And the Wolf Came…

Years back, I authored a community comment in our local newspaper here in the Northeast corner of Oregon. It was in response to another commentary, from one of the locals in the County adjacent to ours. Here’s the backstory: Wolves have been migrating to this part of the Northwest from Idaho for quite a few years.

The first of these newcomers were greeted with surprise and awe, along with hatred and fear. Some were killed, a direct challenge to the law protecting endangered species. Some were captured and sent back to Idaho. Some locals responded, as they often have in the 30 years I’ve lived here, with undisguised contempt for those who wanted to allow the animals to roam the mountains and canyons. Their remarks were often demeaning, petty, and ignorant.

The (full) name of the fellow who wrote the initial piece has been changed to protect the not-so innocent, and a few links added. Otherwise this remains largely intact. It is a bit dated, since those waves of money have ebbed quite a bit. Nonetheless, the viewpoint is still relevant since the opposition hasn’t stopped trying to get the wolves removed.

The second section is the text of comments I wrote to the Oregon Department of Wildlife, about their wolf management plan and proposed changes to it. It’s more formal since it deals with the scientific evidence. The two are end pieces, one about the arrival of the wolf, the other about management now that they’re here. And they are here, in this part of the world:

Wolf is Coming

The May 27th Community Comment by […] (Wolf Restoration: wandering animals results in Disneyland love story) is much more revealing than he probably intended, but it can serve as a starting point for an open discussion of some important issues.

First things first.  The “wayward confused female” is no such thing.  I don’t know about E. H., but these days I’m careful not to impute motives to women, of any species, that I don’t know personally. In fact the female wolf moved out quite smartly from her pack as was to be expected once populations reached a certain point and, once returned to Idaho, seemed eager to retrace her steps and do it again. As I write this she appears to be little deterred in seeking to re-establish the original range of her kind here in Northeast Oregon.

As for Disney, I’d suggest a copy of Jerry Mander’s In the Absence of the Sacred for a clear take on Tomorrowland, that velvet prison we’ve so carefully constructed for ourselves.  There should be no surprise that activists will use whatever means are available to make their point, including public relations and events like the howl-in.  They learned their lessons at the feet of industry which has used the same tactics for years.  The paper place mats at the local fast food outlet, carefully crafted by the flacks at a large timber corporation to distort timber issues and deceive children are no different are they?

E. H. might also think about leaving Wallowa County once in a while and checking out city life. The real problem is that the “thinly scattered green brigades” are actually hordes moving out like a wave from the booming metropolises of the Northwest.  Many call themselves environmentalists, for better or worse, and some have very large piles of cash they’re bringing with them. The changes in forest policy, far from being the work of local troublemakers, are merely the exclamation point for the arrival of this movement.   They’ve already made their feelings known to Salem and Washington: no more welfare for the indiscriminate killing of predators. Now, more than ever, we all need to sit down and talk about what’s important to local economies and how we can protect them in the years to come, because this onslaught of visitors and money is not likely to stop anytime soon.  The Northwest economy has really changed that much.

Unfortunately, the putdown of Defenders of Wildlife and their open ended offer to pay for verified wolf damage doesn’t help.  It’s characteristic of what has been lacking all along: any respect for legitimate concerns of others, and any willingness to consider anything but a scorched earth policy when dealing with those considered outsiders. It is of course, ok to work your way through the federal paper maze so that you can get Animal Damage Control to send out hired guns, but private money to pay for animals killed by wolves is unacceptable.  This glaring contradiction between the rhetoric of the anti-welfare state, and the reality of federal subsidies, which are an important part of life in the interior West, must also be addressed.

As for the Bambi syndrome, I’d suggest that E. H. also catch a few nature shows while he’s out of town.  The “animal lovers”, many of them, have gotten very sophisticated about ecosystems, habitats, predator-prey relationships, and natural population cycles.  They are quite aware of what’s missing from the picture and how an imbalance in any population, including very high numbers of elk and deer, can cause its own serious problems.  Vegetation can only take so much grazing pressure, after all. The idea that bringing the wolf back will decimate the elk and deer herds defies all logic.  Was it magic that kept the herds from disappearing before we got here?  Certainly, the hunting community has a very good grasp on the importance of healthy predator populations as a force to strengthen, not weaken, ungulate populations.  Again, this is all the more reason to get ranchers, farmers, hunters, wildlife managers, activists, non-activists, cities, towns and everyone else together.

