Wolf Blowback and Wolf Fatigue

I wrote about and celebrated the delisting of the gray wolf here on this blog a few weeks ago, and … Continued

I wrote about and celebrated the delisting of the gray wolf here on this blog a few weeks ago, and I spent much of the winter working on yet another story about wolves and how the delisting came about after environmental groups filed just one too many cart-tipping, camel’s-back-breaking lawsuits on behalf of their favorite predator.

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Over the years, I’ve written perhaps too much about how the environmental groups made a critical mistake with their single-species (wolf) focus. The angry cynic in me saw all those photos of gamboling wolf pups juxtaposed with those warnings of impending slaughter by us hunters, and saw, not a campaign to protect wolves, but a very shrewd campaign to use emotion to gather new members and money.

For years I could not understand the blindness- could not understand how highly-respected groups like Defenders of Wildlife, or the Natural Resources Defense Council, could not read the wind, see how very moderate people were turning against them, as wolf numbers grew close to 2,000, while they still claimed loudly (and repeatedly in court) that wolf recovery was incomplete. Working as a reporter and living in wolf country, in a ranching and outfitting town, talking to hunters from all over the West, I watched as the die-hard wolf-advocates managed to convince pretty much anybody who was watching that they were indeed the anti-hunting, anti-ranching, pro-big “gubmint” radicals that their foes have forever claimed they were.

But while I’m throwing these sharp rocks, I’m very aware that many of us Western big game hunters are now living in a big glass house. The wolf issue has set the environmentalist groups back quite a bit. But the blowback has hit us hard, too. Let me explain.

On the hunter’s side, it started with what I call the rage-a-holics. We all know them, those folks who are furious about pretty much everything, already. Wolves were and are like the fountain of youth for them, the gift that keeps on giving. “The feds shoved these things down our throats and now they’ve killed every living creature from here to the Pacific Ocean! I don’t even buy a hunting license any more, and ranching is under siege!” I exaggerate, of course, but, from my own personal experience, not by much. I can see the bumper sticker from my office window: Wolves: Government Sponsored Terrorists (it’s not on my truck, by the way).

For a few years, the extreme anti-wolf voices, for all their prominence in the news, remained on the fringes for most hunters. But gradually, as the enviro lawsuits piled up, the news of low elk numbers in the Clearwater, the southern Bitterroots, and elsewhere came in, more of us wondered if those extremists among the anti-wolf brigades were not preferable to the extremists who seemed willing to throw us all under the bus in their headlong and equally furious efforts to protect every last wolf out there. There seemed to be only two sides to the issue. The old adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” took a fierce hold.

By the time Montana Senator John Tester and Idaho Representative Mike Simpson pushed through the rider delisting the wolves, a lot of moderate, conservation-savvy big game hunters found themselves occupying the same position as the furious anti-wolf brigades. From the outside, the moderate hunters and the anti-wolf extremists did not look much different. Political strategists took note of this very large block of motivated, concerned citizens. The assumption was that if we all agree that the feds have shoved wolves down our throats, and we all despise the actions of the environmental groups in endlessly protecting them, we must agree on a lot of other things. We must also despise everything those enviro groups support.

For the anti-wildlife, anti-conservation forces that are always with us, the wolf issue was like black Mississippi Delta topsoil, deep and rich and ready to be cultivated. Clean Water Act? Pshaw. That stuff’s for wolf lovers. Protect winter range from subdivisions? Why, so the wolves will have more elk to eat? You ought to join the Sahara Club! And so on, and on, and on, a freezing rain of naysaying and anger, creating a flood of do-nothing-whatsoever to fight for the waters and the lands and hunting that we love and are honor-bound to pass on to our children and beyond.

Let’s press the reset button. The wolves are here to stay, and are no longer under the protection of the feds. They will be hunted, and they will be managed. Elk and elk hunting will continue to thrive as long as we continue the legacy of conservation and land protection that produced it in the first place. The real enemy is now and has always been the loss of wildlife habitat and winter range, the destruction of wetlands, the undermining of the federal programs that have given us the wildlife, fisheries, and hunting opportunities that are the envy of the world. (more on this)

And while we are at it, let’s celebrate our successes and spend more time out in the woods and on the rivers and lakes. It’s hard to be furious when you’re on a deer stand at daybreak, or watching your eight year old daughter fighting a smallmouth bass. Let’s reach a hand across the yawning abyss that the wolves opened up between us sportsmen and the non-hunting conservationists. We need them in the battle for our wildlife, lands and waters, and they don’t realize it – witness the utter disregard they expressed when hunters pointed out that the wolves were killing too many elk in places- but they really, really need us. We share one thing that binds us- we care what happens to the land, wildlife and waters.

We don’t have to agree on anything else- that one concern can be enough to start. If some of these groups have an anti-hunting bias- and it’s clear that many of their members do, at least- then that is their problem. The greatest threat to our hunting future comes not from PETA or the Humane Society of the US. The greatest threat to hunting comes from the millions of people who simply don’t know or don’t care about what our conservation forefathers fought to achieve in this country, or the growing numbers of us who can’t seem to put aside our differences and work together to make sure that it goes on.