Lessons From Wolves

The survival or defeat of the wolf symbolizes the way people are able to access the land according to their culture-

Lessons From Wolves by Jami Wright. Izilwane .

Ms. Wright is a graduate student completing her thesis for a master’s degree in Cultural Anthropology at Western Washington University. Her thesis focuses on human-human conflicts surrounding wolves in Idaho. She interviewed  many people (including myself) to complete this article.

It is my view that anthropology, sociology, social psychology and political science are more important for studying the wolf than biology. Wright’s article well describes the cultural conflict taking place in Idaho. I’d say that the wolf issue is just a tiny part of a number of intense cultural issues that are ripping the United States apart. The United States is a unique nation in that it is composed of people (peoples) from many places who share a common set of political beliefs.  Most other nations are based on a common language, religion, long history, etc.  Americans increasing no longer share common political or other basic beliefs. Therefore, instability has set in.

When she wrote “The survival or defeat of the wolf has come to symbolize the ability to access land in culturally specific ways, ultimately sustaining or depleting one’s own culture” she is, in my view, referring to the entire series of controversies over the proper way to use the land that have grown in intensity in Idaho and the Western United States over the last 40 years: wilderness, endangered species, grazing, timbering, energy production and transmission.





  1. Lisa Upson Avatar
    Lisa Upson

    Ralph is right on when he says “anthropology, sociology, social psychology and political science are more important for studying the wolf than biology.” The wolf issue and most conservation issues are driven by values, identity/psychology, cultural, socio-economics, and political concerns. Ultimately, it’s all social, since humans make the decisions. Yet, we as conservationists in the U.S. focus on biology and sometimes ecology. My feeling is that we need to take a multi-disciplinary approach to conservation goals — our internal work needs to be more integrative, as do our strategies and external work. In today’s world, I don’t see how we are effective any other way. And I think it’s fair to say that many of our efforts are not as effective as they should be (except litigation, perhaps) given the resources we expend.

    I’m excited to see Jami’s cultural/anthropological approach to the wolf issue in Idaho and hope to see more analyses in our work collectively along these lines, calling on other disciplines that are where the issues actually reside. At the same time, rather than abandoning biology and ecology, we need to engage in more science policy outreach to the public and institutions, using the plethora of good science out there more effectively. As a part of this, we can become better educators. In my view, both research and advocacy efforts should become more diverse and multidisciplinary. We’re in the business of change and influence, so we need to address the work accurately (as to what’s required in those processes) if we want to be more successful.

    I am in the process of launching a network for integrative conservation that has as its primary goal to connect folks who are interested in cross-discipline perspectives and provide resources for addressing conservation work in this way. There is already a lot of international work being done from this perspective, and we need to bring aspects of this approach into our domestic work. Look for my network in the near future.

    1. Salle Avatar

      I have to agree and am glad to see someone else has managed more traction on this set of issues than I did when I gave a speech on that very topic to a crowded room in 2001. Guess things hadn’t become so blaringly obvious at that time.

      I’m looking forward to the network launch.

      1. Tara Lumpkin Avatar
        Tara Lumpkin

        Jami Wright’s article on wolves was just published in the online non-profit ezine, Izilwane. We are a group of 30 people who have worked for over a year as volunteers to create an integrative conservation ezine that focuses on biodiversity across disciplines. Our tagline is that “Connecting the human animal to the global ecosystem.” Our writers are usually graduate students working in conservation biology, anthropology, and other disciplines as well as people who work for NGOs, and also people who just care and have something to say. As Project Director, I have personally put in 14 hour days seven days a week for free for a year and a half to make this happen. I have a background in international conservation work and in environmental journalism and felt that there was the need for an ezine to address conservation in a new way and to get the word out to the mainstream. Izilwane also has photo galleries and we plan on posting video. We are looking for contributors to our ezine and for volunteers and, of course, for donations. Check us out at Izilwane.org.

      2. Ralph Maughan Avatar


        You’ve always been ahead of the curve.

      3. Salle Avatar

        Thanks Ralph, but I would like to counter that it’s not always. Though I must admit that it is very frustrating when it does happen… It takes a long time for others to see what I meant. Maybe they just have so many different points of reference and that my perspective is so unfamiliar… things that are soooo obvious to me don’t seem to register with others until it whacks them between the eyes ~ can’t see the forest for he trees? I would rather be proactive, unfortunately though, that’s contrary to the going sentiment most of us are conditioned to carry. I had to learn to go about things differently due to a need to survive.

  2. JB Avatar

    “I propose that we must better understand the cultural factors, or human issues, affecting wildlife management in order to initiate the needed changes that will allow us to share space with the wolf and each other, ultimately protecting our natural resources for future use.”

    I could not agree more.

