It’s not biology: controversy about wolves is cultural politics

Except for the uninterested, and there a quite a few of them, the 21-year old controversy over wolf restoration in the West is not really about wolves. Unfortunately instead, it has become another “values” contest. To some degree it has also become another red versus blue dispute.

When wolves were first reintroduced in 1995, with a second batch in 1996, there was some genuine debate whether this was the best way to restore them to their native range in Idaho and Wyoming, or whether it was best that they slowly come back to the Northern Rockies on their own by southward migration from Alberta and British Columbia.

Experts and average folks alike discussed whether a wolf reintroduction would take hold or wither and die, whether or not the wolves would reduce elk and deer populations. Would they kill thousands of cattle and sheep each year? Would they be a threat to people in the woods?

Much knowledge has now been gained. There are at least a hundred scientific studies about the reintroduced wolves. I thought about making this a summary but this would have to be expanded into at least a small monograph.

At the outset, there were those dead set against wolves no matter what. They came mostly from public land ranching and some agricultural related interest groups like the Farm Bureau Federation.

Other people were completely in favor of the new wolves right from the start, but many folks seemed genuinely open to new information. The militant anti-wolf narrative didn’t develop and spread until about 5 years had passed.

Politicians played an important role spreading this opposition narrative. In 1995, a Republican Senator from Montana, Conrad Burns, predicted the wolves would kill a child within a year. It didn’t happen, nor did anything like it happen in the wolf recovery zone in the next 20 years. However, in the U.S. Senate Burns was able to cut off funding for the scheduled second wave of reintroduction in 1996.

The wolves were brought south that year anyway using some departmental excess funds, donations from non-profits, and volunteers. The Democratic Governor of Wyoming Dave Freudenthal repeatedly told the media that the 30 or 40 wolves then in the state were doing the impossible — literally destroying Wyoming’s economy. Soon other politicians, almost all from Western rural areas took up the anti-wolf cause, increasingly using militant language.

This rural geographic base of political support for anti-wolf gives it a political advantage because localities can elect people. In fact, all American elections except for the President come out of geographic districts. Pro-wolf opinion is often the majority nationwide and this is true even in Western states. It comes mostly from the cities of the West and is distributed around the country with much less geographic clustering. It is rarely concentrated enough to win elections.

Those familiar with politics will recognize the political logic of having a concentrated local viewpoint in opposition to a widespread, more numerous, but nowhere densely clustered view in the other direction. The concentrated view or interest is likely to win. This breakdown is common in political issue after political issue. This is one of the most important lessons to be learned about practical politics.

Besides the unfortunate political logic faced by pro-wolf groups, the wolf advocates have also been taken to task by some of their friends for making mistakes both tactical and strategic, but there is a good reason to believe that the current situation of a slowly declining wolf population due to human mortality coupled with very unpleasant anti-wolf rhetoric would have happened regardless of any tactics the pro-wolf groups used.

For example, from the beginning pro-wolf groups gave financial compensation to livestock owners who lost animals to wolves. Public opinion surveys have shown this tactic in no way improved rural perceptions of wolves nor did it change the belief that wolves drive owners of livestock to the wall financially. The non-violent demeanor of wolves toward humans — no dead children, no attacks on people period — made no difference either.

In fact, the wolf issue was fit into the quiver of anti-government arguments at large that emerged after 2008. Wolves served as a scapegoat to take some folk’s minds off the real causes of the terrible economic disruptions of the Great Recession.

The pro-wolf argument was and remains about the beauty of wolves, the need to restore natural ecosystems, and that wolves have few negative impacts and many positive ones.

On the other hand, the anti-wolf position hardened into apocalyptic tirades. The wolves are said to be the worst thing that has ever happened to big game with the elk and deer in an advanced state of decline. Moreover, they say the agricultural sector of the economy has been delivered a blow to the gut.

While no group is immune to believing conspiracy theories, the anti-wolf position relies on them. The nice thing (or actually the bad thing) about conspiracy theories is that they are almost immune to facts. For example, giving a clear factual rebuttal of a conspiracy theory usually just leads its believers to simply say it shows the fact giver is part of the conspiracy.

