“Sunset is an angel weeping, holding out a bloody sword,” begins Bruce Cockburn’s lyrics for “Pacing the Cage.”
I can’t help but identify with these lyrics. Cockburn writes of growing older, the expectations of others, to the feeling of being without a clear path. When the song continues, “I never knew what you all wanted, so I gave you everything ... all the spells that I could sing,” my thoughts turn to wolves.
In 1973, President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law. The next year, wolves in the Lower 48 were the first species to be declared endangered under this shiny new law. But time can be a cruel mistress.
In 2011, the Obama administration compromised the Endangered Species Act and wolf recovery in one fell swoop by approving a federal budget with a sneaky rider. Buried deep within the budget, the delisting of wolves was mandated for the Northern Rockies. This delisting marked the first time Congress alone stripped a species of protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Two years later, I fear the sun is setting on wolf recovery. I have read about and seen far too many images of bloody swords, swords figurative and actual, covered with the blood of more than a thousand wolves.
Wolves become easy targets for misdirected blame and aggression. Blame it on the fairy tales we read to our children. Blame it on the Three Little Pigs! Know that Little Red Riding Hood lied. I will not argue that today most small and multi-generational family ranches are struggling to survive. Adding wolves to the equation just makes it that much more difficult, or so we are told. However, it is convenient, actually romantic for some, to point a finger – or a gun – at an apex predator, making it their own personal scapegoat.
When I asked a close friend who maintains a small, fourth-generation family ranch in Jefferson County, Mont., what the biggest threat to ranching in rural America was, he said: “It isn’t predation, but favorable tax policies and agricultural subsidies benefiting large commercial livestock operations that are systematically wiping us out.” This former teacher wrote his master’s thesis about the decline of family farms in rural American communities.
The Miller family ranch, grazing 150 cows and 70 sheep (numbers vary from year to year), has never experienced a loss from wolf predation during these many generations of ranching. And this is, indeed, an area in Montana where locals are aware of wolves living nearby.
“We have definitely lost livestock to coyotes, domestic dogs, foxes and hunters,” he said.
The National Agricultural Statistic Service has reported that depredation by wolves accounts for a very small percentage of livestock lost. Recent statistics show 2 percent in the Northern Rockies and 0.23 percent nationwide. That’s less than one quarter of 1 percent of livestock lost to wolf depredation. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, using professional, field-verified reports, calculates these numbers even lower than National Agricultural Statistic Service, which uses unverified livestock industry reports.
While nonpredator causes – disease, injury, weather, poisoning and theft – account for about 95 percent of livestock loss, wolves continue to be blamed, to be trapped and bludgeoned and gassed, poisoned, shot full of bullets and arrows. We brought them back from the brink for this, after wolves were exterminated from the Lower 48 more than 50 years ago?
The federal Wildlife Services program spends hundreds of thousands of tax dollars to “lethally control” an estimated 100,000 native predators each year. This count includes wolves, and the number of dead wolves is adding up quickly.
The 1995 reintroduction of the gray wolf to Yellowstone National Park has helped restore riparian areas that had been severely damaged by overgrazing from unnaturally enhanced ungulate populations, keeping the herds on the move and their numbers in check. By preying on weaker herd members, wolves keep deer and elk healthier, reducing the transmission of diseases. Tree and willow stands have been able to re-establish and bird populations have returned. This re-vegetation has improved fish spawning areas, keeping the waters shaded and cool, protected from the hot sun.
Wolves generate economic benefits. Tourists who visit Yellowstone to view wolves add more than $35 million annually to the region’s economy, according to a University of Montana study.
Delisting the gray wolf means that Colorado and other states that contain some of the nation’s best wolf habitat – Utah, northern California, Oregon and Washington – may never hear the howl of wild wolves, never reap the ecological and economic benefits wolves bring.
The return of Mexican wolves, North America’s most endangered mammal, to their historic range in the Southwest will have the same, positive cascading effects on the region’s stressed and struggling ecosystems. A sub-species of the gray wolf, the Mexican wolf is proposed to remain protected, even should the gray wolf become delisted altogether. This may sound like good news for Mexican wolves, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal is deeply flawed, running counter to their recovery team’s own recommendations. The original goal of Mexican wolf recovery to ecologically appropriate and historic habitat is being abandoned, and strict, arbitrary, limiting boundaries are being proposed, beyond which wolves would be lethally removed.
I do not want to grow older in homogenized forests – in wilderness with its wild cut out. I have no children, but I want the children of others to become stirred alive by the song of wolf and coyote, to hike along trails that seem to go on forever, resplendent with birdsong, bear scat and the tracks of big cats and ungulates, skirted by clear, cool rivers and snowy peaks. I want them to know there are wild places without roads and trails, wild places without humans. I find this comforting, and I hope they will, too. Wolves and wilderness are on the brink of forever. Don’t let them vanish, this becoming our sad and shameful legacy.
Some hope from Cockburn’s “Pacing the Cage”: “Sometimes the best map will not guide you, you can’t see what’s ’round the bend. Sometimes the road leads through dark places; sometimes the darkness is your friend.”
For more information about Mexican wolves, visit www.mexicanwolves.org.
Tricia M. Cook recently moved to Silverton, having arrived by way of wolf country in the North Cascade Mountains of Washington.