The American gray wolf represents a rare environmental miracle. After decades of harassment, hunting, trapping, and poisoning to near-extirpation in the Lower 48, the population was saved in the last 60 years through a combination of policy and active repopulation campaigns. But since the Trump administration delisted the animal under the Endangered Species Act last October, some states have declared open season on Canis lupus.
Wisconsin is the only state that mandates a wolf hunt when regulations allow. This past February, following the federal delisting, the state issued 2,380 permits and a quota of 119 kills. At the peak of the gray wolf’s breeding season, hunters fanned out through the forests and trappers deployed teams of GPS-tracked hunting dogs. In just 63 hours, they took down 218 wolves—80 percent more than the target. Poaching and the blow to the population’s reproductive capacity will make it more difficult for them to rebound. Yet Wisconsin is already planning for a second “harvest” this fall.
Other states are following suit. In April, Montana legalized controversial trapping methods—snares and foothold traps—and extended its wolf-trapping season by a month. (The laws passed weeks after Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks issued Governor Greg Gianforte a written warning for killing a wolf on the ranch of conservative Sinclair Broadcasting Group director Robert E. Smith without taking a requisite three-hour wolf-trapping course.) In May, Idaho passed a law calling for the killing of up to 90 percent of its wolf population, or more than 1,300 wolves. It also expands the legal methods for killing—including chasing down wolves on ATVs and shooting them from helicopters—and sanctions the killing of pups, if found on private land.
While the wolf hunts continue, environmentalists are fighting to reinstate federal protections for the gray wolf. On July 23, the attorneys general of Michigan and Oregon filed a brief in their lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which they argue unlawfully unlisted the animal nationally based on region-specific recovery data. But as the legal battle continues, the issue on the ground remains the same: Powerful interests are deploying centuries-old tropes to stoke fear and promote the further privatization of American wilderness.
Since the early 1800s, white Americans have harassed, hunted, trapped, and poisoned gray wolves almost as a matter of principle. “In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf,” Aldo Leopold, who would become one of the world’s foremost conservationists, wrote in his 1949 book, A Sand County Almanac, of his experience as a young forest assistant. When he and his colleagues encountered a wolf and her pups, “in a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy.” Sensational newspaper stories stoked anti-wolf sentiment: The years-long hunt for the Custer Wolf, an old male wolf that, in the 1910s, consumed an estimated $25,000 (about $380,000 in today’s money) in livestock in South Dakota, was widely documented. Even the National Park Service practiced so-called “predator control” in the early twentieth century, exterminating the last wolf pack in Yellowstone in 1926. By the 1960s, the gray wolf had been almost extirpated in its historic range, which covered two-thirds of the United States.
The Endangered Species Act of 1973 and its forerunners stemmed the tide. But it was subsequent “rewilding” efforts that turned it. In 1995, scientists introduced wild Canadian wolves into Yellowstone National Park, which is now home to an estimated eight packs. The return of the apex predator improved the ecosystem: The wolves curbed elk populations, which protected willows and aspens from overgrazing and, in the process, created new opportunities for birds, beavers, and other species to thrive. “If we couldn’t do this here, on our own turf in one of the most famous parks in the world, as one of the richest nations in the world, then who could?” Doug Smith, a wildlife biologist who led the Yellowstone Wolf Project, told The Guardian last year. “This was an example to the globe in restoring nature.” But many believe that one of the greatest environmental success stories of the twentieth century has already been too successful.
The rationale for slaughtering wolves has changed little in the last two centuries: Ranchers say they are protecting livestock, hunters want to conserve deer and elk populations for themselves, and many people simply enjoy the experience of hunting one of the most mythologized animals on the planet. In myth, wolves are depicted as both cunning predators (the Big Bad Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs) and powerful caretakers (the she-wolf of Rome, or the wolves that raised Mowgli). Our complex relationship with these creatures is even reflected in the basics of canine biology: Wolves really are fearsome killers, but they’re also the closest living relative of man’s best friend, Canis lupus familiaris. In American history, hunting a wolf is portrayed as an individual-level contribution to the national project of taming nature.
The problem occurs when fairy tales are treated as fact. In a 2015 study, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that less than 5 percent of cattle and calves die from predation combined, and the single biggest cause of those deaths is coyotes. Of the 3.9 million cattle and calf losses reported that year, just 2,040 deaths could be attributed to wolves. Experimental efforts like the Wood River Wolf Project suggest that even these marginal losses could be prevented with a bit of strategy, including flags, guard dogs, and range riders. And when things go wrong, states typically compensate owners for livestock losses attributed to wolves. Yet landowners continue to call for preemptive crackdowns on Canis lupus.
Arguments about protecting elk and deer prove equally flimsy. Wolves tend to pick off the old and the weak of a herd, which benefits the health of the overall hunting stock. If wolves were to kill too aggressively, they’d be the first to suffer, as predator populations dip when they don’t have enough prey to eat. If century-old Lotka-Volterra equations don’t persuade you, there are always raw numbers. In Idaho, where the state aims to reduce the wolf population from 1,500 to 150, supposedly to protect hunters’ interests, elk populations are at near-record highs.
Americans routinely mistake real threats for hoaxes, and hoaxes for real threats. Climate change will do more to disrupt elk populations than wolves ever could, but wolves are easier targets—they’re ready-made cartoon villains. We remain driven by narrative, and conservative news outlets and power-hungry politicians are always selling a story—an unholy union Gianforte’s Sinclair ranch wolf killing so perfectly encapsulates.
The decision to delist the gray wolf was, in some ways, a long time coming. As populations rebounded, Presidents Bush and Obama began rolling back protections for the species more than a decade ago. But the Trump administration was unique in that its every environmental action was oriented toward a more comprehensive vision of a privatized wilderness. Like carving up national monuments and opening them to development, delisting wolves was part of a resurrection of the mentality of the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s, which former Colorado Governor Richard Lamm described in 1982 as a “murky fusion of idealism and greed” and, above all, “a revolt against federal authority.” The goal is to resurrect a Wild West that never really existed—where oil and gas extraction can happen anywhere, hunting and trapping is sanctioned everywhere, and men are truly free.
Wolves have long embodied the dangers of the world unexplored—and unexploited—by humans. History is littered with stories of innocent children tending to their flocks and unsuspecting women foraging for berries chewed up and spit out by wild animals. The Bible, largely written by and for shepherds, warns the faithful to beware a wolf in sheep’s clothing. But in North America today, it’s clear that the real threat is the one humans pose to wolves. Although no wild, healthy wolves appear to have killed a human in the Lower 48 since 1900 (captive wolves or wolves with rabies have a patchier history), recent hunts prove people can exterminate hundreds of wolves in mere hours, and human-caused climate change threatens millions more plants and animals with extinction globally.
We know from experience what we lose when we lose the wolf: We don’t just extirpate a keystone species but also a bit of our humanity. Decades after he and his Forest Service colleagues shot their wolf, Aldo Leopold remembered approaching the animal as a pivotal moment in his developing environmental consciousness: “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes,” he wrote. “I realized then and have known ever since that there was something new to me in those eyes, something known only to her and to the mountain.” He had, just moments before, believed she should die. But Leopold now “sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”