The West, the Wolf, and Wildlife Services

aerial view of road between trees and mountains

During an unignorable presidential election, Colorado’s ballot saw another contentious voting issue: wolves. For the first time in US history, state citizens voted directly on an ecological concept known as reintroduction, and on November 3, 2020, Colorado narrowly passed Proposition 114, a plan for the state wildlife services to restore the gray wolf by 2024. Though perhaps niche, this issue raises important questions of federalism, the aesthetic value of wilderness, and ultimately, the destiny of the American West.

The relationship between wolves and people is arguably one of most important and storied of all human-animal interactions. From the ancient source of “man’s best friend” to the driver of fierce competition for game animals, the history of wolf-human interactions have yielded massively positive and brutally negative impacts for both species. And although much of that formative history occurred in the Old World, that of the Americas is nearly just as storied. 

Despite the difficulties of estimating wildlife range in pre-Columbian North America, what’s certain is that gray wolves were a hyper-dominant species on the continent, ranging from Alaska to Northern Mexico and, indeed, from sea to shining sea. However, European colonization saw an intense persecution of large predators that would soon wipe the continent clean of most apex carnivores. Settlers arrived with arguably good reasons to fear wolves: in Europe specifically, they could be a legitimate threat to human life. Further, wolves competed with people on an ecological level by taking livestock and hunting the same big game. To many settlers in New England, the wolf  not only represented a logistic obstacle but a  spiritual one as well, with many colonists even seeing the animals as the very embodiment of evil

Through bounties and other extermination campaigns, this idea spread throughout the continent and across the wolf’s range. These programs lasted through the American Revolution, the Civil War, Reconstruction, two world wars, and even the beginnings of the early American conservation movement. Even the founder of the National Park Service, Theodore Roosevelt, referred to the species as “beasts of waste and desolation,” and the National Park Service itself carried out exterminations. This continued up until 1965, when wolves were completely eradicated from the contiguous US, save a small corner in northern Minnesota. It would be a fundamental shift in the American conservation mind that prompted a restorative goal, but it would also prompt a cultural battle between those who had benefited from the wolf’s absence, and those who preferred their presence. 

Aldo Leopold’s preeminent essay, “The Sand County Almanac,” has had intellectual implications far beyond its penning. The romantic and powerful passage of Leopold approaching a wolf that he himself killed manifested the idea that predators perhaps did have a rightful place on the landscape:

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes- something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

This concept that apex predators like wolves have a top-down effect on ecosystems would eventually become formalized in a less poetic form of Leopold’s “green fire,” known in scientific discourse as a “trophic cascade.” Here is where, I would argue, the sentimental and philosophical sentiments towards nature very clearly converge with the findings of science. The successful reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 by the federal government most explicitly brought these cultural and scientific viewpoints to a dramatic headway. 

Indeed, the ecological impacts of wolves in Yellowstone were massive. What had been a landscape absent of its primary predator for 70 years had gone through a series of Park Service policy changes. Essentially, the park’s management practices had evolved since the last wolf was gunned down by rangers in 1926 from culling elk in attempts to stabilize populations to adopting the more conventionally environmentalist “hands-off” approach of wildlife management. Somewhat ironically, the negative impacts of an over-abundant elk population prompted the US Fish and Wildlife Service to reintroduce the recently-designated endangered wolf to Yellowstone. The changes to these dynamics following wolves’ introduction to the park between 1995 and 1997 were profound. What was an elk population in the Northern Range that had spiked to more than 19,000 individuals in 1994 declined through 2004 and fell to less than 5,000 in 2011. The exact reasons for these declines were and are hotly debated topics, as wolf predation is not the only factor in elk populations. Nonetheless, the leveling off of the Northern Range herd to between 6,000 and 8,000 animals has occurred and with it, better performing aspens and other trees, and with them, higher populations of beaver. The specific dynamics of these processes are complex, and again, quite contested in the science, but even so, it has seemed to validate the romantic concepts of Aldo Leopold’s “green fire” enough to gain widespread support, in at least some circles, for wolves and their presence. Today, through reintroduction and colonization to suitable habitat, Western wolf populations can be found in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, and New Mexico. Presently, the remarkably rich wolf habitat of Utah and Colorado that would connect populations from the Arctic to Mexico is barren.

Proof of this pro-wolf sentiment lies in the $5 million industry built around wolf-watching in Yellowstone. This passionate fervor for the animals has been at the core of this debate since its inception–a New York Times article written only months after the original reintroduction dramatically described a wolf-watching experience as “a tale of triumph and tragedy with touches of soap opera.” These feelings and sentiments underscore perhaps the largest question that was so narrowly put to the test in Colorado’s referendum: how restoring wolves makes us feel. 

I would argue that beyond the science of trophic cascades, elk carrying capacities, or concepts of “ecological balance,” legitimate concerns of farmers about livestock security, or the remnant fears of a childhood reading of Little Red Riding Hood, lie deeper motivations on what the West should look like. The feelings of each person towards the wolf cut far deeper than the impact of scientific studies or environmental impact statements. 

The choice offered to voters in Colorado was not one given to the ranchers or tourist guides of Montana or Wyoming, the people who may see the most direct impact of the animals. In a broader sense, Proposition 114 essentially democratized the burning question of what the West’s future holds. 

