The Wolf At The Backdoor

Ping… Whack… THUNK.

“Whoa, hey! No throwing rocks at the house!” I yelled to my four year old through the suddenly vulnerable window.

“I’m NOT Dada!” he shot back with an eye-roll that would make a fourteen year old proud.

WHAP.

“Dude! What was that?”

“I’m throwing rocks at the SPIDER!” he explained, exasperated by his father’s denseness.

“Well don’t do that either.”

“Why not?” he whined.

“Just put down the rock.”

I could hardly blame him. Joining him in the yard I saw that she was a big, vicious looking thing – meaty, nut-brown abdomen, eight sturdy legs, and prominent pincers working God knows what unfortunate former insect into a goo ball. If she didn’t trigger a recoil impulse, you probably weren’t paying attention. His wasn’t exactly a well-considered approach, but I could see how he’d gotten there with some compellingly linear logic…. Big scary thing in the backyard = eliminate it. Pretty straight forward really.

It reminded me a little of the recently restirred wolf situation here in Wyoming. On the one hand you’ve got a long suffering local populace that sees the rapidly expanding predator population, not entirely without justification, as an omnipresent threat to their way of life. To hear some folks tell it, the reintroduced gray wolf would make the Grimm brothers proud. Apparently the bloodthirsty devils kill livestock just for kicks, carry off children in the night and, during the slow season, burn the occasional small town. Residents of the Northern Rockies must endure this assault all while subject to the draconian restrictions of a distant, paternalistic authority that bows and scrapes to elitist puppet-masters, neither of whom have any real understanding of the situation on the ground.

On the other hand, you have the strident forces of enlightenment, defending a downtrodden and vulnerable species (perhaps the purest embodiment of what little remains clean and wild in our ravaged world) from the ignorant and backwards provincials who are bent on the wolf’s eviction from it’s rightful home, and ultimately its complete destruction. Theirs is a long and thankless battle, taking one step forward and two steps back against power and fortune, and yet they soldier on for what’s right.

There are a lot of absolutes on each side of that coin. Follow a straight line from either and you’ll pass through plenty of mischaracterizations on your way to a badly skewed perspective. The truth of course, in so far as we can know it, and any chance for a solution, in so far as we dare hope for it, lies somewhere in between. But to get there we’d have to wander from the direct route, and explore the intricate web in which it lies. Do wolves belong on the landscape, and should we fight to keep them there? Hell yes! Does that need to happen in the context of, and in concert with the human community that now shares that landscape? Without question.

Which is all well and good, and easy to propose from the comfort of my armchair, but how does it help me protect my siding from a well-armed little boy?

“Well you see bud,” I reason, crouched beside him below the beast, “if you leave that spider alone, it’ll leave you alone. I promise. Plus it’ll eat up a bunch of mosquitos and other bugs.”

“Will it eat grasshoppers!?” he asked, his lip quivering with sudden outrage and fear. I’d accidentally drawn his favorite quarry into the conversation, unwittingly threatening a sacred cow. Not a good tactic on my part but, surprisingly enough, a staple in the wolf debate.

Wolves are a threat to wildlife, goes my least favorite anti-predator argument. And unlike the caricatures above, that’s more direct quote than parody. They’re eating all the deer, elk and moose I’m told. Thus, as a hunter, I am morally obligated to support their extermination.

I can forgive a lot of each side’s questionable rhetoric. It’s an emotionally charged issue after all, and even the most outlandish positions often grew from a kernel of truth. But I’ve never been able to swallow that rotten gob of rationale. The willful hypocrisy of faulting the natural world for sorting itself, and the egocentricity of denying another what you demand for yourself both catch in my craw. I also bristle anytime someone lumps me into a category or purports to speak in my voice. But mostly, it’s the inherent whininess of the argument that is so objectionable. Sure, elk that have been pushed around by wolves all year are harder to find and kill in the fall. They’re behaving more like elk. When you hunt like me, you don’t need any more cards stacked against you. But if you want my sympathy for the “it’s not fair” complaint you’ll have to behave more like a predator. Make a living catching them on foot and taking them down with your face and I’ll listen.

“Well,” I told my son, “I kind of doubt it, but she is a big one. I suppose she could eat the occasional hopper. But that’s ok. That’s how she gets by. If you want to start eating them too, we can talk about thinning the competition. Until then, please stop throwing rocks?” Thus with the matter settled, and the  fatherly wisdom dispensed, I stood, turned and walked back to the office.

THWACK.

Yep. It’s amazing they haven’t asked me to arbitrate the Russia v. Ukraine conflict yet.

8 Comments on “The Wolf At The Backdoor

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful piece, Matt. The predators that successfully hunt our trout here in the southeast (other than humans) are largely herons, otters, ospreys, and occasional eagles. Some folks use that excuse to terminate these magnificent creatures, notwithstanding protection under the law. I see herons almost every day at my place, and I know they take a bunch of fish. I can’t say I am enthused to see otters take up residence on my property on the Tailwater, but I actually relish observing the playful critters on the river. When a family of otters nest on my bank, which happens from time to time, I can live with them. There seem to be enough fish for them and for decent fishing. If not, I can fish elsewhere. The only other down side is my dog rolling in otter poop. While I try to observe and enjoy the predators on the river, not everyone around here feels the same, and otters in particular are targeted by some people. I know removing stocked trout is not the equivalent of threats to livestock, pets, and humans, and my decision to coexist and try to enjoy the wildlife is much easier; but it’s the closest I can come to relating to the wolf issues you raise. My experience with trout predators helps me to see both sides a bit clearer.

    • You’re right as usual Ralph. There are a lot of parallels there. I guess it just goes to show, we all have our sacred cows

  2. Matt, this an excellent piece of wiring on conflict; how it begins, grows and then polarizes into just two extreme points of view. Finding common ground in the extreme points of view is always a challenge. How wonderful that E. provides such a good training ground for you to hone your skills!

    • Thanks so much Leslie. Having seen E in action, I’m sure you’re not surprised that he keeps me on my toes!

  3. You pretty much nailed it. The quandary of wolf vs man in this day and age is a powder keg. I live just over the hill in East Idaho, And am very familiar with this issue. I used to sit squarely in the kill’ em all saddle until I saw little video piece on the benefits to the watersheds in Yellowstone due to wolves hunting behavior and them chasing and killing the elk, who ate all the streamline shrubs and such. I’m an obsessed fly fisherman, and, well, hell, it just made sense! I see the errors of my ways and now see the intelligence of a balance. Thanks for your piece here, it’s mighty welcome in my camp. Nice to feel I’m not alone.

    • Thanks Ross. I think I’ve seen that same video somewhere along the line. Wolves benefitting trout… it’s pretty interesting take on the intricate and not always intuitive interactions of the natural world.

  4. Very nice piece. You make it clearly and easily understood that balance is the essential ingredient in all things while reminding us that we are all in this together.

    Just in case there are a few folks out there who haven’t read “Thinking Like a Mountain” by Aldo Leopold let me urge you to please do so, immediately. “The Return of the Wolf to Yellowstone” is also well worth the read.

    • Thanks Gary. I’ve actually not read either, so I appreciate the recommendations.

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