by Martin Murie
The Wolves of Mount McKinley
Olaus Murie, 1944 (1)
(Swans - May 21, 2007) The US Fish and Wildlife Service proposes to delist the wolves presently occupying the northern Rockies. Delisting means that a species has been restored to health and no longer needs protections mandated under the Endangered Species Act. This move, like the move to delist grizzlies, is mean-spirited. I could label it more offensively, but "mean-spirited" will do, because I want to concentrate on our rock-ribbed mentality as top predators, endowed with some kind of mysterious sanction to be the deciders for all: Nature, The Others, humankind, the whole shebang.
We Americans, having fought British imperialism, became the new favored people, destined to own from sea to shining sea. And that's what we did, conquering Native American nations and huge swaths of Mexico and buying the rest to round it out, and not stopping there. We're still at it. Being favored people naturally casts all other humans in our shade. Top predators, we invade when it suits us.
What does that have to do with wolves? Everything. A conquest and ownership mentality drives slaughter of wolves and the slaughter of our own species. Step back about 160 years, the invasion of Mexico. There it is, 1846-48, a preview for the 21st century, laid out for inspection, all the usual colors. The war began with a lie, the claim that the Texas border was the Rio Grande. The president, James Polk, a Democrat, intrigued with his cabinet colleagues and his diplomats and favored generals to take California and New Mexico as well as a hefty slice of land to add to the new state of Texas. The Whig opposition in Congress issued high rhetoric against the administration, but their aim was political power, moral content mostly hot air. In one of the president's messages to Congress, he hooked together, with no subtlety, treason and antiwar protest. The Democratic press was a powerful ally. The Washington D.C. Union declared the war to be "a continuation of the great struggle of the Anglo-Saxon race on this continent for self-government. It is a war of civilization to repress the lawless practice of comparative anarchy and barbarism." (2)
In 1846-48 Thoreau, Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and others raged against the invasion, but most Americans remained silent or welcomed war as a furtherance of Manifest Destiny or a glamorous opportunity for heroism, romance, adventure, or a chance for the Protestant U.S. to savage a Catholic country.
The Spanish maid, with eye of fire,
At balmy evening tunes her lyre
And looking to the Eastern sky,
Awaits our Yankee chivalry
Whose purer blood and valiant arms,
Are fit to clasp her budding charms. (3)
The male chauvinist piggery here is as resoundingly awesome as the smug, puffed up white racism.
The Roaring Forties, steamships and telegraph and railroads linked East Coast cities. Some ships carried typesetters on board to bring war news from the various fronts to New Orleans for instant publication. Riders on fast horses carried New Orleans papers north to the nearest telegraph. Our modern nation was being born, sparkling with a sheen of excitement. Today, bogged down again in war, can we, looking back to those dynamic forties, recognize ourselves? Yes, there they are, bones laid bare, dug-in behaviors of a conquering people, still thriving in May of 2007, strutting, oblivious, bedazzled, like deer caught in headlights.
Back to the wolves. My home state, Wyoming, proposes that once delisting takes place, hunting down of wolves wherever they are not now established will be authorized. Last week, I was lectured by a knowledgeable woman on the subject of predators. We kill off top predators, she told me, and those animals do a lot better job of maintaining the balance of nature than we humans. That's true. In many places, ranges are overstocked with elk, deer, wild horses, burros. Hunters of today are not efficient as predators; they like to find their prey close to where they park their pickups, where predators like wolves, mountain lions, wolverines, and grizzlies hunt year-round and don't mind covering many a mile in their relentless efforts to stay alive. The burdens on those animals are even heavier in the months of feeding their young ones and teaching them the skills of the hunt. Findings like these have been put forward by at least three generations of biologists with some effect, such as grudging acceptance of the Endangered Species Act. Both Democratic and Republican regimes do less than the minimum job of following the mandates of that act, signed by Richard Nixon. In fact, the Bushites have been issuing directives contravening not only the ESA, but the National Environmental Policy Act, the Wilderness Act, and other environmental laws passed by the legislative branch. Why not add these to the articles of impeachment?
Let's take a quick look at southwestern wolves, a subspecies nearly extinct in both Mexico and the U.S. Releases of hand-reared individuals into Fish and Wildlife designated mountain habitats give us a clear, hard lesson in economics. Some wolves do kill livestock. Individual ranchers suffer economically, a few severely, many hardly at all. But the code of the West prevails in New Mexico and Arizona, as well as the northern Rockies. This prime code -- keep the feds off our backs -- involves private property, the right to earn a decent living from ranchlands as well as the public domain. No politician dares to challenge that. It was there from the beginning when big landholders ruled, with guns when necessary. Oh sure, guns had to do with manliness and all that, but more often than not such behaviors were backed by survival-with-profit imperatives.
When one or more of the southwestern wolf packs start killing livestock the feds hunt them down or re-trap them and raise a few more pups for future release. It's as though Fish and Wildlife hopes that sometime, somewhere, wolves will adopt civilized manners and behave the way they are supposed to. Ranchers are compensated when a cow goes under from wolf attack, but proof is necessary. Coyotes, ravens, foxes, eagles, and other profiteers who follow the top predators can leave their own marks on a dead calf or cow or sheep. How do you prove to the satisfaction of government bureaucrats that the killer was a wolf pack? Let's admit right off, and without equivocation, that the landholder has grounds for complaint. Every cow brought to market brings a substantial price. The loss of one cow is no trivial matter.
Okay, it's the wolves' fault. They form a pack and begin to wander, exploring, mapping out a home range. They are grand travelers. Knowing nothing of "designated" wolf range they are going to cross federal lines that have their only reality back in the office on a map. In this case ignorance of the law is excuse enough.
Feds' fault then, for turning wolves loose when they know southwest ranchers will shoot wolves on sight. Why doesn't someone shout, "Hey, we're going around in circles. We're between a rock and a hard place." That hard place as well as the rock is a profit-above-all system that encloses and sanctifies private property in land as well as everything else. Enviros made a bad move when they demonized ranchers who were subsidized by federal agencies to improve public lands for cattle and sheep grazing: reseeding, battling exotic weeds, uprooting junipers, as well as keeping grazing fees low. The varmentalist idea was to retract all those subsidies, starve out the range lords, allow the lands to recover for the benefit of bikers, hikers, and other "elites." Bad feelings sprouted all over again, across the drought-stricken West.
We ought to know better by now; shouldn't jump on one segment of citizenry to solve a problem that is nationwide and a mile deep. Meanwhile, the Bushites have lowered the grazing fee on public lands from $1.56 per AUM to $1.35. (AUM is Animal Unit Month, the amount of forage to keep one cow and one calf healthy for one month).
So, I guess it's everybody's fault, nature included. Evolution created top predators that range widely, and many other species that routinely ignore humankind's marks on documents. Solutions to date are set within the well-understood bounds of the way we Americans do things, thereby steering carefully around the hard places. I'd say that before rampaging off to find groups of our own species to play the role of scapegoats, like immigrants, for example, or federals, and yes, ranchers too, we admit that those hard places and those rocks are there. Bring them into the discussion, the rantings, the timid wonderings, the whole national blather. Then and only then will we be able to laugh at ourselves and proceed to build truly new ideas, or myths, whatever. The wolves are waiting. Next move is ours.
1. Drawings by my father, Olaus Murie. They were published (pages 26-27) in one of the early studies of predators and their place in their ecosystems, The Wolves of Mount McKinley, a National Park Service Fauna, Series No. 5. 238 pages. No ISBN. Printed by the U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, 1944. The author was my uncle, Adolph Murie, Olaus's brother. Adolph was a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (back)
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