One last misconception: there is no wolf re-introduction, no visiting rights issued by local, state or federal bureaucrats, no visas for the wandering wild minions.  It’s a re-habitation, a re-invasion if you like.  As was mentioned by both state and federal authorities, there isn’t enough money to keep trucking them back across the river now that the population is rebuilding. To an animal that’s as powerful a swimmer as a wolf, the Snake River might as well not be there. It’s a useless exercise for another reason as well: the wolf we know about, the one with the radio-collar, may only be a small part of the population which has wandered our way.  Given the rugged terrain throughout this part of Oregon, we may already be living with her brethren in our backyard.

It’s time for locals to grow up and to stop acting like a feudal aristocracy.  One hundred and twenty years gives no one any such right, not in this democracy, and not when the capitalist engine allows anyone to buy and sell anything.  The visitors are coming. Some of them will stay on.  Many of them will want their say about wildlife in the mountains and canyons that surround us, much of which are public.  It’s crucial that they be intelligently informed about the local needs and economies.  This will never happen as long as arrogant attitudes hold sway.  Everyone deserves respect.

The Ecology of Wolf Economics

The stated goal of the Wolf Conservation and Management Plan is to:
ensure the conservation of gray wolves as required by Oregon law while protecting the social and economic interests of all Oregonians.

These economic interests – and the social interests that depend on them – can only be protected by the return of the wolf. A rapidly accumulating body of evidence has outlined the role that wolves play in moderating grazing pressure by elk on native ecosystems. The only alternative is, in all likelihood, the disappearance of crucial ecosystem components in many parts of the region. Such a scenario has already played  itself out in the eastern United States with hordes of deer over-running both rural and suburban areas (Storm and Palmer 1995).

As one example, Aspen has been disappearing over most of its range since settlers arrived in the west (Ripple 1998) with Oregon no exception (Shirley and Erickson 2000). Different theories have been put forward to explain this decline but there is a growing body of empirical evidence that the presence of wolves can reverse this trend (Ripple et al. 2001). Wolves put pressure on elk. They force them to move as well as cutting back their numbers by thinning older and weaker animals. This can re-distribute animals and change the grazing pattern.

Aspen are just one part of a much larger story about the flow of nutrients in Western ecosystems. In the absence of pressure from predators, elk distribute themselves so as to avoid interaction with humans (Wisdom et al. 2004). In doing so, they effectively partition the available habitat and selectively graze preferred areas. This differential grazing pressure is leading researchers to study the possible effects of ungulate herbivory on ecosystem trajectories (Vavra et al. 2004).  The long-term ecosystem that develops on a given site may ultimately be determined by the intensity of grazing pressure it is subjected to, and there may be no going back once the process is started.

Wolves have been a part of the ecosystem for a long time (Flannery, 2001) We cannot exclude them from the West without changing the distribution of animals, plants and plant communities, and the economic viability of the human communities they support.

The Draft Wolf Management plan which you are proposing (Wolf Advisory Committee  and ODFW Staff 2004) is a good one and strikes a reasonable balance between the needs of the land and the needs of those who use the land to make a living. The plan’s proposed management innovations and mitigation measures, such as translocation strategies and a damage payment pool, will provide the flexibility necessary to restart wolf populations while insuring that the economic damage to livestock growers is minimized.

I am asking you to accept the draft management plan as is. It provides a good template for addressing the serious imbalance that now exists.

Literature Cited

Flannery, T. 2001. The Eternal Frontier: An ecological history of North America and its peoples. The Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, NY.

Ripple, W. The Aspen Project.  1998. 2005.

Ripple, W. J., E. J. Larsen, R. A. Renkin, and D. W. Smith. Trophic cascades among wolves, elk and aspen on Yellowstone National Park’s northern range. Biological Conservation 102[3], 227-234. 2001.

Shirley, D. M. and V. Erickson. Aspen Restoration in the Blue Mountains of Northeast Oregon. 2000

Shepperd, Wayne D., Binkley, Dan, Bartos, Dale L., Stohlgren, Thomas J., and and Eskew, Lane G. Sustaining aspen in western landscapes. RMRS-P-18. 2000. Fort Collins, CO, Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station.

Vavra, M., J. G. Cook, J. G. Kie, R. A. Riggs, and M. J. Wisdom. The role of ungulate herbivory and management on ecosystem patterns and processes: future direction for the Starkey Project. Transactions of the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference. 69. 2004.

Wisdom, M. J., N. J. Cimon, E. O. Garton, B. K. Johnson, and J. W. Thomas. Spatial partitioning by mule deer and elk in relation to traffic. Transactions of the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference 69. 2004.

Wolf Advisory Committee  and ODFW Staff. Draft Oregon Wolf Conservation and Management Plan.  2004.

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