Letter from Utah — From the January 2017 issue

Bounty Hunters

A clandestine war on wolves

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Wolves once roamed the expanses of pre-Columbian North America, from the boreal forests of Canada to the deserts of Mexico, in numbers that may have exceeded a million. But as soon as Europeans arrived, wolf numbers began to decline. The first official wolf bounty in North America was enacted in 1630; the Massachusetts Bay colonists were paid one shilling for each carcass. A decade later, the bounty had increased to forty shillings (equivalent to a month’s wages for the average Plymouth laborer). By the middle of the twentieth century, the federal government was paying hunters and trappers up to fifty dollars for each wolf they killed.1 This institutionalized extermination happened at the behest of the livestock industry, which for more than a hundred years has grazed animals in the public lands of the West, vociferously claiming that wolves pose a mortal threat to its livelihood.

1 The federal government ushered in predator control in 1885, under the auspices of the cryptically titled Branch of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy. In its 131 years of existence, this obscure agency, tasked with culling animals deemed “injurious to agriculture,” has undergone many name changes. In 1985, it was folded into the USDA and renamed Animal Damage Control. Today it is known as Wildlife Services. Since 2000, its agents have killed at least 2 million native mammals and 15 million native birds, as Christopher Ketcham reported in the March 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

As pressures on the rural American landscape multiplied, so did the methods of killing wolves. Over the past century, wolves have been shot from planes, strangled in snares, clubbed in their dens, and poisoned with strychnine, arsenic, and cyanide. The writer Barry Lopez points out in his book Of Wolves and Men that something in this effort has gone beyond the pragmatic concerns of “predator control.” This long-standing war against wolves, Lopez writes, is evidence of a deeper sort of malice:

Historically, the most visible motive, and the one that best explains the excess of killing, is a type of fear: theriophobia. Fear of the beast. Fear of the beast as an irrational, violent, insatiable creature. Fear of the projected beast in oneself. . . . At the heart of theriophobia is the fear of one’s own nature. In its headiest manifestations theriophobia is projected onto a single animal, the animal becomes a scapegoat, and it is annihilated. That is what happened to the wolf in America.

For four centuries, like a tide ebbing across the continent, wolves lost ground. By the 1960s, the northern gray wolf — North America’s preeminent symbol of wilderness — had been nearly wiped out in the contiguous United States. Only a few hundred animals survived, in remote, forested pockets of northern Minnesota and Michigan.

Photograph of a coyote tail affixed to the antenna of a hunter’s truck by Natalie Ertz

Photograph of a coyote tail affixed to the antenna of a hunter’s truck by Natalie Ertz

At around the same time, an ecological mind-shift began to occur, with pioneering research recognizing that wolves and other predators at the top of the food chain played an important role in keeping the population of herbivores such as elk and deer in check. Federal biologists began to discuss wolf restoration as a critical part of the effort to reestablish self-managing ecosystems. (In the words of environmentalist Aldo Leopold, ecologists were finally beginning to “think like a mountain.”) After the passage of the Endangered Species Act, in 1973, the F.W.S. established a recovery team, and in 1995 it reintroduced wolf populations to Yellowstone and remote sections of Idaho. The original release of sixty-six wolves has contributed to a population of about 1,700 today.

In January 2014, before 914F was spotted at the Grand Canyon, she had been trapped by biologists from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department near Cody, Wyoming, fitted with a radio collar (the one that Hansen and Blackburn discovered on her body), and released back into the wild. Coordinates show that 914F skirted the eastern boundary of Yellowstone for the first half of the year. She headed south, most likely in search of a mate, probably traversing a network of peaks, mesas, and canyons running through western Wyoming and central Utah, a vast wildlife corridor that connects Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon.

To get a better sense of where 914F might have entered Utah en route to Arizona, I joined Adam Brewerton, a biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. He took me out to the Bear River Mountains for a tour. Brewerton oversees “sensitive” species in this part of the state, among them northern gray wolves. And yet Brewerton said that wolves took up little of his daily routine. Other than lone dispersers like 914F, wolves are rarely seen; according to the D.W.R., since 2002 there have only been around a dozen confirmed wolf sightings in Utah.

This region of high plateaus, deep ravines, and gently sloping ridges covered in limber pine, aspen, and Douglas fir would be ideal habitat for wolves. Politically, however, it is dangerous terrain. We were in the heart of the “delisted” zone — a roughly 3,500-square-mile triangular swath of the state’s northeastern corner where wolves may be killed without penalty if they are deemed to pose a threat to people, pets, or livestock. The decision to strip northern gray wolves of their endangered status in this part of Utah came about in 2011, as a last-minute rider to a budget bill that was necessary to avoid a government shutdown — the first time an endangered species lost protection not on the basis of scientific recommendations but through an act of Congress.

As snowflakes began to accumulate on the windshield, Brewerton decided that it was time to head out of the high country. He crept down a ridge toward the highway. Bear Lake appeared as an aquamarine blot far below us. Within a half hour, we were nearly off the plateau, but found our path blocked by a gate — the last 200 yards of the road crossed a private ranch. Risking the ire of the landowner, I opened the gate and Brewerton drove through. As we rounded a bend, a woman in jeans and a beige shirt stepped out of her house, glaring at the truck’s D.W.R. logo. Brewerton stopped the car and rolled down his window. He pointed to his GPS and said meekly that he had thought the road was public.

The woman was unmoved. Her name was Cindy Wamsley, she explained, and her family had grazed cattle in this part of northern Utah since the 1860s. “What’s the D.W.R. doing up here anyway?” she asked, with clear hostility in her voice.

Brewerton said that he was assisting me in reporting on wolves in the region.

“Wolves, huh?” She gave a wry smile. “Did you tell him about the one they just trapped over by Randolph? Did you tell him about the pack over by Swan Peak?” She went on to say that her brother-in-law had recently seen wolf tracks.

“We’re still checking into that,” Brewerton told her. (“It’s not confirmed,” he whispered to me.) Wamsley looked at me intently. She was clearly not buying the official line. Wolves, she said, had been a looming presence for generations. Now this menacing shadow of resurgent nature had reappeared. “Write this down,” she told me. “The wolves are coming. The D.W.R. says no, no, they might be coming. I’m here to tell you they’re coming. They’re coming and we’re not happy about it.”

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