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Wolves as "wildlife terrorists." Think it's idiocy? Some people will believe it. Why?

Dec. 23, 2002

Note: I moved this story from my conservation stories page to the wolf page. RM

Most biologists I know just want to dismiss the rhetoric of Ron Gillette and the Central Idaho Anti-wolf Coalition. Their attitude is that these arguments are so absurd they don't require a response. This stance is common with people of scientific training, but they should consider that some people still insist that the earth is flat, and these people believe that "round-earthers" are dupes or part of a great conspiracy.

Unfortunately, political arguments often have appeal not because they are correct or logical, or have any correspondence with the facts. They have appeal because people feel a certain way, and want someone to tell them a story that will give their feelings a justification. Each side on an issue, tends to produce a story justifying their pre-existing viewpoints. Such stories about government policies, "policy narratives" must be dealt with because, while they won't produce converts, they can convince the undecided, including public officials trying to maximize their political opportunities.

Fortunately, there is little psychological disposition nowadays to pay heed to the "flat-earthers." There is a disposition to listen to anti-wolf arguments, and these arguments have made their way to USA Today, and the story is being picked up by local and weekly papers, many of which do not appear on the Internet.

This story got started in an AP article by Dan Gallagher. The article appeared in the Twin Falls Time News, a paper known for its hard core advocacy of the old mining, logging, and grazing, mythic Idaho. However, The Times News version did run a point-by-point rebuttal of Gillette by Ed Bangs. Article. [this link now dead]

It is interesting how Bang's rebuttal disappeared in the USA Today article.

Gillette recently came to Pocatello, Idaho and participated in a debate with Carter Niemeyer, USFWS wolf coordinator for Idaho, myself, Bob Loucks, who was on the committee that developed the Idaho State wolf plan, and Jon Marvel, executive director, of the Western Watersheds Project.

Gillette's arguments that evening were similar as reported in the AP article.

Wolves are hurting "mom-and-pop" businesses across central Idaho. The wolves will kill all of the prey first, then they will kill all the other predators, then they will kill and eat each other. Wolves are "wildlife terrorists" and "land piranhas."

Hunters who stay in my [Gillette's] cabins (Triangle C) in Stanley, Idaho say they won't come back because wolves have killed all the elk.

Val Geist, who is the "Michael Jordan" of big game biologists doesn't like wolves.

Wolf advocates are "carpetbaggers." This argument played badly in Pocatello when stated by someone from nearby Stanley, Idaho; but it might sound reasonable to someone in Georgia or Kansas reading about the controversy.

In Pocatello, Gillette said that wolves were not "this mystical family group where only the alphas breed and have pups." He said that it turns out that most of the females in a pack have pups, and so the number of wolves explodes "like rabbits in Australia."

Behind all of this argument was the unstated view that wolves will proliferate without limit until they finally cannibalize themselves. The potency of some form of this argument can be seen in recent statements by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commissioners, and Montana Governor Judy Martz. It was evident in the AP article where Idaho Fish and Game Commissioner "Alex Irby of Orofino sees the effort extending years into the future, while the growing wolf packs further decimate his region's once-plentiful elk herds." Irby was talking about the expected lawsuit to prevent delisting of the wolf. He obviously thinks wolf numbers will continue to grow so as to "further decimate" elk herds.

Finally, Gillette argued that the native Idaho wolves are extinct, and that the reintroduced "Canadian" wolves weigh from 20 pounds more than the Idaho wolves and are more aggressive. "They are an exotic species." This is a very common argument in Western anti-wolf circles.

There were a few contradictions. In Pocatello, Gillette said he didn't outfit for elk hunters, and "didn't care if he ever killed another elk." In the AP article, Gillette was turned into an elk outfitter. In Pocatello he said he did some outfitting for bighorn sheep hunters and ran float trips down the upper Salmon River.

In response to Gilette and another quoted member of the Central Idaho Anti-wolf Coalition, the AP article quoted Ed Bangs, Northern Rockies Wolf Recovery coordinator.

