Defanging Nature: How Human Exceptionalism is Destroying the Wild
Together, the states of Utah, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming rake in billions of dollars in tourism revenue, much of it coming from outdoor—as opposed to cultural—attractions. “If Utah don’t got it, you don’t need it,” Utah. Com’s website assures. “Open your mind and invigorate your senses. Because some things can’t be explained, only experienced,” travelwyoming.com says. Idaho’s marketers skip the metaphysics and say only that “there’s an adventure for you in Idaho.” For insight into what these experiences and adventures entail, look at the photo galleries on these states’ various tourism websites, which typically feature images of individuals and families engaged in wholesome, low-intensity activities—walking, canoeing, fly-fishing, and horseback riding—as well as images of tranquil landscapes and wildlife, with distant mountains, rivers, trout, elk, and bison as the clear favorites.
Effective advertising (which is just hyper-abbreviated, dopamine-triggering story telling) depends on the manipulation of human emotions and desires, so depicting smiling people surrounded by clear skies, open landscapes, and non-predatory wildlife makes sense. Humans (especially humans with young children) want to feel safe when they are in nature, even when they are not. “There’s a dark and a troubled side of life,” one song goes. “But there’s a bright and a sunny side, too.” Tourists usually (and understandably) desire the latter; images that signal danger of any kind (and thus inspire fear or unease) are therefore verboten from a marketing perspective.
But as we know from numerous examples of humans acting badly in nature, a healthy dose of fear may be exactly what many people need before entering the primal scene. Romanticized depictions of nature are contrary to this goal, first, because like any fantasy they are unrealistic and undermine people’s understanding of and ability to engage nature on its own terms. Second, the depictions belie the reality that western states continue to be places of mortal danger, terror, and violence to wildlife, especially predators, not because they are necessarily more dangerous to humans than other wildlife (bison injure far more people at Yellowstone National Park than any other animal), but because humans are more dangerous to them.
Mountain lions, black and grizzly bears, bobcats, fox, and coyotes each suffer their own forms of human insult (some are trapped, others are hunted with hounds, coyotes are poisoned), but no other animal on the western landscape has experienced more sustained brutality and ignorance at the hands of humans than the wolf. And it’s only getting worse, particularly in those states where, from the perspective of state leaders at least, wolves have recovered and therefore no longer need the protection of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Looking at these states’ marketing campaigns, however, with their shiny people, sun and star-soaked skies, medium-rare steaks, and fireside sing-alongs, prospective visitors would likely not suspect, nor imagine, the lengths to which their legislators and state agencies have gone to subjugate the wild for human benefit.
By some estimates, Utah hasn’t hosted a wolf pack for over a century. But with the 1995 reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park and, shortly after, into Idaho and Montana, many western states appeared on track to modify their forebears’ the-only-good-wolf-is-a-dead-wolf mentality in favor of a common sense, science-driven, ecologically informed perspective. Indeed, up until May of 2010, which is when the Utah state legislature passed the Wolf Management Act (SB 36) and henceforth prohibited wolves from establishing in the state, it also appeared there was at least a chance that Utah would emulate its neighbors to the north and accommodate wolves.
The state legislature had even gone so far as to direct the Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) to draft a Wolf Management Plan, a charge that was ultimately completed by the DWR-appointed Wolf Working Group (WWG). After meeting 13 times over 17 months, the group produced an 81-page plan that allowed for up to two breeding pairs of wolves and their young to establish here, provided of course they didn’t get sideways with members of the agricultural and hunting communities by killing livestock or interfering with ungulate management objectives. Apparently, the state got cold feet and decided it was not prepared to take that chance and passed SB 36 a few years later. Maybe it’s just as well.
Wolves are magnificent animals. Unlike us, they live within the limits set by nature and at the same time improve the health of their environments. We could learn a lot from them. Thus, if the choice is to have wolves or not have them, I’d say it’s better to have them. But I wonder how much better. Sadly, part of me (the selfish part or the humane part, I do not know which) would probably rather not have wolves than to see them settle here only to be destroyed for no other reason than they were being wolves. Given the state’s historic and recent hostility toward its resident predators (lions, black bears, coyotes), my reluctance appears justified.
In fact, as of this writing Utah’s DWR is recommending unlimited year-round cougar hunting in 33 of its 54 cougar hunting units for the 2021 season. I’m not a wildlife biologist, but I do know that combining humans and unlimited anything—bread sticks, soda refills, development—usually isn’t a good idea. I do not think I am wrong, then, to question the wisdom, as well as the ethical and scientific reasoning for this recommendation, assuming there is any.
Inasmuch as most predator management decisions are made in the interest of propagating ungulates (wild and domestic) and appeasing the people who most benefit from them (hunters and ranchers), the DWR’s motivation for the recommendation—to lower predation rates on mule deer and bighorn sheep populations—should surprise no one. What is surprising, however, is that the DWR seriously thinks that ridding the landscape of predators (702 mountain lions, 1100 bobcats, over 24,000 coyotes—all in 2020—and over 1000 black bears in 2019) is going to have a sustained, net positive effect on deer, that is, despite the much more serious, ongoing threat of climate change.
