It remains a sure way to be isolated in the conservation community, if you dare to speak truth to our own failings. I do so, not because I want to cause harm or embarrassment, not to as many will say harm those partners fighting for good, but because I have long believed that we, as the conservation community, must be willing to look at our actions and be willing to say we were wrong. Any company, any movement, must be willing to be self-critical if they are to ultimately succeed.
Nowhere has the conservation community lost its soul and guiding principle more than with its efforts on protecting wolves in the wild. If you look at the conservation community landscape almost every group speaks out and says they support wolf recovery. Some make science a focal point, others work with the livestock industry to find common ground and still others use lawsuits to try and slow or prevent harm.
In all cases the vibrant aspect of speaking for wolves, I believe comes from the heart, but we cannot ignore that it provides many groups with wealth beyond what they could have imagined. One need only look at Defenders of Wildlife to see how an organization can fill its coffers using wolf protection as its platform, while sadly continuing to harm the very animal they profess to be a leader in protecting.
What Defenders and likeminded groups and their supporters continue to ignore is that the actions of these groups in many ways have sold out wolves in an effort to be reasonable and as they see it strategic, on wolf recovery. In so doing they have supported hunting seasons on wolves once their numbers recover, they have wasted millions supporting the cult of rancher-wolf relations and the idea that we can have both thriving wolf populations and ranches on public lands. They have sided with Game and Fish Commissions and agencies that destroyed packs to reward ranching interests and they continue to do so to garner the favor of their elected-official based strategies. In a famous interview from October 12, 2013, Susanne Stone, Defenders of Wildlife representative from Boise, Idaho made clear in her interview “Defenders of Wildlife is not opposed to hunting of wolves. We represent hunters as well as other conservation people that are our members, but we’ve never been opposed to hunting.” Such statements represent a green light from the conservation community and defy science and research that clearly sees the destruction of packs as detrimental and ill-advised. But groups that drink from the funding pool also point to past efforts to end public lands grazing that did not succeed, as a basis for their current efforts. The idea seems to be, work with ranchers, federal and state agencies and hope that wolves will weather the storm and in time ranchers will come to accept co-existence. Yet, this direction has led to the endless killing and cruelty in Idaho and other western states where wolf destruction has become a rural badge of honor. Ranchers are not inclined to cooperate; rather they are more empowered to end wolves’ short recovery in the West.
So the conservation community is fighting for wolves with one hand tied behind their back, embracing weakness disguised as strategy, rather than real strength to protect a vital, beautiful creature. The very weakness that groups like Defenders has shown is countered by the fierce, determined and unwavering voice of ranchers and their supporters in congress and the state by state actions that sacrifice wolves at the altar of ignorance. Ranchers are not playing by the book; they understand the street fight quality of this effort, conservationists would be wise to stop acting like diplomats.
In Washington State, Robert Wielgus, the Director of the Large Carnivore Conservation Lab at WSU, became a target as he spoke out in defense of the Profanity Peak pack and wolf killing. The result of his factual and determined approach, Wielgus now finds himself crosswise with ranchers, lawmakers and WSU administrators — and their lobbyists. He’s lost grant funding for his summer research, has been forbidden from talking to media in his professional role and has been reviewed — and cleared — for scientific misconduct. So his actions in defense of wolves have had a chilling effect on others in the University or professional field that would support wolves in the wild. Ranchers made sure he was silenced, so why would we support them? Why would we shame ourselves in such an effort? Wolves deserve far more.
In Washington and Oregon, from the Profanity Peak pack to the Harl Butte pack the senseless killing of wolves and the destruction of their social pack order that results will lead to more cow deprivation, not less, and any conservation group would know and understand this, so why would you support such actions at the very time you are filling your coffers from people across the globe who love and want wolves protected?
The argument is that we must work with all groups and that some wolves must die to allow future compromise and long-term support for wolves. But the continued slaughter of wolves and the ever-growing efforts to block reintroduction, expansion of range and the uptick of support in the Mid-West from Democratic Senators like Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota and Tammy Baldwin from Wisconsin, to kill wolves, is a sign that we are losing, not gaining support, with this failed strategy.
The ranching community has shown that you can succeed by saying no, that you can create a fear-based myth of wolves and that it will work, despite science and reason. The issue of wolves is not a scientific one, but rather an emotional and heritage based dilemma. For many in the livestock industry, they are descendants of families that killed wolves, bears and other predators to carve out their niche in a then transitioning west. From an early age these ranchers learned to shoot and to kill anything that they saw on their land that could threaten a cow.
This is the classic example of custom and culture. Groups like Defenders and their entourage from urban settings and moneyed members visiting Yellowstone are to the rural ranching establishment, the picture of liberal threats to their way of life.
Despite Defenders bending over backwards to appease ranchers, the distrust is unlikely to yield positive results in a generation or more. What Defenders and other groups that are cashing in on wolves cannot understand is that an effective strategy for wolves is based on fighting for them every step of the way. Not compromising.
We do not need a hunting season on wolves, they are self-regulating. Allowing them to be hunted and trapped destroys the social network within each pack and leads to, not prevents, more deprivation. We do not need to support the findings of Game Commissions, these appointments are literally, given in most cases, to people who are signed off by the livestock industry and will never support true wolf recovery.
On the political front, we are cautioned and cajoled to work together, yet, ranchers have been by definition defiant to compromise on the wolf issue and their legislative support remains strong and is showing signs of increasing. What Defenders and the conservation community as a whole must develop is a sense of urgency, a determined push in a unified manner to protect wolves and fight on every level for their right to co-exist.
If we are to be true to wolves and to the many people that give and support wolves, it means have a unified, not a diversified voice. We must get our hands dirty in fighting for wolves and pressuring elected officials that yield to rancher and farmer interest groups. We must work to end Game Commissions that continue to allow the slaughter of wolves and other wildlife to defend the holy grail of ranching interests. Groups would be wise to pool, rather than hoard, precious resources to smaller groups and on unified efforts to stop the second great slaughter of wolves on our public lands.
Finally, we must end public lands grazing. If ranchers want to use private lands then they have the right to graze. If tribal groups want to graze they have that right as sovereign nations. But the very Republicans that demand balanced budgets and control over spending should be vocal and opposed to the endless government welfare that goes to subsidize grazing on public lands and allows these ranchers to continue to bash the very government that allows them carte blanche to kill wildlife and in turn, make cows the sacred trust of the West. Ranchers need also to accept deprivation as part of doing business in a subsidized arena.
Our western public lands belong to wildlife, they belong to wolves. Our lands need to heal from two hundred years of grazing abuse. They need to be rewilded and allowed to flourish, which will only happen when wildlife, not cows, becomes our priority.
It is no longer acceptable to allow wolf packs to die at the hand of ranching interests, it is no longer acceptable for large conservation groups to accept enormous funding from well-meaning people and allow wolves to be killed. The policy is a failed one and it takes courage to accept that failure and move forward with conviction to protect, not sacrifice-wolves. We can win this fight and change the culture of the West, but it will not come easy.
The time has come for real action and the moral courage to do so. Let’s work in coordination and with purpose to save wolves and allow our public lands to finally thrive. We can and we must.