"Here are some claims by Ron Gillett of the Central Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition and responses by federal wolf recovery coordinator Ed Bangs:
* Species distinction
Gillett -- The wolves introduced into Idaho, Wyoming and Montana are exotic Canadian gray wolves. Idaho's gray wolves are extinct. The Canadian strain is larger and more aggressive.
Bangs -- Wolves travel across the border all the time. Canadian and American gray wolves are the same creature.
* Killing instinct
Gillett -- Each wolf kills up to 24 game animals a year, kills twice that many for the sport of it, and also follows elk herds, killing calves immediately after birth.
Bangs -- Each wolf kills the equivalent of 12 cow elk a year. In Idaho, that would be about 16 ungulates -- elk and deer. Wolves very occasionally kill more than they eat, but sport killing is a popular myth. Some wolves are killed each year by being kicked by elk.
* Eating habits
Gillett -- Wolves kill the big-game animals in an area, then other predators and finally cannibalize other wolves.
Bangs -- Wolves kill enough to eat. They limit their concentrations to about 10 wolves in 300 square miles. They move to new areas rather than crowd one place. They are not cannibals."

Anyone who follows our wolf web site knows the Central Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition's arguments as stated above are absurd, but why are they believed at all? I have some suggestions, and the way to defuse the potency of this anti-wolf story must understand the social and psychological causes of the desire to believe them.

1. The interior West is undergoing rapid economic and social change and many people, especially in rural communities need a story that explains why commodity prices are low, why the government sells less timber than it once did, why wealthy people from elsewhere are buying up land and building big houses on it, and why their children are moving away. In addition, some hunters always need an explanation why they didn't get their animal, or at least the kind of elk or deer they wanted. It is easier to blame others than themselves for failure and easier take credit for their hunting prowess when they are successful.

2. There is rural tradition of managing nature which places no value on unmanaged nature. One popular Idaho bumper sticker says "Idaho, the Wilderness State." Another sticker, more popular in rural areas reads "Wilderness. Land of no use." From my first public meeting on these issues in Idaho (in the 1970s) I noticed various forms of the argument that nature is about to get out of hand or nature only exists because we have managed it through our hard work and that of our ancestors.

3. Much of the change in the rural West is due to overgrazing, coupled with a tremendous move to the gigantic concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), overcutting of timber, and inherently unproductive land and hence unprofitable operations when government subsidies are withdrawn. In fact, this argument is talking place all over the world with the massive globalization of the economy, including agriculture.

These arguments are not well received by many rural folks. First of all, it says they don't manage the land well. A corollary is that killing the off the wolves was bad. Thus, restoring wolves is an insult to their ancestors. Secondly, it says their ancestors settled in a bad (an unproductive) place. Generations of Western movies (and it's the movies that count culturally) say it was tremendously productive land. Third, adopting this argument means going up against powerful local economic interests because few rural people own farms and ranches. Many are employees who could lose their jobs if they criticize. It takes much less courage to blame outsiders and environmentalists (who apparently all live in the Eastern United States.). Finally, arguments about globalization are too abstract and diffuse. There is no one really to blame in globalization. Blaming "tree-huggers" is more satisfying.

While the West is not a rural place anymore (Nevada is the most urbanized state), many residents of Western cities are only a generation from the rural areas and they identify with these arguments, although they haven't the slightest interest in returning to work in a rural area. Many do return to visit their vacation cabin. As Patricia Limerick told a recent social science conference, there are far more cowboy hats and boots per capita in Denver than on Colorado farms and ranches.

These are the roots of anti-wolf sentiment in the West, and facts about wolves won't change these roots. However, those with another story, who favor wolves, favor nature, value natural wildlife, want to live in harmony with it (not crush it or commodify it), and who want a sustainable economy, need skill and more resources to win over the undecided. They also need to understand the social, cultural, and economic roots of anti-wolf arguments so to better hone their own.

Update 12-26. The Idaho Statesman did an editorial on this. Our View: Land piranha?

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