Regarding the wolf restoration, many anti-wolf people have been led to believe it is a conspiracy to bring a gigantic non-native beast to Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, from the “far away land” of Canada. Instead, they say, any efforts to recover wolves should have been to restore a supposedly timid, small, and best of all, never seen, native wolf of the Rocky Mountains, canis lupus irremotus.

It is further said that wolf recovery is part of a greater conspiracy to end hunting, destroy game animals, bring in more federal control (or perhaps even United Nations control under something named Agenda 21), destroy gun rights, and the like. The motivation for the conspirators is malice, and under Agenda 21 the goal is the removal of the residents of small towns and rural areas to create a gigantic wildlife preserve.

Wolf advocates have traditionally relied on the federal government to offset what they saw as the backward policies of the Northern Rockies states toward all large carnivores.

Unfortunately for them, after friendly President Bill Clinton, there came two Presidents who were of no help or who aided their opponents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Neither President was personally involved with wolf policy, but their appointments and nominations to key Department of Interior positions ranged from being uninterested in to against wolf restoration. Obama is now about to preside over a disastrous delisting of the Greater Yellowstone area grizzly bear.

Despite these setbacks for those who support wolf restoration, the wolf population has only declined somewhat in Idaho and Montana since an amendment in Congress forced them off the endangered species list. Remarkably the wolf population in Wyoming outside of Yellowstone Park is now growing again after the Wyoming wolf hunt was stopped two years ago by a federal court decision taking wolf management away from that state. In fact, the Wyoming population is now at 383 wolves. This is its highest point since the restoration began. Wolves have also naturally spread to Washington, Oregon, and northern California. These are states that seem more favorable to the concept of wildlife that more into account than an animal’s value for hunting and trapping.

While this is very speculative, perhaps twenty years from now we might see wildlife distributed differently than now which is by geography and habitat rather than by politics. In the future, red states might have big populations of a couple kinds of large grazing animals, designated as “game,” plus varying numbers of other animals, deemed to be “varmints.” The game would be managed much like livestock, e.g., cows are privately owned “slow elk.” Actual elk are public owned quick cows, good for hunting adventure.

By then blue states might have allowed or promoted a much larger variety of wildlife, and they would be treated like wildlife as well as game. The category of varmint would be abolished.

Regardless, the issue will remain unpleasant because it is really about the cultural values of rural versus those of urban and suburban areas. Reason will not prevail. The facts be damned!
– – – – –

Note: this article is a revised version of one published in the Idaho State Journal on May 1, 2016.


  1. Nancy Avatar

    +1 Nice way of putting the facts in order, Ralph, from someone who’s witnessed the gains and setbacks, along with the BS, over the past 20 years in Montana re: wolf reintroduction.

  2. Rita k Sharpe Avatar
    Rita k Sharpe


  3. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    +3 It’s one thing to disagree politically; but the violence and cruelty to an animal is really quite shocking to me. I don’t know why our government goes along with it, especially Democrats. Bizarre.

  4. snaildarter Avatar

    the politics is very sad and part of a much larger irrational debate across America. In the back of my mind I always felt humans would eventually drive most animals to exiniction, but I didn’t expect to see signs of the end of nature in my life time. Sadly the Yellowsotne wolves might be the high watermark of conservation in amercia from here we could easily go back to the bad old days until finally global warming delvers the Coup de gras to the natural world.

  5. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    but I didn’t expect to see signs of the end of nature in my life time.

    Me neither! And all for meaningless crap. 🙁

  6. Susan Avatar

    “For example, from the beginning pro-wolf groups gave financial compensation to livestock owners who lost animals to wolves. Public opinion surveys have shown this tactic in no way improved rural perceptions of wolves nor did it change the belief that wolves drive owners of livestock to the wall financially. ”

    This is interesting and I wonder if anybody has investigated why this is the case. Why does the mitigation of financial losses not change attitudes? And… Attitudes among whom? What was the nature of the surveys and who exactly was surveyed?

    I would like to know if general attitudes among the directly affected group – livestock producers in wolf country – have been influenced by payment of compensation.

    Of course one can guess that producers would prefer to have no wolves on the land at all. There are things I would prefer to be different in my world, but I have to accept that they will not go away; so the question becomes one of mitigation and harm reduction.

