Between 1972 and 1975, some very cool stuff happened. First, Skiers’ Gazette was reborn as the Mountain Gazette. The following year, Rick Nixon signed into law the Endangered Species Act, and, in 1974 wolves in the Lower 48 were the first species declared endangered under this bright and shiny new law.
1975 hailed the end of the war in Vietnam.
But time can be a cruel mistress: We cannot stop ourselves from fighting more wars. And in 2011, the Obama Administration compromised both the Endangered Species Act and wolf recovery in one fell swoop by approving a federal budget with a sneaky rider. For, buried deep within the budget’s muck and mire, the delisting of wolves was mandated for the Northern Rockies. Adding insult to injury, legal challenges were blocked and, for the first time, Congress alone stripped a specific species of protection under the ESA.
I will not argue that, today, most small and multi-generational family ranches are struggling to survive. Adding wolves to the equation just makes it that much more difficult, or so one may believe. But while wolves are an easy target for misdirected blame and aggression, there are far more nefarious factors that are being swept under the braided rug, like so much dirt mingled with cow shit. It is far too convenient, actually romantic for some, to point a finger — or a gun — at an apex predator, making it their own personal scapegoat.
I phoned my good friend Mr. Miller, who helps maintain a small, fourth-generation family ranch in Jefferson County, Montana. A former teacher, Miller wrote his Master’s thesis on the decline of family farms in American rural communities. When I asked him what he felt was the biggest threat to ranching in America, Miller replied, no, it wasn’t predation, but rather favorable tax policies and agricultural subsidies benefitting large commercial livestock operations that were systematically wiping them out.
But you cannot legally practice the shoot, shovel and shut up method on lobbyists and politicians who promote and support the commercial livestock industry.
The Miller family ranch, currently grazing 150 cows and 70 sheep (it has been historically both bigger and smaller), has yet to suffer one loss from wolf predation over these many years. Yet, locals swear they know of wolves in the area, near the Tobacco Roots and the Highlands. “But we have definitely lost livestock to coyotes, domestic dogs, foxes and hunters,” Miller said.
The USDA Statistic Service (NASS) recently reported that depredation by wolves accounts for a very small percentage of cattle lost — 2% in the Northern Rocky Mountain states and 0.23% nationwide. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, using professional, field-verified reports, calculates these numbers even lower than the NASS, which uses unverified livestock industry reports.
Non-predator causes account for about 95% of livestock loss: disease, injury, weather, poisoning and theft. But it is much simpler to bludgeon, shoot and trap wolves than it is the aforementioned.
Miller fears the days are numbered for his family’s ranch and others like it, the only way of life known by his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. In order to help keep it viable today, and just maybe into perpetuity, Miller salvaged six commercial greenhouses, moving them onto the land. With three currently up and running, Miller is producing pesticide-free, all-natural tomatoes, peppers and herbs, which he sells to local shops and farmer’s markets.
Thinking outside the fence line just may work.
“Can anyone tell me what’s good about wolves?” asked a little girl during a public meeting of the Idaho Fish and Game Commission last summer. The meeting preceded a vote the next day setting the hunting and trapping season for the Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf. Her father, a hunting guide and trapper, suggested during the same meeting, “Open ’em year round. Hunt ’em, trap ’em, run ’em over. Don’t make a collared wolf illegal to shoot. Shoot ’em!”
During the past forty years, the wolf began as a mere ghost in the Lower 48, given federal protection in great hopes of enhancing biodiversity and restoring healthy ecosystems. Nearly twenty years later, efforts went so far as to take individual wolves from their packs in Canada, turning them into non-consenting martyrs and reintroducing them, kicking and howling, into Yellowstone National Park. Twenty more years pass and we watch in horror as wolves are vilified, legally and illegally tortured, trapped and hunted.
Like most of us, wolves are neither devils nor saints. Wolves are just another animal playing an important role in the fabric of a diverse planet Earth. Collectively, we must look toward a changing landscape that impatiently waits beyond the end of our own noses, far and away from our own Back Forties. We need to think outside the fence line. If we refuse, I will continue to huff, and to puff, and keep right on trying with all of my might to blow this house down.
Tricia Cook writes from the eastern toes of the North Cascade mountains, in the company of her two big dogs, two small cats, and a cornucopia of forest flora and fauna, including a wolf pack or two. Tricia’s blog, Living Beyond Lost, can be found at mountaingazette.com.
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