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They Shoot Wolves, Don't They? How the Wild West Is Lost

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The federal government's proposed delisting of the wild wolf is an environmental regression, not only for the wolves, but also for next generations--who in the future may only see a CGI wolf in films, not loping wild through our forests. News of the federal abandonment of wolf protection is a haunting reminder of the devastating war against the wolves waged in earlier centuries. Before federal protection, wolves were hunted to extinction: by airplanes in Alaska, poisoned, trapped, and shot on sight throughout the West. As a New York Times op-ed asks, "Have we brought back wolves for the sole purpose of hunting them down?" Here's a reminder of the unsustainable, anti-wolf culture that we'll revert to, if we allow this proposed delisting to stand.

In 1993, I was in the Far North, reporting on the Alaska Wolf Summit and the aerial shooting of radio-collared wolves. One of the wildlife managers advised me, "Take off your press badge." Another advised, "Come see how we really manage endangered species up here--in the what's left of the Wild West."

In a Last Frontier hotel bar adorned with deer and elk trophies, I silently observed a small but very powerful group of Alaska's Board of Game and U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials swaping hunting stories and ridiculing the Summit protesters for their signs: "Don't Kill Wolves on our Public Lands!" and "Respect the Wolf!"

Without my press badge in that Fairbanks bar, I was, invisible--after all, only a woman. The real world of federal and stage wildlife management is dominated by men with deep ties to hunting, ranching, and agribusiness. In many Western States, hunting licenses fund most of the wildlife programs--a conflict of interest so obvious, but rarely reported. Some federal and state wildlife managers only grudgingly admit scientists to their inner circles because of the Endangered Species Act. Their fervor that night was reserved for talk of "wolf harvests" and "caribou calf crops," of "lethal management," and "sustainable yield" to assure higher populations of big game for hunters.

I was dismayed at the wildlife managers' sense of entitlement, authority, and control over the natural world and all other animals. In the smoky haze of that Fairbanks bar, it was like watching wildlife managers play poker with the fates of other species. I forced myself to remain quiet, staring up at a gigantic moose head trophy.

It didn't seem to matter to these wildlife cronies at the Wolf Summit that statistics didn't support their politics and 80 percent of Alaskans identified as "non-consumptive wildlife supporters." The wildlife managers were the "alpha" males driving all wolf management policy. After the Wolf Summit, the state of Alaska declared a "land-and-shoot aerial hunting" of wolves that led to widespread slaughter of wolves from planes.

In 1993, only 10 percent of the U.S. population were hunters. In 2013, the USFW reports that only 6 percent of Americans are hunters. "Hunters are 89 percent male and 94 percent white," the report notes. Fishing and bird-watching are more popular than hunting. So why are our wildlife policies still so skewed in their support of hunting agendas?

Much--and little--has changed for the wild wolf since that 1993 Wolf Summit. In 1995, wolves were granted federal protection and wolf packs successfully reintroduced in Yellowstone and throughout the West. Wildly popular, the wolf-reintroduction programs in Yellowstone and the Northern Rockies still provide huge tourism income. Wolf biologist, Cristina Eisenberg, author of The Wolf's Tooth, notes that since wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone, scientists have documented "rapid recovery of over-browsed aspen, willows and cottonwoods, stream bank stabilization in eroded streams, and a dramatic increase in biodiversity of songbirds."

Welcoming wolves back to their rightful habitats has restored our public lands. It has also restored something in our national psyche: a sense of balance and humanity. We can generously share with these other "keystone predators" who nourish the entire ecosystem.

The delisting of wild wolves is premature and scientifically unsound. For years, Republicans have tried to gut the Endangered Species Act; but why is the Obama administration supporting such unenlightened wildlife policies of the past? Do Democrats need Western State senators so desperately, that they'll sacrifice environmental ethics--and the majority of Americans who support wolf protection?

"This is politics versus professional wildlife management," former Director of the USFW, Jamie Rappaport Clark says. "The service is saying, 'We're done. Game over. Whatever happens to wolves in the U.S. is a state thing. They are declaring victory long before science would tell them to do so."

One of the wildlife managers at the Alaska Wolf Summit told a story that still haunts me these ten years later. "My Grandaddy was a trapper," the man said proudly. Once his Grandaddy found a fierce wolf with his paw clamped shut in the metal teeth of a trap. "'That wolf just stood there looking at me,' my granddaddy said. 'He just kept staring at me and wagging his doggone tail. That wolf wagged his tail like that--until I shot him.'"

The return of wolf management to Western states still trapped in 19th-century frontier mentality is irresponsible and short-sighted. We are in the 21st century. The forests are not our farms. Wildlife is not a "crop" to be "harvested." Wolves are top predators who restore, balance, and protect our wild lands. They are our future allies, not our foes.

It's time for the majority of Americans to tell hunters and ranchers that it is not the Last Frontier for the wolves. It's time the feds and states listen to the majority of this country who support wolf protection--because wolves are what is most Wild about our West.

Over one thousand wolves have been killed in the wolf-hunting seasons in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. As one of the more visionary wildlife managers told me when wolves, "Forget wolf control. How about a little self-control? The wolf is the real hunter. We can learn from wolves, if we can just keep from shooting them."

Public comment on this delisting:

Natural Resources Defense Council

Wolf Watcher: Take Action

Brenda Peterson is a National Geographic author who has covered wolf reintroduction for The Seattle Times and in her memoir, Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals. Her new book is Seal Pup Rescue and her new novel is The Drowning World.

For more: Brenda Peterson Books

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