    So…. does the payment of compensation increase acceptance of wolf conservation and restoration among producers? Anyone know if this has been investigated?

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan


      I should have added that several surveys showed that the attitudes of the producers of livestock did not change after compensation. I don’t know of any analysis of the view of those individuals who were actually reimbursed for a loss.

      1. Susan Avatar


      2. Yvette Avatar

        My opinion on why the financial compensation doesn’t change their attitudes toward wolves is that the anti-wolf rhetoric is largely based on mythology that is engrained into the cultural mores of the group. The wolf mythology is built into their belief system. Anyone in the group that questions it becomes chastized or ostracized from their group. I see ranchers as a ‘group’.

        Ralph nailed it. This is a political issue. Unfortunately for wolves, that issue is based mostly on the myth that was attached to the wolf stories that were introduced when the early colonists settled this continent.

        1. Mareks Vilkins Avatar
          Mareks Vilkins

          compensation has no effect because, for example, before wolves came in Oregon, ranchers lost more than 70,000 cows & calves annually.

          Few ranchers got compensation for proven wolf depredations (~10 ranchers annually or smth).

          So there should be no surprises that ranchers as a group are collectively wailing / mourning their losses and keep playing broken record. The only difference is that now they can blame all those 60 thousand cows on wolves.

    2. Mareks Vilkins Avatar
      Mareks Vilkins

      to repost one comment (by Bob Mc):

      “National Agricultural Statistics Service shows Oregon cattle ranchers (NAICS 112111) having cattle-death losses of more than 70,000 cows & calves annually in the decade of the ’90s. For most of this decade, the death losses have been in the low 60,000s. Surely, wolves weren’t responsible for the 1990s’ losses? Today, with each of 155 wolves eating a head per week, that still leaves more than 50,000 carcasses annually due to other causes.

      However, the Capital Press (11/16/15) stated “From 2009 through June 2015, Oregon’s confirmed losses to wolves stood at 79 sheep, 37 cattle, two goats and two herd protection dogs.” Somehow, there’s a problem in the wolf-loss calculus. Perhaps the industry avoids preventative husbandry to better shout “Wolf!” to draw attention from the environmental toll of their industry”

  7. Susan Avatar

    “It is further said that wolf recovery is part of a greater conspiracy to end hunting”

    It may not be a conspiracy, but I can see where they’re coming from: the average wolf fan on the (non-rural) street is also anti-hunting, no?

    1. Ida Lupines Avatar
      Ida Lupines


      Anti-trophy hunting? Yes. Hunting for food which may not even be applicable or necessary today because most often it is a choice and not a necessity? A very limited no. When you’re able to buy any number of different kinds of meats in the supermarkets, it’s kinda hard to support hunting for food, but for the narrowest of circumstances.

      Something that was a necessity in days of old was not fun, a reason for family bonding, or a woman’s attempt at self-determination, nor was a hunter guaranteed success – which is what ‘hunting’ has degraded to today. There are other means to accomplish these things. Today you’d call it legal recreational killing.

      There’s something rotten in the Rockies when people begrudge another animal their food, like the many commenters who don’t understand why they can’t hunt in the National Parks, but wolves can! They’re animals, who do not have a choice.

      I’m still shaking my head at a commenter who said that people aren’t allowed to hunt in Yellowstone but wolves are.

      1. Ida Lupines Avatar
        Ida Lupines

        What makes trophy hunting so bad is that it isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime thing with one animal – a lot of these men have trophy rooms that would rival The Museum of Natural History. Why the need for so many dead animals? Why isn’t one enough? They have trophy wives too.

        For example, Palmer already had at least one lion trophy, and many others, including drooling over an elephant for its ivory. I’m glad he isn’t my dentist; I wouldn’t want to wake up from anesthesia without my eye teeth!

        1. Patricia Randolph Avatar

          Ida – You should do what I do – write a pro bono column for your most progressive local newspaper – you are a good writer on these issues. Look up my columns at ( put Madravenspeak into the search box ). I have written over 160 columns for LIVING wildlife the past 6 years – and you can do that for your area.