Those who would support the reintroduction effectively voted for a vision of the West that sees wildlife and humans as fundamentally separate and the natural land as a common treasure that is best reserved in its original state. It isn’t explicitly environmentalist, but perhaps has romantic attachments to the thought of hearing a wolf howl while camping under the lodgepoles of Rocky Mountains National Park. It may see the wild areas of the West as having an intrinsic value, preferring the land’s simple enjoyment for recreation and aesthetic pleasures to its use in production through means like ranching or mining. 

There is also a very moral element here–the concept that certain species have the right to exist and that putting a species “back” is as much an ethical project as it is ecological. This idea promises that we can right historical wrongs with protections and restorations now. This thinking undergirds and propels other touching points in the West. Among these are the unilateral declaration of national monuments like that of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, a vision of rewilding the plains and creating eco-economies, like the public-private project of the American Prairie Reserve in Montana, and yes, the reinstitution of large predators, including wolves, onto shared landscapes.

According to opponents, not only does this vision assault an economic livelihood, but a culture and way of life built on the blood, sweat, and tears of those who came before. The predator control campaigns of history were hard-fought and paved the way for the ranching industry that provides the livelihood and culture atop  which the modern American recreation sentiment is built. A Colorado State University study on public opinion found that “Some groups, such as some ranchers and hunters, believed the ballot initiative to reintroduce wolves was part of a broader trend of society not recognizing their value and contributions to society as well as a pending threat to their economic viability.” To many, reinstituting the wolf, even if via vote, would not only make life more difficult, but represent an insult to a cultural tradition that shouldn’t so easily be done away with.

These, I would argue, are the fundamental ids of the debate. If this dichotomy between people who find genuine value in the work of the past and those who are seeking to right deemed historic wrongs sounds familiar, that’s because it is. And even though land and wildlife issues specifically weren’t on the presidential ballot, I believe that at the most basic and sentimental level, what may seem to be a trite referendum like the reintroduction of wolves reveals deep truths about our political priors.

Now, I wouldn’t say that the internal romanticization of the wolf as an ecological angel or vilification of the wolf as a culture-eating demon is what most would directly cite as reasons for or against their introduction. Opinions on these issues are complicated, even if there are some unifying themes. And it’s certainly not the case that everyone against reintroduction are all narrow-minded conservatives nor are those for it simply radical leftists. Those for reintroduction may look to the ecological benefits wolves seem to provide, while also appreciating their aesthetic value. Those opposed may argue that wolves are already fated to be in Colorado from colonization via Yellowstone and may stand with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which had already rejected a plan to reintroduce wolves, in part because “any introduction or reintroduction of wolves into Colorado is in potential conflict with the State’s livestock industry and current big game management efforts.” However, what is fundamentally at play, and perhaps is a deeper driver than this, is the question of not only what the future of the West ought to be, but who ought to decide what it will be.

Proposition 114, in a spirit of federalism and democracy, offered an answer to the latter. The wildlife policy that had historically been decided by federal and state governments through extermination programs had shifted to currently wolf-friendly decision-makers: Colorado voters. From the US Fish and Wildlife’s Yellowstone reintroduction to the Endangered Species Act, unelected bureaucracies making these decisions have not typically been beholden to the consent of the governed. For or against wolves, policy was created in Washington, and the wolf’s fate as a protected species under the Endangered Species Act, which has ultimately determined its range, had always been a battle fought in court and distant DC.

Proposition 114 fundamentally shifted that paradigm. It proposed that wildlife range should be determined more or less by the governed rather than the government. I would argue that this type of federalism breaks free of the broadening tendency towards centralized power, and offers a better mechanism of determining the question of who will steer the West. Even though some who oppose the measure would claim that urban residents ought not have a say regarding the places where wolves would actually live, it is the whole of Colorado that enjoys the lands where wolves would be, and a ballot measure is certainly more representative than the whims of bureaucrats.  

With state-managed wolf populations now in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming thriving with relatively little impact on the livestock or hunting industries, the experiment of reintroduction has shown to be feasible on the management and political levels. Nonetheless, opinions on the topic are fraught, with the final ballot counts of Proposition 114 summing to a 50.6% to 49.4% win.

The larger question of the West’s future is far from over. The culture wars are not complete, and with just under half of a state’s population opposed to wolf presence (many of whom live in areas where wolves will be), it would be foolish of policy-makers to be unconcerned with their issues and perspectives. The present provisions that would reimburse ranchers for wolf kills should be strengthened to account for other impacts wolf-induced stresses can have, like lower calf weights. Ultimately, it may fall out of the voting booth as to what these specific policies actually are, and it will take compromise from all parties who will share the landscape with each other–and soon, with wolves. 

As long as it’s primarily state authorities who are managing wild animals and areas, Proposition 114 could serve as a model for future management practices. With the Trump administration officially taking wolves off of the Endangered Species Act, thus deferring management to states, it may now be in the hands of local governments to do what they wish with the most controversial animal in America.

For better or for worse, wolf populations will once again range from the Canadian Arctic to Northern Mexico. Only time will tell how other species may be managed democratically or what the future of the wolf is across the continent. But while more Western and American culture wars are fought in and beyond the ballot box, what’s certain is that by the time the next president is elected, there will be another species howling over Colorado’s results.