    1. Dude, the bagman Avatar
      Dude, the bagman

      Indeed. We can’t really solve social structure/behavioral problems with technical fixes. Although “further study” is politically convenient because it means we don’t have to make any hard choices, it’s just punts the problem into the future.

      If we want to change our behavior that is causing our environmental woes, the incentives need to run in the right direction. (For example, carbon tax vs. carbon sequestration fantasy).

  3. Devin Avatar

    Deborah Stone and Murray Edelman would be happy to read this article 🙂

    Interestingly enough, I was heavliy considering doing this very topic for my undergrad thesis. I ended up switching theses but thanks for posting this articles as it is a major interest of mine.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar


      I hope someone will take the time to do this on the wolf issue.

      In a way I think I should still try write an academic article now and then, but the trouble is no one reads them beyond academe. Instead we get our “knowledge” from interest groups, TV talking heads, radio and TV ranters, politicians.

      I have to congratulate JB for what he is doing and obviously rejecting my pessimistic feelings.

      I hope the future will be changed by people like you and Jami Wright who wrote the article I posted above today.

  4. Kayla Avatar

    Just personally do think that this is an excellent article and Thanks for Posting!

  5. Rita K. Sharpe Avatar
    Rita K. Sharpe

    This,indeed,is an excellent article,Thank you for the posting.

  6. Sudelle Avatar

    Thank you for posting this article!
    I am sure it is a question of timing, that the human- factor in this wolf question will get its due attention, bringing a shift in the perspective. And maybe the academia is moving away from the anthropocentric position and the study of the other,” the object,” toward the era of Rights of Nature movement…
    As a Mexican gray wolf citizen activist here in NM I have done my fare share on-the-ground participant observation (a cultural anthropologist myself) and it is pretty obvious that the agencies, for one thing, would greatly benefit from having a cultural anthropologist on board!
    One could also go beyond cultural anthropology, and the viewing/identifying the stakeholder groups in the wolf issue along the traditional lines of…ranchers, hunters, Natives, environmentalists etc, as some sort of groupings of ideological whole. It would be interesting to break down those categories e.g. by whom is that anti-wolf rhetoric carried and why. Oral histories.
    As an academic discipline American Studies seems to be more willing to reach out to the general public, bringing the studies more accessible to the people. Maybe that could break down some myths.

    1. Jami Wright Avatar

      Have you read Jon T. Coleman’s “Vicious: Wolves and Men in America”? I think you would really like it. He is a historian and discusses the use of folklore in wolf extermination.

  7. Mike Avatar

    With all due respect to the article writer, I feel you’ve already lost people with these lengthy explanations. Sure, you may have interested a few educated liberals who appreciate nuance, data and exposition, but you’ve lost almost all of white, rural America who only respond to emotion. These people are incapable of incorporating “a new trick”, and will ignore any science that challenges their world view.

    In the end, it’s just feel good talk. What we need to do is enable a system where science is in charge of wildlife, not commerce. The ESA is a huge help in that, and with a structure enforcing scientific solutions to scientific problems with a top down, hammer-like approach, the wolves can succeed. Sometimes the boss has to be the boss. The problem with this is the two party system, and of course the current weak management of wildlife and public lands by the Obama administration (who have been a gigantic disappointment in terms of conservation).

    What Joe Six Pack thinks of wolves on his government subsidized lease is irrelevant, and should be made abundantly clear. This is a scientific issue.

    As our species evolves, inconsequential grumblings from people who have no bearing or importance to the place of mankind and our earthly neighbors will be rightfully forgotten. As the world warms, and the population explodes, science will come to the forefront. It has to, or we face the end.

    1. Mike Avatar

      After I posted I came across this brilliant piece by Bill Maher tonight blasting false equivalencies:

      1. Salle Avatar

        HBO took away the video access due to copyright claims.

        I agree that this should be a situation where science takes precedence, and that the white rural (as you put it) can’t fathom anything outside of their small worlds… However, dumbing down the info isn’t going to help. When I made my speech a decade ago, I asked all the scientific audience to please, please make their findings more available and understandable to the general public so they can be properly informed of the scientific findings and then go forth in the decision-making process. It doesn’t seem to matter much if they do. As we have seen, when someone like Rupert Murdoch with his billion$ comes along with an agenda that is directed toward illuminating ignorance by creating highly emotional crises to keep real info from being heard and discussed, the big $$ always gets one over on the rest of us. Technology has made this possible.

        I am concerned that all this harping about how technological advances are the answer becomes a fallacy when I can find little evidence that technology has really done all that much for the biospheric inhabitants. Natural selection is a thing of the past even though it was a major factor in naturally controlling overpopulation by any species; technology requires manipulation of natural resources into one-use products. Some might argue that all the “advances” have brought us all kinds of conveniences… so we can have time to seek out other resources to exploit and then discard whomever was in the way of gaining that resource and then the resource iitself. It makes no sense but we keep doing it and claiming that our lives are so much “better” for it. I feel otherwise, for me life is better with minimal “convenience” that many Americans claim they can’t live without.