Like its neighbors to the north, south, east, and west, Utah has been in a perpetual state of drought for decades. But over the course of the last 10 years, drought conditions have intensified. Although the effects we are now seeing have also been decades in the making, they are more dire and visible than ever. Deer are struggling, but here in Utah they still number well over 300,000 at last count. Other species—fish, mammal, plant—have not been so lucky. Human caused climate change has pushed many of them beyond the brink. And with each loss, the system—the whole—is further weakened, which in turn weakens each of the parts.
The DWR is of course aware of the overarching impacts of climate change and has been for a while. “We’ve had a few drought years in Utah recently, which has a significant impact on the survival rates of deer,” DWR Big Game Coordinator Covy Jones said in October of 2019. “In Utah, we have the longest range-trend study in the Western U.S., and we’ve seen that having suitable habitat is crucial for maintaining or growing wildlife populations. And drought conditions can really negatively impact that habitat, which in turn affects our wildlife species.” And yet here we are, not even two years later, and the DWR is proposing, not to address the impact of climate change, but to spill more blood.
Why the agency would, contrary to what its own research reveals about the extent of the problem, still propose killing hundreds of mountain lions and other predators (which are themselves the unwitting victims of our environmental tampering) is nothing short of baffling. Deer, mountain lions, humans, vegetation, water, soil: everything is impacted by the totalizing disaster of climate change. Singling out predators as the prima facie cause of deer population decline ignores this fact. Not to mention that humans can survive without killing deer. Mountain lions cannot. When are we going to see wildlife management that accounts for this reality?
Here again we see the ugly consequences of an anthropocentric worldview that treats wildlife as nothing more than a resource to be consumed and manipulated for the enrichment of humans. If the goal were merely to increase the deer population, the DWR would put a moratorium on hunting deer until the desired herd size was reached. That the DWR has ignored this obvious solution and instead authorized killing more predators suggests that the agency does not possess the vision, autonomy, and support needed to enact such a commonsense solution. I am sure there are several reasons for these deficiencies; I am also sure that none of them warrants killing hundreds of lions for no other reason than they happen to kill a few thousand deer each year.
Commodified wildlife is protected for the sake of those who profit from it. The DWR sells chances to kill animals, and the more the DWR can increase those chances (hence the emphasis on growing the herd), the more hunters they will attract and licenses they will sell. Maybe this bottomless business model and the mechanisms used for implementing it worked prior to the onset of climate change, when patterns of interaction between climate and the environment were relatively stable and predictable, and when wildlife biologists could focus solely on predator-prey relations and still provide an accurate picture of what’s going on. But not anymore.
In the new context of climate instability and environmental upheaval, chaos reigns. The old management techniques, including blunt-force predator removal, do not work beyond the short term and only worsen problems they are intended to solve. Thus, the wholesale killing of predators is an unnecessary, ineffective, misguided, and illusory solution to a long-term problem that we have not even begun to understand. Under the circumstances, some restraint is in order.
If it weren’t for the fact that a tiny minority of humans find value in killing predators, Utah and other western states would likely eradicate them, again, for the same selfish reasons. But what was true during those earlier extermination campaigns may be even more true now, which is that predators are not, nor have they ever been, a significant threat to livestock nor the cause of prey species collapse. That distinction belongs solely to us. In fact, according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “there is virtually no known case where native predators have driven a prey species to extinction in a setting where humans played little or no role. Humans, by contrast, despite their regulatory tools, have contributed to innumerable extinctions.”
Innumerable indeed. Just look at early 19th century Utah, which was and continues to be emblematic of the West. In stark contrast to native peoples, who inhabited the region for over 7000 years without plundering and destroying the natural world, within the span of 50 years settlers had managed to kill off many of the state’s apex predators (grizzly bears, wolverines, wolves) and decimate populations of white-tailed deer, elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, and buffalo. One of the great ironies and absurdities is that the descendants of those settlers are not only still trying to fix the world their ancestors ravaged, but by killing off predators they are making the same blunders that created this mess in the first place. Is it any wonder why the stereotype of the western rube persists?
Granted, that was a long time ago and some things have changed for the better since then. But if Utah and other western states continue to ignore environmental health, including using ineffectual and draconian methods for “managing” predators, the environment will continue to degrade to the point that living here will become infeasible. Meanwhile the rest of the world—including prospective visitors to the state—will see how little we here in the American West have learned in the 200-years since our forebears waged war on the natural world; how we appear determined to ignore a hundred years of scientific gains and continue using a 19th century mindset to address 21st century challenges. Make no mistake: The Great Humbling has begun. Let us be wary of legislation (like SB 36) that makes the argument from tradition, which too often is used to justify acting in brutal and obsolete ways.
If there is any hope of mitigating the effects of climate change and preserving what’s left of the wild and natural world, we are going to need more nuanced solutions, something other than terrorizing and killing our wildlife. But we also need more responsive agencies with the courage and support to implement them. Otherwise, given the West’s prioritization of domestic and wild ungulates, the persecution and scapegoating of predators is only going to worsen as the impacts and uncertainties of climate become more dire.
As things stand now, instead of leading the West in wildlife management, Utah is taking its cues from Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana as each vies to become the most regressive state in the union so far as predators are concerned. Thus, even if wolves had been permitted to establish here, without the protection of the Endangered Species Act and, as importantly, buy in from the people and the government of Utah, it likely would not have been long before they ran afoul of ranchers or hunters and were wiped from the face of the Earth.
But as we have seen time and time again in western states and, indeed, wherever wolves have managed to gain a foothold, even with protections the wolf’s future is not assured. For reasons both sacred (approximately 65% of Utah’s population is Mormon) and profane (thousands of predators are destroyed in cruel, bloody, and violent ways), the beehive state does not appear to have the philosophic, moral, spiritual, or ethical wherewithal needed to make room for wolves and other so-called beasts of the field. I struggle to understand how such an ostensibly religious state could have such low regard for the Creation, a deficiency that, while not unique to Mormonism or to Utah, permeates every aspect of land and wildlife management in the state.
Despite the promise of its name, the Wolf Working Group (WWG), which authored the WMP and was touted as a collaborative feat, is a case in point. “The majority of the WWG believes that this plan is fair, sustainable and flexible,” noted the authors (2). But when only two out of 13 members of the group represent the interests of the wolf and its supporters, and everyone else represents a consumer or utilitarian orientation to wildlife, how much confidence can we really have in the majority? Not to belabor the obvious, but usually a ratio of 13 to 2 is not a good indicator that diverse interests have been served.
Skewed representation affects other advisory groups as well, including the good-old-boy club otherwise known as the Utah Wildlife Board (UWB), which is responsible for determining hunting rules and regulations. According to DWR Wildlife Board Coordinator Staci Coons, “to serve on the board, you need to have a strong interest in wildlife and wildlife management in Utah. You also need to be committed to serving and representing the people of Utah.” If only it were that simple. No doubt the agricultural and hunting communities appreciate the board’s work (they are the board), but I don’t know anyone outside these constituencies who feels their interests are represented by this group, which, in addition to being unabashedly anti-predator, pro-hunter, and pro-rancher, has also proven itself to be shamelessly nepotistic.
In early July of this year, for instance, two new members were appointed to the board. Predictably, both men had worked with the UWB for several years prior (an apparent condition for appointment) and one had “served on the statewide leadership team for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation,” an organization that spent thousands of dollars in a failed attempt to derail Colorado’s recently approved wolf reintroduction program. To make matters worse, board member appointments last for six years, a time period that doesn’t exactly promote the influx of fresh perspectives.
No matter where it occurs, in state government or on tourism websites, an anthropocentric, utilitarian approach to nonhuman nature does not bode well for any wildlife, least of all wolves, mountain lions, and other predators that, despite being the scapegoats for human ineptitude, deserve to live free of human interference. With Utah’s recent announcement that it will join the National Rifle Association, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, American Farm Bureau, and the American Sheep Industry Association’s lawsuit to prevent gray wolves from being returned to the Endangered Species List—a chain of events that was triggered after Idaho and Montana passed bills that would effectively eradicate up to 90% of their wolf populations using methods that are barbaric by any standard—I am worried that the sterile world of advertisements may be prescient, and that it won’t be long before all that’s wild is gone.
Maximilian Werner is Associate Professor (Lecturer) of Rhetoric and Writing Studies at the University of Utah. He is the author of six books. His seventh book, Wolves, Grizzlies, and Greenhorns -- Death and Coexistence in the American West, was published in May. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @ProfMWerner.
5 Responses to Defanging Nature: How Human Exceptionalism is Destroying the Wild
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Excellent, excellent! Thank you!
Similar problem in Alabama: night hunting for feral pigs is now approved. They also approved night hunting for coyotes also (almost as a side comment in the media). Alabama has basically NO predators that would take a grown feral pig, and only one that would take piglets (coyote). Any irony that hunters now don’t have to worry about what they shoot at night? Just point and shoot…you’ll get something. Meanwhile any possible ‘competition’ for lowering feral pig populations is being reduced simultaneously. Genius!!
“With Utah’s recent announcement that it will join the National Rifle Association, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, American Farm Bureau, and the American Sheep Industry Association’s lawsuit to prevent gray wolves from being returned to the Endangered Species List…”
It is my fondest hope that any fair-minded judge will see the unfairness and bias in this solid block of groups all banded together for their own aims, and not objective enough for the protection and health of the natural world, especially in these times of environmental crises.
“Here again we see the ugly consequences of an anthropocentric worldview that treats wildlife as nothing more than a resource to be consumed and manipulated for the enrichment of humans.”
This says it all. With thanks to Maximilian for saying it.
Even here in rural/urban Santa Cruz CA, this is how wild life is seen – a commodity for tourists and residents alike.
Interesting factoid about the poor science and ethics of Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. I searched their website for wolves and found lots of whining about “environmental groups”. Who knew?