We should let wolves be wolves

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The Fish and Wildlife Service wishes to declare the gray wolf successfully recovered throughout Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and adjacent parts of Washington,Oregon and Utah. Some say "It's about time." Others say "Not so fast."

The Endangered Species Act stipulates that endangered species be restored to "all or a significant portion of their former range" to count as recovered. But what if wolves occupy only 5 percent of the designated recovery area, as they do in this case? What about the Wyoming, Salt River and Bear River mountains?

How dearly people love dogs, yet how violently some of them hate wolves - a fact more revealing about humans than about canids. It suggests a puerile militarism ("You're either with us or against us.") targeted on the wolf as symbol of inhospitable nature.

Sometimes nature must be tamed (a warm fire) or eradicated (smallpox) to make the world habitable to humans. But unbridled enthusiasm for taking on the role of nature's manager spawns willful ignorance of our inescapable dependence on wild nature - a pathological condition aptly described as alienation.

It is exemplified, for example, by denial, in the face of overwhelming evidence, of human-caused global warming and the calamities it will spawn if we do not quickly clean up our act. It is exemplified also by hordes of people romping over the land on ATVs in gleeful abandon, treating nature as little more than a roller coaster with pretty scenery, never mind the consequences to watersheds, wildlife and quiet recreation.

And it is exemplified by so-called sportsmen who demand that wildlife be managed farm-like to provide them with easy, successful hunts - never mind the incremental costs to ecosystem health and the endless need to micromanage.

A more realistic and saner view sees our place in nature as bounded, not by our ingenuity, which inevitably outstrips our foresight and our wisdom, but by moral necessity. Beyond an admittedly fuzzy line there is wild (self-willed) nature, substantially whole. We owe it respect, just as we do our own bodies. And this means that we should try not to screw it up.

Some folks rebel against the imperative for self-restraint. They assert that no part of nature is entirely free from human influence (which may be true), or that human beings are part of nature, too (which is true), and from there fly on the wings of fallacy to the absurd conclusion that to posit wild nature in contradistinction to the human world is to falsify reality - as if, having once inhaled second-hand smoke, you might as well begin smoking five packs a day.

There are sound reasons why we ought to encourage wolf recovery to all parts of wolves' former range still capable of supporting them. One hypothesis worth taking seriously is that it will do more than any other single thing we are capable of doing, at the cheapest possible cost, to mend our ailing ecosystems and watersheds and keep them healthy - something that becomes increasingly urgent with the growing specter of global warming causing catastrophic habitat loss and species extinction.

So far, the truth of this claim is unfolding wondrously in Yellowstone National Park, as wolves (along with cougars) reclaim their rightful place in the scheme of things: healthier watersheds and riparian systems, supporting a richer biota, better capable of withstanding, and to some extent ameliorating, global warming.

Second, large predators roaming the land will do much to inspire appropriate respect for nature in surly humans, at the same time affording those with the requisite aesthetic sensibility opportunities to appreciate the priceless beauty and sublimity of nature in all its majestic otherness.

Humans should worry less about mastering nature and more about mastering themselves. Let there be wolves.


* KIRK C. ROBINSON is director of Western Wildlife Conservancy.