        Convenience is the great pied piper of industry and corporate control, they claim it betters our lives.. so we can have more time for the corporate owners to control our lives for their benefit by giving us more time to devote to our jobs, which most allow to define their value in this world.

        What you don’t know will hurt you.

        Think about it for a few minutes, just what has this species ~ humans ~ really contributed to the biosphere and its ability to sustain all life forms, beyond our own? Anything humans have done for the health of the biosphere are only in response to damage humans have already done.

        As a cultural anthropologist and political scientist, I think that we, as a species, need to start thinking in terms of biospheric health because that is the big picture reality, without a healthy biosphere, we won’t be surviving either. We need to control ourselves before we can expect to place controls on other life forms. We perceive that we are in control but in reality, mother nature rules, anything we place our ideologically physical power/controls on has been destroyed so that it becomes worthless to any other life form… with the exception of things we loathe like bacteria and cockroaches who will probably and ultimately survive beyond the reign of humans.

        Sorry to rain on the parade but I feel that there are too many people who don’t get it nor will they because they are too distracted by convenience whether it is TV punditry, the newest gadget or ignorance by choice.

      2. Mike Avatar

        Salle, try this one:

        We have to get past the false equivalency.

    2. JB Avatar

      “What we need to do is enable a system where science is in charge of wildlife…”

      Mike: Science can’t be “in charge of” anything. Science can’t tell right from wrong or good from bad. Science is simply a tool for answering questions about the nature of things. We argue about wolves (and other wildlife) because we hold conflicting values that greatly impact our views concerning the goals of management (social science HAS told us that much).

      Once a goal is set, science can be used to determine if it is being met; but science can never determine what the goal of management should be. Politics will always play a role; and the more contentious the issue, the more messy the politics.

      1. Mike Avatar

        I don’t think wolves are a contentious issue. The complications arise from rural people who use the wolf as a target for their unhappiness. There’s nothing complicated about wolves or what they do.

        The encounters with wolves and livestock are so few and far between, and across such great distances that it’s simply blown out of proportion by a few people with megaphones.

        The position of a few hundred thousand people across the interior west is far out of the mainstream of society. What they think of wolves is irrelevent. If people *really* wanted to see more elk, they would stop shooting them. That would be the first measure.

        I’ve said it many times before, but this is nothing more than a people problem. When the cost of energy forces these folks back to the cities, only then will the wildlife get a reprieve. It will happen – make no mistake about it. The only question is when.

      2. JB Avatar

        “I don’t think wolves are a contentious issue.”

        ~250,000 people commented on the FWS’s last attempt to remove wolves in the NRMs from the endangered species list. I don’t think there is any wildlife issue more contentious than wolf management.

        “What they think of wolves is irrelevent.”

        Actually, what they think is highly relevant, because as soon as wolves are delisted, states will manage wildlife for their citizens, heavily weighted toward the interests of hunters and ranchers–you know, the people that live in rural areas?

        “I’ve said it many times before, but this is nothing more than a people problem.”

        Well, on that much we can agree. But I don’t see the cost of energy moving any of these folks any time soon.

  8. Tim Bondy Avatar

    Mike: Thank uzz fer pointin ut us rurral white forks cants understood them there edumecated professionshipers. We just nedz a gun an some leed so wez can blast them varmain ded. Butz yuz wrongs abuts us not caterin to new tricz. Juz a few dazs ego me and da wife casted one of the balott thingies for da firct timz. Ors uncle Billy Bob sez to fill in da oval on the ballot that haz an R. He sez R is fer beinz Right and D is for devils.

    1. william huard Avatar
      william huard

      You sound like the modern day conservative to me

    2. Ralph Maughan Avatar

      We really do get comments here like TIm Bondy’s sarcastic comment above.

      I usually can’t tell where they come from — are they rural? Sometimes.

      We just send them to spam, but maybe we should post some of them.

  9. Rita K. Sharpe Avatar
    Rita K. Sharpe

    Mr. Tim Bondy,We,individually,might not always agree with what people post on this site,either an item or an opinion.We,generally,focus on widlife,but we do get side tracked at times.However,I find your comment uncalled for.I am glad you have the freedom of speach that enables you to express yourself but there are better ways than the overly dramatic rant.

    1. Elk275 Avatar

      The world needs a little humor.

      1. Rita K. Sharpe Avatar
        Rita K. Sharpe

        True,Elk275,but what’s funny to some isn’t for others.

  10. Nancy Avatar


    The Bill Maher video is available to watch on the Huffington site.


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