          1. Ida Lupine Avatar
            Ida Lupine

            I really would love to. Thanks for the encouragement, I never really thought I could seriously do something like that.

      2. BOB Avatar

        You claim NO, then go on a long ramble of all the reasons there should be no hunting even for food.
        You have never hunted and haven’t even the slightest idea why one would hunt so quit trying to guess why a hunter hunts.
        As Ralph once put it “This is not a anti hunting site and I wish those who are against hunting would quit humming the same old tune.”

        1. Susan Avatar

          “When you’re able to buy any number of different kinds of meats in the supermarkets, it’s kinda hard to support hunting for food”

          You must be discounting the fact that livestock production displaces predators from the land.

          1. Ida Lupines Avatar
            Ida Lupines

            No, I’m not. The fact remains that people eat meat. As I’m sure you realize, it seems rather greedy to hunt and raise animals for food too, with little regard for their welfare.

            So you bring up a good point – wildlife is threatened from many sides – displacing them for our countless needs and activities, and killing them outright them outright by hunting or what we deem ‘pest’ control. It’s not the same world anymore.

            1. Patricia Randolph Avatar

              And note that even Arnold Schwarzenegger and TITANIC film director James Cameron have joined to take on this dead carcass diet. They have collaborated on 5 short films on the theme LESS MEAT, LESS HEAT, MORE LIFE – because climate change is 52% caused by animal agriculture and the mass extinction which will shortly take out the last third of wildlife on the planet ( 2/3 killed in just 40 years on the entire planet – from the smallest being to the largest except for humans, of course ) – and 60% of large mammals on earth threatened with extinction NOW – why shouldn’t we be against hunting, trapping and eating animals?

          2. rork Avatar

            I know I think I’m doing less ecological harm by killing deer (and fish) than buying cow (or such). However, there’s a danger that my DNR will think hunters want higher deer densities (which they often do, ignorantly) whereas I want less deer. Current densities are still unsustainable near me in lower MI. The managers lack spine cause economics are involved.

            1. Patricia Randolph Avatar

              Deer are farmed just like cattle for hunter satisfaction. Kill the bucks and leave the does for the next killing crop. It not only does damage by being imbalance ( diseases like CWD and Lyme Disease epidemic in Wisconsin because of destruction of natural predators like wolves and coyotes and bobcats and bears ) but also is total lack of democracy. With state agencies funded primarily by deer killing licenses and trapping and hunting fees – it excludes the balance of the majority of non-hunters to protect any of their commons or have equal say. It is a cartel of killers that control state agencies and it is wrong unless you think that oligarchy like Trump is the way to go.

  8. rork Avatar

    I think there’s problems about plain old lack of knowledge too. I’m saying there is biological controversy. Some people think by decreasing wolf densities we can have less predation on livestock (or less hassle defending against it) and a greater surplus of ungulates. The actual effects of a course of action is not really that well known. The effects are probably changing with time – deer are getting used to wolves being around, and even temporarily lowering deer densities can alter the landscape. Further, the estimates of the size of the costs and benefits (even if we agree perfectly about the math of how many wolves, predations, ungulates, and plant alterations result from a course of action) are different for different people. Simplest example is a hunter valuing elk density more than a non-hunter. I think part of why it gets ideological is cause it’s too complicated for average people to discuss in detail – easier to just go with whatever tribe you favor. In MI there are people who think wolf presence will annihilate the deer, and others who think it may not have much effect long term, but it might be neither of those. In science we joke about “often wrong but never in doubt” attitudes.

  9. Trish Marie Avatar
    Trish Marie

    Substituting wolves as a stand in for “government” began a long time ago. In his lyrical book, “Of Wolves and Men,” Barry Holsten Lopez talked with many different people and viewpoints. There was one particular group though, that really disturbed him: “It was as though these men had broken down at some point in their lives and begun to fill with bile, and that bile had become an unreasoned hatred of many things. Of laws. Of governments. Of wolves. They hated wolves because–they would struggle to put it into words–because wolves seemed better off than they were. And that seemed perverse. They killed wolves habitually, with a trace of vengeance, with as little regret as a boy shooting rats at a dump.
    They were few in number but their voices, screaming for the wolf’s head, were often the loudest, the ones that set the tone at grange meetings and precipitated the wolf’s extirpation in the lower 48 states.”
    This book was published in 1978.

