Call of the Wild

August 31, 1992

The legendary timber wolf once roamed vast regions of the northern Rocky Mountains before it was nearly driven to extinction by trapping, shooting and poisoning. The federal government now proposes to restore a small number of the lupine predators to their historical range in Yellowstone National Park, as it has done with the bison and other endangered species.

The wolves will thrive on the burgeoning elk herds, restoring a natural control to the ecosystem, albeit at the expense of providing sport for hunters. They may also kill some livestock in and around the park, as opponents of the plan warn. And they could pose a potential danger to a human in rare circumstances, as has an occasional grizzly bear.

National parks are not museums or zoos, but a place where millions of visitors can refresh their souls with the atavistic affirmation that nature still reigns here, even if traversed by hiking trails, lodges and information centers. Park visitors mostly accept that nature here is not as it is in storybooks.

Opposition to the Fish and Wildlife Service idea -- a decision is due in May -- does not come from timorous tourists but from farmers, ranchers, hunters, miners and loggers who share the parks and forests with animals. They raise concerns about the loss of sheep and cattle from beasts that respect no man-made boundaries.

But their real fight is part of a larger campaign waged for control of western lands, the battle between those who draw a living from the land and the preservationists who would protect its natural heritage. It is a tense and passionate conflict over land use and restrictions, a reflection of the competing demands for public lands. But the dispute does not demand an all-or-nothing resolution, rather a weighing of claims in different cases.

The return of the wolf to Yellowstone should not be viewed as some paw-in-the-door scheme by land-lockup environmentalists, or by ivory-castle ecologists. Reintroducing up to 100 wolves on millions of acres won't endanger human domination. Limited livestock losses would be a small price to pay for the traditional cheap use of federal lands by ranchers.

Much maligned by humans for its sanguine predations, the wolf has also been respected and even worshiped for its craftiness and (dare we say it) its loyal family values. Restoring the wolf to Yellowstone would be a healthy expression of man's willingness to share the land with other species, and would enhance the thrilling human enjoyment of the call of the wild.

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