Matters of Scale

In the intermountain West, there is, perhaps, no question more incendiary than what to do about wolves. The conflict, centuries old, was psychological before it was political. Wolves are the classic villains of storybooks, and the crimes they commit in fiction—eating young children—are based more on fear than fact. But as long as cows and sheep have grazed the carnivore’s territory, wolves have hunted them. In 1906, a wealthy bunch of Western ranchers made wolf eradication a government priority, and the Bureau of Biological Survey, now the Fish and Wildlife Service, took on the task. Twenty years later, the last wolf in Yellowstone National Park was killed.

When the Endangered Species Act passed Congress in 1973, wolves were among the first to make the list. A team of biologists and policy makers assembled a plan to reintroduce wolves to the West, and in 1995 and 1996, after navigating strident opposition in the Idaho state government, released 66 individuals into central Idaho and the Greater Yellowstone Area. The recovery worked faster than anyone expected. Eight years later, the population exceeded 600, more than twice the recovery team’s original goal. But when the Fish and Wildlife Service tried to reduce the wolf’s status from “endangered” to “threatened,” environmental groups sued and won, alleging that the agency’s initial goals were arbitrary. The decision to “down-list,” they said, must be based on the “best available science.”

Stevens grew visibly frustrated when he recalled the story: “Here you had the most successful population recovery in the history of the Endangered Species Act, and environmentalists said it wasn’t enough. Yeah, sure, they should be able to use good science to redefine their goals. But it just looked like they moved the goalposts. And all that did was radicalize people again.” Several years later, when the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed delisting the wolf altogether and some of Stevens’s closest colleagues—among them, Suzanne Stone—engaged in a long legal battle, Stevens carefully evaded the issue. “We were there to solve problems in a specific place, with specific operators, with specific sets of wolves,” he told me. “We were not about shaping the delisting discussion or making editorial commentaries about predator control.”

But in 2007, when the Phantom Hill Pack made its den on a Lava Lake allotment, Stevens was forced to confront the issue again. On a sunny day, one wolf was spotted as it sprawled on the shoulder of a road. Library-goers, on another occasion, noticed the pack resting on a hillside above town. Anyone curious as to the wolves’ whereabouts could follow them on Twitter. A typical tweet, posted on May 12, 2009, read, “@phantomwolves The mid-May snow broke just in time to catch a view of a young male Phantom herding 4-5 elk along the hillside.” A week later, another post linked to a photo of a young wolf watching as the alpha male, named “Papa,” tugged at an elk hide. “Yearling needs a name,” read the tweet. “Suggestions?”

It was this emotional engagement in the issue that concerned Stevens most. “We couldn’t be responsible for such a highly visible pack getting killed,” he said. Stevens also knew that Lava Lake’s sheep bands would have to return to the same allotment the next season in order to keep the animals spread across a large area and minimize their impact. When Stevens and Stone spoke by phone in 2007, they decided to start a new alliance of ranchers whose operations neighbored the wolves’ territory. The Wood River Wolf Project, funded mostly by Defenders of Wildlife, would send teams into the field to erect fladry around the bands, tell with telemetry when wolves were near, and stay overnight if necessary. The ranchers, said Stone, saw little cost for themselves and were quite willing to participate.

One evening in July of 2008, not far from the Phantom Hill Pack, three field assistants were nearly done assembling fladry around a sheep band when they noticed a straggler dashing frantically toward the pen. A wolf had chased it but retreated when it came near the fence. The local paper, Idaho Mountain Express, touted the incident as proof of the project’s success. But the next summer, when field assistants accidently left a dozen of the same rancher’s sheep outside the pen, wolves killed all 12. The rancher, John Faulkner, called for lethal control.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Williamson, recalling the incident. “He had dead sheep lying around the mountains, and he wasn’t happy. So I got him on the phone and said, ‘John, hear me out. We can go in there and kill a wolf—that’s not a big deal. But we need to think about consequences.’ I said, ‘John, everybody in Ketchum would like to see your sheep allotments go away. I think we could buy you kudos by trying nonlethal control.’ And he said, ‘Rick, if that’s what you think we should do, that’s what we’re going to do.’”

When I asked Stevens about his own feelings toward wolves, he responded cautiously. “I’ve heard wolves talked about as a kind of Zen riddle,” he said. “If you want to have wolves, you need to shoot wolves. People living near them need to feel a sense of control in case a problem becomes chronic. Wolves are dogs—they’re going to reproduce. Ultimately, the goal is to make the population stable enough so that if a wolf is shot periodically, it’s not the end of the world.” It seemed, he said, that some ranchers and environmentalists were finding middle ground. Recently, Stevens spoke with a rancher who regretted ordering a wolf pack shot after it repeatedly attacked her sheep. “She told me she wasn’t sure we’re accomplishing much by killing entire packs. What we’re doing is opening up the territory to new, untrained wolves, rather than figuring out which individuals are a problem, and removing them if necessary. That had a big impact on me.”

But whatever truce Stevens sensed did not last long. In 2009, despite a string of environmental lawsuits, wolves in Idaho were taken off the endangered species list. In June of that year, a car hit the Phantom Hill Pack’s alpha male, and in October, a month after wolf-hunting season opened, a hunter shot a young female known as Jewel to her Twitter followers. A subsequent article in the Mountain Express garnered 537 online comments within a few days: “It really amazes me how the wolf-worshippers have worked the clueless into believing that wolves are on some god-like level;” then, “this just makes me absolutely sick!!!!!” and “isn’t anyone tired of this bloodbath?”

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