Loving Wolves Too Much?

On Dec. 6, a Wyoming hunter killed one of Yellowstone's most famous wolves, 832F, outside the park's boundaries. It was a legal kill, yet within 48 hours, news organizations across the country ran stories mourning the wolf's death and treating it like, well, the loss of a family friend.

Wolf advocate Marc Cooke of Montana's Bitterroot Valley lamented, "She was an amazing mother." Wolf photographer Barrett Hedges called her "inspirational," while others declared her to be a "rock star" and a "consummate professional." The latter referred to her leadership abilities as the alpha female of the Lamar Canyon Pack, which resides mostly in northeastern Yellowstone.

As someone who has had the good fortune to watch 832F lead her pack across the Lamar Valley, I, too, felt a pang of sadness when I heard the news. Yet I resisted the urge to denigrate her killer and reminded myself why I supported wolf recovery in the first place.

I think we need wolves back in the West because they're an integral part of the region's wildlife and wildness. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone and central Idaho in the mid-1990s, the agency did so because its scientists hoped that their return would enable those ecosystems to function fully and more efficiently. It was not a matter of pure sentimentality, or because they believed that wolves share positive qualities with humans.

By assigning 832F human traits, wolf supporters effectively anthropomorphize her and allow other wolves to be judged using human moral standards as well. Although this might seem natural and even good, it is inappropriate. Wolves may share several good traits with humans, but wolves also routinely kill other animals. Of course, human beings also kill animals for food, but the problem with wolves is that we have trouble controlling when or where or how they kill their prey. And wolves can't read our "no trespassing" or "no hunting" signs.

Wolves' natural propensity to kill deer, elk and cattle was originally used to justify their eradication from the Rocky Mountain West. Not so many decades ago, newspapers characterized wolves as bandits, criminals and desperadoes, and a threat to human beings as well. Ranchers and other Western settlers denounced the vicious way that wolves attacked and killed their prey as immoral. This helped to make their absolute destruction an honorable task.

Opponents of wolves' reintroduction in the 1990s often accused wolf supporters of romanticizing the animals while failing to understand the "savagery" and "cruelty" that wolves exhibit when they gang up on elderly or wounded prey. Now, by anthropomorphizing wolves as exemplary family members, conservationists risk validating this criticism. Bringing wolves back to function as predators in the wild was a smart decision biologically; it had nothing to do with wolves' moral value.

If conservationists try to justify the existence and protection of wolves on sentimental grounds, they will ultimately lose. For as many 832Fs as have roamed Yellowstone and reflected everything good we want to see in ourselves, there have been just as many Bear Paws, Three Toes, Unaweeps and other wolves that gained notoriety for their ability to kill dozens of livestock in the dead of night, slip away undetected and later avoid the traps set to capture them.

If wolf supporters want to do right by the environment and its wildlife, they need to make their arguments at the species level, eschewing the urge to portray wolves as incarnates of human goodwill.

Additionally, wolf supporters must not forget that we've already debated whether to allow wolves to be killed. During the reintroduction process, the Sierra Club and Audubon Society took a hard-line stance that supported giving wolves full protection under the Endangered Species Act. In the spirit of compromise, groups such as the Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Foundation supported restoring wolves as experimental populations. This designation, created by the 1982 amendment to the law, gave wildlife managers flexibility in balancing the needs of endangered species and people. In the case of wolves, it also allowed managers to kill them in certain instances. Although the Sierra Club's Legal Defense Fund sued the Fish and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on this contentious issue, wolves came back to the West without absolute protection.

If it weren't for this concession, I don't think wolf packs would be roaming the West today. So before you get too riled up about 832F's death, stop and realize that killing wolves has been part of the deal since the beginning. And if wolf advocates 20 years ago had not been magnanimous enough to recognize that killing a wolf from time to time was the cost of recovering them on land shared with ranchers and farmers, no one would have had the opportunity to watch 832F—or any other wolf—at all.

This story first appeared in High Country News.