Northern Rockies Wolves Need Federal Protections because State Governance is Broken


Contribution to Animal Culture Magazine

by Dr. Michelle Lute

Dr. Michelle Lute is the Co-Executive Director of Wildlife for All, an organization working to reform state wildlife management and promoting compassion and justice for wild lives and ecosystems. We are pleased to republish Michelle’s insightful article about the urgent need for federal protections on wolves, and look forward to continuing to share her ongoing work with our readers.

If you follow wildlife news, you may have heard about the recent lawsuit from Project Coyote and our co-plaintiff WildEarth Guardians challenging Montana’s aggressive wolf killing and failure to update its wolf management plan. You might also be aware of an impending decision from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regarding restoration of Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for gray wolves in the Northern Rockies. If you’re tracking wolf news, you might wonder why they continually make the news. Delisting has occurred or been proposed for wolves, both nationally and regionally, about 10 times since 2000. Is this just another culture war?

Wolf management decisions are representative of a broader struggle within a society experiencing shifting values. The old-school thinks killing wolves is necessary and seems eager to take wolf populations to the lowest limit. Case in point: Montana aims to so drastically reduce wolf populations using the most inhumane methods, such as snares, that they will rabidly defend inaccurate population estimates and put your companion animals, imperiled species and democracy at risk.

New-school thinking wants wolves protected for intrinsic and ecosystem values beyond use as trophies or to “own the libs.” In their eyes, wolves are ecosystem guardians who contribute to the health and function of nature’s systems and cycles when they are allowed to thrive at ecologically effective densities, without exploitation from humans and with autonomy as conscious beings who deserve moral consideration and have a right to exist.

As a scientist who has studied both human and non-humans, I am exasperated at the continued fighting over ESA protections for wolves. But I have no doubt that preserving lives and ecosystem health will save us as much as it will save wolves.

Think of wolves as the antidote to negative human influences. They defy our attempted cleansing of the environment, which essentially waters down nature’s diversity to monocultures of corn and deer. They counter our influence with a wilder management that changes prey behavior without major reductions in populations. Prey in wolf country move across the landscape differently, which reduces overbrowsing of streamside vegetation and time spent near roads. This translates to better habitats for diverse species and fewer deer-vehicle collisions.

While wolves counter our homogenization, they cannot completely avoid us, and too many humans still hate wolves. Without ESA protections, wolves are subject to the literal slings and arrows–as well as legions of bullets, traps, snares, helicopters, poisons, hounds and snowmobiles–of their outrageously poor fortune to share space with humans driven by hatred that is sanctioned and even promoted by current state policies across the country. States have a long, sordid history of catering to carnivore killers, presenting hunting as the only legitimate form of management. As a PhD in large carnivore conservation, I can assure you it is not. Hunting carnivores only makes prey management more difficult and is a base form of entertainment for the kinds of humans who think it’s morally justifiable to gas pups in their dens, kill whole families of wolves and post photos on Facebook, run coyotes over with snowmobiles (colloquially called ‘whacking’) and set snares and leghold traps to do their dirty work (without regard to who ends up in those traps). Although Democrats have not championed wildlife, the policymakers setting and defending policies like whacking coyotes and hunting imperiled grizzly bears are predominantly conservative.

Perhaps wolves are hated precisely because they counter homogenization–and those intolerant folks don’t stop at wolves.

Photo by Eva Blue | Unsplash

Consider Wisconsin, where the seven-member Natural Resources Board includes five white men, four of whom voted for a wolf hunting season with a quota that ignored federally obligated tribal consultation and their own agency scientists’ recommendations. The Ojibwe tribes of the Great Lakes consider wolves sacred family members. Thus, they do not hunt the approximate 50% of the wolf quota that is allocated to them by treaty rights and instead they “claim” those wolves to protect them. The response? The anti-wolf contingent on the Board openly discussed in a public meeting how to circumvent the tribes’ treaty rights (starting at 4:36).

Consider the Global Indigenous Council’s Wolf Treaty that cannot get Interior Secretary Haaland’s time of day. At the same time, a major national hunter group who works closely to push state agency hunting agendas, also hired Ted Nugent as their spokesperson, the “Great White” denier of systemic racism. Consider the Colorado Parks and Wildlife director retiring after making comments about a Black employee being at “the back of the bus”.

I share these brief examples to illustrate intersections among different forms of prejudice towards both wolves and humans that are insidiously baked into our current decision-making processes. Of course, I am not implying that white men can’t make good decisions about wildlife or that being native or a woman results in better conservation outcomes (look no further than Martha Williams and Deb Haaland for underwhelming leaders in the wildlife arena). What I am saying is that our past and present provide many examples of the powerful elite making unjust policies for vulnerable classes of humans and non-humans alike and that co-occurrence is not an accident.

Democratizing wildlife governance is thus one of many steps needed to reign in the tyrannical elite and reform this nation’s broken systems. With the U.S. democracy falling in global ranking to now being considered a flawed or deficient democracy, we have our work cut out for us. Even in a highly regarded system, democracy is still messy but it allows for ethical dialogue and scientific evidence. It hears all voices, even those who speak on behalf of the voiceless.

The call to relist wolves comes from a place of evidence, care, compassion, respect for others (as individuals and communities of which we are all members) and solidarity with disenfranchised communities who care about wildlife and whose voices are ignored by state agencies. Relisting all wolves is a step toward giving voice to many voiceless interests that seek to protect and promote life, not sell it to the highest bidder.

Kim Hightower is the communications specialist for PAN Works.

Please visit PAN Works for more about our work on ethics and animal wellbeing.




People•Animals•Nature (PAN) is a publication of PAN Works, an ethics think tank dedicated to the wellbeing of animals.