because this outcome doesn’t just benefit the native species that live there. It benefits us, too.
Humanity needs to retool its approach to the natural world, to transform its relationship from consumers and parasites to one of responsible members of the natural community. The Washington state government has a responsibility to do its part. At Western Watersheds Project, we call on them to lead, by ending the depredations on wolves and other native wildlife. We can and must do better in our relationship to nature.
Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and executive director with Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit environmental group based in Hailey, Idaho, dedicated to protecting and restoring wildlife and watersheds throughout the American West. Molvar lives in Laramie, Wyoming.
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