Sticks and Stones and Dead Wolves

This commentary was written for YES! Magazine

Insults. Name-calling. Death threats. Sound like a Trump rally? Actually, it’s all part of the dialogue among conservation-minded folks in response to a recent Washington state decision to kill a wolf pack that had been preying on livestock on public land.

But these aren’t death threats hurled at ranchers or poachers, as one may assume; the mud is being slung within the wildlife conservation community.

“Go enjoy a big old greasy burger,” commented one Facebook user on a Conservation Northwest (CNW) post explaining its support of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife decision to eradicate the Profanity Peak wolf pack.

“Hope you choke:-)”

Melodramatic outcries are blades of grass in the social media landscape, but the vitriol has extended to professionals on both sides of this complex debate.

On one hand are organizations like CNW, which joined a panel of other conservation nonprofits, ranchers, and officials in Washington’s Wolf Advisory Group, and stands behind its sometimes-lethal protocol for managing conflicts between wolves and livestock. On the other side are organizations such as the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), which promoted a rally at Washington’s state capital on Thursday to protest the killings. It has called for a ban on public-lands grazing.

Though many are involved, the discourse between these groups exemplifies the communication breakdown. Members of the CBD have accused CNW of selling out to the cattle industry and supporting the slaughter of a threatened species. Some within CNW have lashed out at the CBD, which does not operate in Washington, for appearing to exploit the plight of the Profanity Peak pack to generate donations.

It’s easy, from the outside, to get caught up in the rhetoric and miss the point. “There’s a lot more agreement than disagreement, but it comes down to the details,” said Noah Greenwald, the CBD’s endangered species director.

Everyone agrees that non-lethal measures to avoid livestock conflicts are the best solution. There were 11 wolves in the pack, and killing any is a last resort, employed only after other means have failed, said Paula Swedeen, CNW’s carnivore policy lead.

But Greenwald and others don’t believe that the advisory group protocol requires enough of ranchers—or even that killing wolves should be an option—and the Profanity Peak pack is the unfortunate example of the agreement’s shortcomings, he said.

Everyone agrees that non-lethal measures to avoid livestock conflicts are the best solution.

It doesn’t help that the rancher whose cattle were lost was involved in the sanctioned killing of six wolves in 2012, or that a Washington State University associate professor had fanned the flames by commenting to The Seattle Times that the rancher “elected to put his livestock directly on top of (the wolves’) den site.” These comments were later said to have no basis in fact.

Then there’s the ongoing and heated debate over public-land use. “I just assume not ever have wolves killed on public lands,” Greenwald said, stressing a need for tolerance that allows for the inevitable. “Even if you’re doing everything you’re supposed to do, you’re going to lose some cows.”

But for those working in places where rural communities meet wild spaces, the ranching industry is not so easily shrugged aside.

Swedeen said that beef producers cannot tolerate a no-kill policy. Many families have held their grazing allotments for decades (True, that’s far shorter than the eons over which wolves roamed wild.) And private pastures in some cases actually help maintain what open space remains in a fast developing world.

Success so far has depended on building relationships with rural communities. For years, government policy allowed for the near complete destruction of U.S. wolf populations. As public opinion on wolves has changed, ranching culture is warming up to the animal’s presence again. Forced concession may hamper long-term efforts.

This year, Swedeen said ranchers—who are compensated for lost livestock—have employed more non-lethal tactics. Still, she could not deny the “viscerally difficult contradiction” of killing a species she’s working to protect.

There was weariness in the voices of people I spoke with about this story. Quickly drawn public outrage can easily paint an overly simplistic picture, when the full image has been pieced together over many years.

Wolves have bounced back in Washington. There are 19 known packs, and CNW’s on-the-ground Range Rider program, which places horseback patrols on grazing allotments, and efforts to build relationships and shift sentiment about wolves among rural communities should not be discounted.

Yet, it’s no exaggeration that by the time you read this, the Profanity Peak pack may be gone. That’s 11 lives, and about 10 percent of the state’s total population.

“Wolves can come back from this, but if you keep killing that many wolves, eventually you’re going to have a declining population,” Greenwald said.

The advisory group will hold a meeting on Sept. 14. Debate is necessary. Outrage over destruction of life is warranted. But we live in a time of excess hyperbole, when misinformation can quickly lead to regrettable action. If your beef is with the cattle industry, may I suggest the chicken?