Return of the wolves

Jon Margolis

October 15, 1993|By Jon Margolis

HELENA, MONT. — IT WAS hard not to be on Tom Glennie's side.

He didn't give his age, but the words "I was in World War I," were enough. Nor was it necessary for him to explain that he was not accustomed to speaking in public.

In the plain, pressed pants and open-necked shirt of a rancher come to town, Mr. Glennie stood awkwardly in front of two officials in tan suits and fashionable ties and summed up his anguish.

"You are telling me," he said, "that all the people including my father didn't know what they were doing."

That's a terrible thing for a man to hear, even if it is not what is being said, which explains why everyone, pro and con, watched with respect as Mr. Glennie walked to his seat.

What Tom Glennie's father and others had done, with government support, was wipe out the timber wolves in these parts. Now Mr. Glennie had come to a hearing to protest a plan to bring some back, a plan that has aroused opposition far more intense than reason warrants.

But reason has its limits, especially today in the West, and maybe any time, if the subject is wolves.

The Fish and Wildlife Service proposes putting 15 breeding pairs of wolves into the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem each year for three to five years, until there are about 100 of them, enough to form two packs to roam 25,000 square miles.

Whether wolf reintroduction is necessary could be the subject of rational debate. But there is no logic whatever to the contention that it would be disastrous. Yet disaster is just what some predict.

Oh, it might be an annoyance to the few ranchers whose land is right next to the park. Ranchers have enough to worry about -- fluctuating prices, unpredictable weather, mountain lions and coyotes. One more predator is one more bother, even though only a few more animals are likely to be attacked, and the ranchers would be compensated for predator loss, as they are now.

But the hearing attracted opponents who live hundreds of miles from the reintroduction area. Many were not even ranchers, but are convinced that outsiders are meddling in their lives and disparaging their traditions.

"It is emotional," agreed Raney Tschida of the Montana Livestock Association. Ranchers who graze their herds on public land are facing higher fees and now this wolf proposal just enhances their conviction that "the Clinton administration has been bought and paid for by environmental groups."

But the plan to bring wolves back to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho began in 1971, when Bill Clinton was at Yale Law School. It began right after the wolf was protected under the Endangered Species Act, and was required by that law. Whenever a species is put on the endangered list, the law requires officials to try to increase its population enough to justify taking it off the list. That's the plan for the wolves.

It doesn't happen very often. Only 17 species have been delisted, seven of those because they are extinct. But it does happen. Georgia Parham of the Fish and Wildlife Service said it had just proposed delisting the Arctic Peregrine Falcon.

But a falcon is only a falcon. Nobody worries about having one at the door. The wolf was an object of dread long before "Little Red Riding Hood" or the "Three Little Pigs," as long ago as when Jacob gathered his sons for their blessing. Benjamin's was that he "shall raven as a wolf." Somewhere deep in every psyche, it seems, lingers fear of wolves.

Still, this is supposedly a rational age, and much of the anti-wolf case is pseudo-science. There is, for instance, the argument that today's wolf is not the same species that was eliminated in the 1870s because of minute differences in DNA, the basic genetic building block.

The differences may be correct but irrelevant. Steven Thompson, director of conservation and science at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo, said genetic distinctions within a species are "pretty arbitrary," and that what mattered was the "ecological behavior" of the animals. Timber wolves, he said, "by definition are not all that genetically different from one another."

Then there is the claim that when wolves were plentiful they destroyed the deer and elk herds. Actually, people did, and the herds are now abundant thanks to limited hunting. Finally, a few argue that wolves already inhabit the area. A few lone wolves do, but no pairs, much less packs.

For the most part, though, the anti-wolf argument is not science. It is political conspiracy theory. Several speakers said the government really wants 2,000 wolves in the area, meaning large-scale livestock losses and more restrictions on recreational use of public land.

"It's just distrust of government," said Ed Bangs, the Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife biologist who heads the wolf re-introduction program.

Distrust of government is healthy. But so is distrust of anti-intellectual know-nothingism.

The government has no motive to be engaged in a surreptitious plot to overrun the West with wolves. It is simply trying to restore a bit of the natural biodiversity it messed up earlier.

So bring back the wolves. But in the process, someone might reassure Tom Glennie that his father did know what he was doing. Then. And the scientists know what they are doing now.

Jon Margolis is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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