Like a lot of environmentalists, I’ve been following wolf reintroductions closely for the past decade or more. The introductions have taken place in 2 areas: Yellowstone and the Gila Mountains of southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona. Both of these places are profoundly conservative and have proven a real impediment for the long-term survival of the wolf in the American West.
The reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf (which is probably at most a subspecies of the wolves in the rest of North America and may not be genetically different in any meaningful sense) has been a total disaster. The ranchers of Arizona and New Mexico have declared war upon the wolf and they are shot on sight, despite the federal protections. This is “Get the US out of the UN” tin-foil hat country and these people just don’t care. I saw a presentation by a leader of the New Mexico Cattlemen’s Association in about 2004 that argued, quite literally, that wolf reintroduction could not happen because they will eat our children. Given these attitudes, despite yearly infusions of new releases, the wolf population has not been able to grow substantially.
It’s been a lot more successful in the Yellowstone region. This is despite of extremely hostile politicians in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho that would like to take the same strategies as New Mexico and Arizona. But because of the large amount of protected land in northwestern Wyoming with the two national parks and the National Elk Range and because of the huge amount of tourists who flock there to see the wildlife, conservatives have been stymied in their hopes to eradicate the wolf. Here the wolf has thrived and spread. Within a few years, packs were in several parts of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. They remain threatened in the long-term in these places, especially Idaho and Wyoming, because of widespread hostility. Hunts have developed in these states that remain managed for the present, but who can tell with what vigor the government will enforce environmental regulations, particularly if the nation continues with its ever more conservative bent.
That’s why the continued migration of wolves to the west has been important. A few packs have crossed from Idaho into Oregon. This is hugely important. The ranchers of Wallowa County, Oregon are no more pro-wolf than in Idaho or Arizona, but they are politically overwhelmed by the Democratic Party of this blue state. Local poaching could take place, but the state is likely to vigorously protect the wolves for the long-haul because of the strong environmental leanings of the state.
Still, the migration of one wolf into western Oregon is hugely important. The first wolf west of the Cascades since 1947, this wolf has caught the imagination of environmentalists in Oregon and around the world, building political capital for the long-term existence of the gray wolf in the state. No one knew what it looked like, although it was tagged as a pup which has allowed the public to follow its ramblings. But a hunter’s camera recently caught a picture of the wolf:
It has since crossed the border into California, making it the first wolf in that state since 1924. Of course, it may not stay there. As it continues searching for a mate it won’t find, it may journey east into Nevada, putting it back into hostile red state territory. But that one wolf has headed through is a good sign that future packs, looking for new territory, may move west as well. This can only be good news for its future, as the public is enamored with these beautiful animals. It’s true that animal-human confrontations can be bad for both and increased numbers of wolves will lead to more of this, but these are management problems that can be dealt with. Overall, this is a very positive story and is one more step toward a permanent place for wolves in the American West.