  10. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    ^^And now they screech about hybridization, when their forebears created it by nearly driving wolves to complete extinction! I truly believe now it has extended to people’s pets who even resemble a wolf.

    because wolves seemed better off than they were.

    It’s weird, a bizarre sort of projection not based on reason. I’ll bet a psychiatrist would have a field day with this mindset, but yet it is tolerated. I’ve always wondered if it is a weird sort of envy or rivalry, you can see that some don’t want wolves to have any elk at all, as if they were a human competitor! And yet environmentalists are accused of being too emotional and not making decisions based on reason and science. These people don’t care about science or facts, and there is plenty of both out there to dispute their irrational claims.

    I think most people knew this on a certain level. But I’m glad there’s now data to back it up. We all know that hunting and delisting was done to placate, with the expectation of reciprocity of goodwill. It didn’t. Appeasement policies do not work, and it does not change the perception of the poor animals as ‘vermin’ to be done away with.

    Wolf Hunting and Culling Give Psychological Green Light to Poaching, New Study Concludes

    On the grizzly front, the USF&W is going to review the 5,000 comments they received for ‘anything they haven’t considered and may have missed’. Gerrymandering the comments again. (Probably that means that anything new that they haven’t considered will be counted as ‘1’ comment, and if no comments are new they’ll count them all as ‘0’. I always thought public comments were an indicator of how many people felt the issue was important enough to weigh in on. Silly me.

    Meanwhile hunting regulations continuing full speed ahead, damn the comment period, are going to be submitted later in the week!

    Grizzly Delisting Racks Up Thousands of Public Comments

    I’m convinced that a comment period is nothing but a Federal requirement that the agencies go along with because they have to, and is not taken seriously.

    1. Ida Lupines Avatar
      Ida Lupines

      ^^a Federal legal requirement that is just paid lip service to.

  11. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    Last year and again this year, the Legislature allocated $400,000 from the general fund to the Wolf Depredation Control Board. and up to $110,000 from Fish and Game that is matched by Idaho’s livestock industry. In total, the control board can receive up to $620,000 each year to use for “control actions against wolves when there is a depredation conflict between wolves and wildlife or between wolves and livestock” according to section 22-5301 of the Idaho Code.

    Idaho Fish and Game Commission Chairman Mark Doerr got a lot of laughs from the crowd when he introduced the commission as a way to keep politics out of wildlife management.

    Yeah, it’s to keep any opposition out, while using their money.

    1. Ida Lupines Avatar
      Ida Lupines

      ^^or misuse of money.

    1. Kathleen Avatar

      “The causes of their deaths vary. Many are shot and killed (legally and illegally) by hunters. One died of blood loss after becoming trapped in a snare. Some become untraceable and others die of natural causes. But one pattern emerges: About 75 percent of deaths in the East Fork pack in the past year were caused by human trapping and hunting, park biologist Bridget Borg told Alaska Public Media.
      “By May, only the mother wolf and her two cubs remained. Now, they are gone as well.”

      How sad is that. And this, from Dan Ashe’s blog post in the Huffington Post:
      “But there comes a time when the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service must stand up for the authorities and principles that underpin our work and say ‘no.’”

      Didn’t that time come a long time ago???

      1. Mareks Vilkins Avatar
        Mareks Vilkins

        The East Fork pack’s decline was fast and drastic. In 2013, the nine-member East Fork pack was one of the largest of the nine monitored groups. By the fall of 2014 the pack’s numbers had grown to 17, according to park service data. Then, the numbers steadily drop.

        give anti-wolf hunters carte blanche and they will create genetic bottlenecks for “varmints” everywhere

        1. Yvette Avatar

          “give anti-wolf hunters carte blanche and they will create genetic bottlenecks for “varmints” everywhere”

          Spot on! The same can be said for many trophy hunters, especially the African big “game’ safari hunters. Giraffes are in decline. Giraffes! Their population is down 40% in just 15 years. I know habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation contribute but why hunt them when the population has declined that intensely and rapidly? Just one example.

      2. Louise Kane Avatar
        Louise Kane



Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan