Howling About Wolves

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Howling About Wolves

By: John A. Baden, Ph.D.
Posted on February 26, 2014 FREE Insights Topics:

One of the great benefits of living here is the remarkable array of talented and interesting people one meets in the Bozeman area.  For example, I've met three individuals who have recently worked in Antarctica.  No surprise, such encounters are common here. 

Last Friday, Ramona and I were skiing in the Big Sky area and joined a couple at lunch.  They live in Atlanta, have a place here, and come up every few months.  The husband is a heart surgeon and an innovator in robotic surgery.  He clearly loves his work in minimally invasive aortic valve replacement surgery and heart valve repair. 

I enjoyed learning about this remarkable technology--and he recently had a Bozeman patient.  When this physician learned we live on a ranch, he was interested in hearing our perspectives on wolves.  He had recently seen a video lauding their ecological and hydrological impacts but was skeptical. 

The evening before I had seen another video, this one by Bozeman native David Spady.  The title indicates its content, Wolves in Government Clothing (available at This documentary interviews people adversely affected by wolves, mainly ranchers.  It features "firsthand accounts from those who are forced to deal with them on a daily basis...."

The heart surgeon's interest prompted me to reexamine wolf policies and write this FREE Insight.  I also remembered the call about wolves I received last year while Ramona and I were traveling.  The Cottonwood elk herd is often on our place in the winter.  Apparently wolves chased a hundred or more elk through our east fence line and tore some down.  As a result, 50 wintering horses ran out.  Our neighbors to the east, Rich and Eunice Haxton, had a pasture with intact fences and they held the horses until we returned. 

Fortunately, no one and no horses were hurt: We only lost the fees for wintering the horses and the cost of fence repairs.  Earlier in the season horses had gotten out and two were hit and killed by a pickup driving on Gallatin Road.  (That's US 191, the route to Big Sky.)  Luckily and unusually, the driver wasn't injured, merely shook up. 

However, many people are hurt or killed when hitting livestock.  After such a collision the vehicle often goes off the road or, out of control, runs into other cars or trucks.  It is important to keep horses without riders off paved, high-speed roads. 

Here is the principle governing deliberate changes introduced by policy: Whether in ecology or economics, we cannot do only one thing.  Second and higher order consequences are normal.  And we cannot predict them with certainty.  This surely applies to the reintroduction of the wolf population to Yellowstone.   All Yellowstone wolves had been exterminated by government officials in the 1920s.  The resulting conflicts over ecology and economy are the topic of my Insight. Ethics, property rights, and liberty are important sub-themes in "Howling about Wolves".

Howling about Wolves

I find it helpful to put environmental issues into one of two baskets.  One is labeled sludge, the other romance. Romance is naturally sexier than sludge--and it's usually more emotional. 

In the romance arena many policies are harder to analyze and successfully implement. Two factors explain this: They are scientifically complex and carry heavy emotional baggage.  Let's start with the management of wild horses on federal lands and move on to wolves. 

When Velma Johnston almost single-handedly persuaded Congress to pass the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, her goal was to protect an icon of the American West that had been slaughtered, poisoned and abused and was quickly disappearing.

More than four decades later, the woman known as “Wild Horse Annie” would undoubtedly be shocked by what her law has wrought: so many mustangs, stashed in so many places, that authorities admit they have no idea how to handle them all.

Under the law, the federal government is responsible for more than 40,000 mustangs on the range in 10 Western states, where they compete with cattle and wildlife for increasingly scarce water and forage. .... Activists want the horses left on the land. (The Washington Post, Jan. 26, 2014)

However, current policies are clearly unsustainable. Range scientists estimate that the carrying capacity of the 179 herd management areas the BLM controls on 31.6 million acres of federal lands is 27,000 horses.  Aside from the occasional cougar or bear, horses have no natural predators.  Hence, under current policies the wild horse population is projected to reach 145,000 by 2020. 

Such numbers would greatly degrade the habitat, and displace native animals.  It would also ruin the range for domestic livestock and bankrupt politically powerful ranchers with 140 years of governmentally sanctioned grazing rights. 

Still the wild horse lobby is strong and growing.  For example, T. Boone Pickens' fourth wife, Madeleine Pickens, "caused an uproar when she proposed the Bureau of Land Management let her fence off more than 500,000 acres of federal land to create a sanctuary for wild horses near a 14,000-acre ranch she bought in October."  (WSJ, Dec. 7, 2010)

The wild horse situation epitomizes the complexity and emotionality of wild life policies.   In contrast, unless you or someone about whom you care is directly affected, it is hard to get excited by dioxin, slurry, or noxious fumes. The romance category is different: it includes our parks, wild lands, trout waters, and high mountains. 

Animals with big brown eyes, ruminants such as bison and elk, are in the romance category as is their major Yellowstone predator, the wolf. I have no idea how to measure and compare the two cases but it seems the wolf issue in Greater Yellowstone is much more complex and emotion laden than that of wild horses.

In the past week I've seen two videos on wolves in Yellowstone.  One, by Oxford educated George Monbiot, "How Wolves Change Rivers", is unambiguously positive regarding the wolves’ reintroduction to Greater Yellowstone.  The benefits are grossly exaggerated and he mentions no costs as the wolves spill beyond Park borders.   

Greater Yellowstone is an area of roughly 15,000,000 acres surrounding the Park's 2.2 million acres.  It includes a mix of state and federal lands mixed with private acreage, mostly range and timberlands.  (Our ranch is in the northern reaches of Greater Yellowstone.) 

I recently discussed wolves in Greater Yellowstone in a paper prepared for North Carolina students and professors.  Here is a section of that paper dealing with the wolf in Greater Yellowstone [click here to open the entire paper in a new window]. 

The national parks were created as the “pleasuring grounds” of the citizens and for scientific study.  Their wild animals became divided into two types, good ones and bad ones.  Bad one such as wolves ate the good ones, herbivores such as elk. 

The policy that naturally followed was for employees in the Dept. of Interior, mainly Park Service employees, to kill the wolves.  The last Yellowstone wolf was killed in 1926.  As a result, the elk population exploded. 

As the elk population exceeded Yellowstone’s carrying capacity, vegetation degenerated and beaver became rare or extinct in the Park.  This eliminated beaver ponds and affected ground water and riparian vegetation that supported birds and mammals. A team of scientists visiting Yellowstone in 1929 and 1933 reported, “The range was in deplorable conditions when we first saw it, and its deterioration has been progressing steadily since then.”  It is hard to do just one thing. Changes reverberate throughout the ecosystem.

The grey wolf was reintroduced in 1995.  Its return changed the population numbers and feeding behavior of elk. This is widely viewed as beneficial on net, both ecologically and economically.  However, it is the most controversial, antagonizing, faction-generating event I’ve seen. 

The political economy is clear; benefits are widely dispersed while financial, psychological, and civic costs are imposed on mainly rural citizens.  This has serious consequences.  Those who bear the costs believe the government lies to and ignores them.  Many of these once patriotic citizens feel increasingly estranged from the nation they want to love. 

The wolf is an icon celebrated by all types of environmentalists.  This includes old-line conservationists and preservationists, Earth Firsters!, New Resource Economists (NRE), and Greens of various shades. 

Wolves are loved by tourists, celebrated by scientists, and legitimately loathed by rancher--and those who culturally identify with them. One sees “Smoke a Pack a Day” or “Shoot Them at the Border” bumper stickers on pickups, not Subarus or Priuses.  Costs of the wolf are concentrated, benefits diffused, and political power displayed. 

Experiences with the Yellowstone wolf offer many lessons.  This is a key one: environmental issues are scientifically complex and carry heavy emotional baggage.  These are ingredients for error and acrimony. This is compounded by a stubborn fact; in neither eco (economics or ecology) is it easy to do only one thing. 

Subtle linkages and interdependencies are pervasive in both arenas.   FREE's primary purpose is to explain them and foster policies harmonizing ecology, prosperity, and responsible liberty.


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