A New Dynamic In Wolf Country

Photo: Public Domain

JACKSON, Mont. —  As a fourth-generation rancher, Dean B. Peterson has a complicated relationship with wolves.

//

Multimedia

Related

Green

A blog about energy and the environment.

Rich Addicks for The New York Times

A pro-wolf rally in Bozeman, Mont.                            More Photos »

In the 1880s, they preyed on his family’s livestock after his great-grandparents arrived as homesteaders along the Big Hole River. By the 1930s, wolves were nearly extinct as a result of traps and poisons. By the time Mr. Peterson was born in the 1960s, the traps had given way to nostalgic tales about how clever the wolves had been.

Growing up, he thrilled to the sight of any wolf and to the sound of an occasional nighttime howl. But as an adult, witnessing a rebound in the gray wolf population, he did not hesitate to shoot one when it passed behind his sons’ jungle gym and headed for the cattle pen.

“I do not dislike or hate the animal,” said Mr. Peterson, who calls wolves “an unreal species that God created.”

Instead, he resents the conservationists who pressed the federal government to reintroduce the gray wolf to the Northern Rockies in the mid-1990s. That decision was shoved “down our throat with a plunger,” he said.

Yet the dynamic between ranchers and conservationists has begun to change, and Mr. Peterson is surprised to find himself acting as a grudging mediator.

The turning point came early this year as lawmakers from some Western states were demanding that the government remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list, and cede control of the animal in Montana and Idaho to state governments. In April, they succeeded by attaching a rider to a budget bill.

Aghast, some environmental groups had a moment of reckoning. Had they gone too far in using the Endangered Species Act as a cudgel instead of forging compromises with ranchers?

So a handful began reaching out to ranchers, offering them money and tools to fend off wolves without killing them. And some ranchers, mindful that tough federal restrictions could be reimposed if wolf numbers dwindle again, have been listening. Tentative partnerships are cropping up, and a few that already existed are looking to expand.

Working through Mr. Peterson, People and Carnivores, a new nonprofit group that promotes “co-existence,” has built a five-mile, $15,000 electric fence adorned with flags to protect calves on a neighbor’s property. This summer, it helped pay for a mounted rider to patrol 20 square miles of grazing land shared by three ranches near Mr. Peterson’s as a deterrent.

“A lot of my neighbors think I am wet behind the ears to take money from these people,” said Mr. Peterson, who has not yet accepted aid for himself. “But the wolf is here to stay now, and my feeling is that those people who want it here should share the costs.”

The conflict dates back generations, but tensions soared in 1995 and 1996, when the government reintroduced 66 gray wolves in Idaho and in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. The goal was to restore balance to the regional ecosystem: after the wolves died out, elk and coyote populations had increased alarmingly. Elk herds were destroying large tracts of vegetation, and coyotes had reduced second-tier predators like badgers.

The federal Fish and Wildlife Service set a minimum population goal of some 150 wolves, plus 15 breeding pairs, in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. To their surprise, the wolves hit those targets in just seven years and spread beyond the wilderness areas.

Livestock kills began to climb, and the ranchers grew angry. They even blamed the wolves for cows’ weight loss. “They come off the pasture on average about 100 pounds lighter than before there were wolves in the area,” Mr. Peterson said. “They spend so much time looking around, they don’t have time to eat.”

By 2007, the total number of wolves in the three states was 1,513. Surveying the evidence, the Fish and Wildlife Service sought that year to have the animal “delisted” under the Endangered Species Act. But conservationists sued to block that move, saying Wyoming lacked an adequate management plan. A federal court in Missoula, Mont., agreed.

Advertisements

~ by narhvalur on November 5, 2011.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: