Return of the Wolf
Protesters gather at a rally Saturday, March 20, 2010, on Center Street in Jackson Hole, Wyo., demanding that the government begin regulating the wolf population in the Greater Yellowstone region.

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There are wolves, and then there are wolves.

One is the gray wolf, reintroduced to the Greater Yellowstone area in 1995 after a 70-year absence.

The other is a cloudier notion wrapped up in a national drama of public, moral and legal perception.

The reintroduction itself has been successful in that there are about 1,700 wolves in the Northern Rockies - a population the federal government deemed healthy enough to remove the wolves from the endangered species list in Montana and Idaho.

Yet groups on both sides of the debate continue to appeal to the public's idea of the wolf as either a fierce, unwelcome predator or an elegant symbol of Western wildlife.

One point that the clashing interest groups have agreed on is that there's truth in both archetypes.

"If you don't live here, wolves are great," said Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "But if you do, they can be a pain in the butt, and it's a small minority of local people who fully experience that."

A hard story to tell

Ken Hamilton of the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation said the story of the wolves has been muddled from the beginning, due largely to a widespread misunderstanding of how local people are affected by wolves.

"The biggest problem is getting people to understand agricultural concerns because it's impossible to boil the whole agricultural process into a 30-second sound bite," Hamilton said. "We ask, ‘How can we condense our message?' but that's almost dishonest at times."

Communication of such a complex issue can be daunting on both sides of the fence.

"People start telling themselves a story, and once they say it over and over again, to them it's fact," said Suzanne Stone, a Northern Rockies representative of Defenders of Wildlife, a national environmental group with a Bozeman office. "There's a bigger story out there that's simply misunderstood."

Like Hamilton, Stone feels there's "a misconception of what's happening on the ground."

"If you put the weather on the front page whenever it rains in Boise, and you ignore the nicer days, people are going to think we live in the wetlands," Stone said.

Hamilton also compared it to weather.

"From here in Wyoming, we have a hard time coming to terms with the entire impact of hurricane damage in Louisiana," Hamilton said. "A story that plays out on the national level can have unintended consequences when it's being borne by the people at home."

Doug Smith, a wolf biologist with the National Park Service, said the message often gets garbled when people see only one piece of the story at a time.

"It's not that people aren't capable of understanding it," he said, "but that they are exposed to only snapshots of what is actually a complex system.

"But it's not easy to explain that to someone who hates my guts," said Smith, who lives in Gardiner. "The more social tolerance we have for wolves, the better."


Symbol of the wild

According to Bangs, "wolf stuff generally has nothing to do with wolves at all, but it has everything to do with the symbol of the wolf.

"Really, wolves are boring. People are fascinating."

Mike Leahy, Rocky Mountain regional director of the Defenders of Wildlife, said people outside the area can have a sense of "nature deficiency disorder," which sparks an interest in the wolf as a symbol of the wild.

"The fact that people from across the country have such an interest in the wildlife out here reflects how depauperate their own areas are," Leahy said. "Wolves aren't necessarily overly romanticized, but rather a natural curiosity."

Hamilton said he is constantly frustrated by the difficulty the Wyoming Farm Bureau has in overcoming that representation of the area.

"We try to make the case to people that don't seem to understand how complicated our position is," Hamilton said. "What mostly plays out on the national scene, though, is that we're ‘anti-wolf.'"

He said the Farm Bureau would welcome the natural migration of wolves into the area, so "anti-wolf" is not an accurate description of its position.

Bangs suggests people tend to see the issue through "wolf-colored glasses," which would explain the "pro-wolf" vs. "anti-wolf" perception. People close to the issue, he said, are aware of how oversimplified that is.

Continued protection?

Last week in Jackson Hole, Wyo., hunters and outfitters rallied to repeal government protection of the wolf in their state. With signs urging federal lawmakers to "Save Wyoming Wildlife, Delist the Canadian Wolf," and "Our 4fathers were Not Stupid," the protest signified the ongoing debate over whether endangered species protection is warranted.

And it's not only hunters who feel the wolf is ready to make it on its own.

Bangs is a proponent of delisting the species and wants to "fold them into other protection programs like those in place for mountain lions and bears."

"Is the Endangered Species Act a good tool for routine management?" asked Bangs. "In the long run, the future isn't good for wolves with more of that kind of protection."

Some environmental groups, such as Defenders of Wildlife, are against delisting because they believe the wolves are not fully recovered.

On the issue of wolves, federal scientists and environmental groups haven't, until now, often found themselves on opposite ends of the argument.

Smith and Bangs said delisting the wolf has always been their ultimate goal and that wolf populations are viable enough to do so.

The Defenders of Wildlife, based on its own scientists' findings, thinks it's too early.

Yet all involved agree that how the public comes to understand this next step in the almost century-long saga of the wolf is crucial to how the animals and the people surrounding them learn to coexist.

But the public understanding across the nation depends on whether the full story gets out, rather than just the black-and-white bits of it.

"Everybody wants clear answers, but it's not that simple," Smith said. "People look at this sometimes as if we live in a fishbowl, but honestly, both the science and the people here are more complex than we could possibly imagine."

Michael Gibney can be reached at or 582-2638.

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