Wolf History, Conservation, Ecology and Behavior
Wolfology Item #  1323
v.5, n1 (2002), 65-71

Click on the journal title (above) for information on acquiring the complete article
Wolf Recovery and Management as Value-based Political Conflict
Martin A. Nie
Editor's Comment
Wolf advocates often rely on science as a basis for their arguments -- i.e., the restoration of North America's top carnivore is essential for the (re)creation of a healthy ecosystem. But, as Nie shows, the debate over wolf recovery exceeds the capacity of science to resolve it. Wolves are the focal point of a complicated value-based conflict, and all sides are going to have to reach some sort of common ground. For the wolves themselves, it's a case of "the sooner the better" -- JM

The debate over wolf recovery and management in the United States is best understood as a value-based political conflict that transcends issues strictly pertaining to science, biology and techno-rational approaches to problem solving. Political and cultural context will shape the future of the wolf as it has in the past. A policy-oriented approach has much to offer the debate, especially if it is contextual and places human values and ethics at the center of its analysis. It is also important for those engaged in the debate to acknowledge its value-based character. The policy implications of not doing so are serious and will become only more so in the future.
There are deeply rooted moral conflicts over wolf recovery. Wolves present a number of difficult ethical and moral challenges, ones that go well beyond science, biology and technical wildlife management. This value-based conflict is over a deeply symbolic animal and is taking place in a very controversial political and cultural context. The following is a brief discussion of this context and the nature of this debate. It is based on personal interviews and research conducted as part of the 'wolf policy project'.
The symbolic importance of the wolf has often been place-specific: the wolf is wise (Irish folktale), the wolf is ferocious (a Pennsylvania legend), a wolf is foolish (German folktale), a wolf is friendly (Japanese folktale), Peter and the wolf, the story of the three little pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, the werewolf. These culturally imposed traits are often context-specific as well; thus, humans-as-hunters often saw wolves symbolizing skill, intelligence, teamwork and courage. Those in agriculture, on the other hand, often saw wolves symbolizing danger and posing a sinister threat to their livelihoods and well-being.
The wolf in American history cannot be understood outside of its larger political and cultural context, including manifest destiny, the sanctity of private property and the perceived need to tame the Western frontier wilderness. From the historical 'war on the wolf' to the more rhetorical and contemporary 'war on the West', context will continue to shape and influence the future of the wolf....
Wolves are now returning to a political environment that is no less important, but much more multifaceted and socially complicated. This context often differs in important ways. While there are factors pertaining to wolf recovery that transcend region (e.g. livestock depredation and public safety concerns), some are particular to place. Whether it is the political economy of northern Minnesota, the political subculture of the intermountain West, the reforestation or 'rewilding' of New England or the timber industry presence in Maine -- place matters. The political and cultural landscapes in which wolves are making their return are often as varied as their physical environments. Wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, for instance, find themselves in an environment dominated by public land and public land agencies. It is an American Serengeti, no doubt, but one with thousands of cattle hugging the park's boundary. If wolves find their way back into Maine, on the other hand, they will be managed in a state with a paucity of public land, and one in which the largest landowners are private timber and paper corporations, not the federal government. Simplified, it is a story of bureaucratic politics, environmentalists and ranchers in the Yellowstone area; it will be one of bureaucratic politics, environmentalists and multinational timber companies in Maine. These differences are hardly trivial. They affect everything from grassroots strategy to formal policy implementation measures.
Values and Ethical Dimensions
....Competing ideas and visions of the public interest are at the heart of wolf politics and policy. While science, for example, can certainly help answer a question such as how much livestock depredation can be expected from a recovered wolf population in a national forest area, it cannot answer the normative question of whether wolves or cows should be in this national forest....There is also no consensus among wolf stakeholders on the appropriate place and legitimacy of 'scientific management'. For some animal rights and welfare groups, scientific wolf management means wolf control, whether it is government trapping, a public take or by some other means that is often experimental in nature. Scientific management, they say, may sound value-free, but its emphasis on managing wolves rather than managing humans is steeped in questionable values and ethics towards the non-human world.
The human manipulation and management of wolves and other wildlife is also an important ethical issue in other critiques. It is not a question of whether we can capture, hold, release and monitor wolves, but whether we should be doing these things in the first place....According to many biologists, we should restore wolves, but only if a concomitant pledge to management and control is made as well. That is, we could have more wolves in more places if wolf advocates would accept effective control measures.
To be sure, this ethical discussion will only become more evident in the future, as wolves may return to more crowded and intensely managed landscapes. Take, for example, future conflict over a public wolf harvest. As wolves become de-listed from the endangered species list, and states regain wolf management authority, the issue of wolf control and a possible public take may very well be as controversial and acrimonious as was reintroduction into places like Yellowstone. What about killing coyotes near the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina in order to protect a tenuous red wolf population too susceptible to hybridization? What about taking wolves from wild parts of Canada and translocating them into human-dominated American places? These cases and others go beyond the purely scientific and technical.
The issue of hunting and trapping wolves after they become de-listed is perhaps the most divisive and potentially explosive issue in the entire wolf debate. It engenders the type of emotion and deep-core values that make conflict resolution nearly impossible to achieve. It also means that the courtroom may likely continue to be the venue in which this conflict plays out. Some environmental and pro-wolf groups such as the Superior Wilderness Action Network are so opposed to the idea that they will not sit down at any stakeholding table that dares discuss the issue. Others see it as a slippery slope, especially when managed by a state wildlife agency they do not trust. Some see it as a dangerous path that has been traveled before, one that led to bounties, poisons and eventually wolf eradication. Others, however, believe that managing wolves as a game species, like that carried out with mountain lions and black bears, will lead to the long-term viability of this animal.
Humans possess a number of values regarding wolves, wildlife and biodiversity.  However, it is not just a question of what values are involved in the wolf policy debate, but where those values are located and what power they wield in the decision-making process. Some groups, for example, argue that there is a serious divide between the institutional values of state fish and game departments and those of the public-at-large. They contend that the public is increasingly opposed to the needless killing of animals, including trophy hunting, recreational trapping and bear-baiting. The policy implications of not recognizing these values are serious. For example, these interests are more likely to utilize the initiative process when they feel that their values, and the values of the general public, are not well-represented by state fish and game departments or state wildlife commissions....According to [Wayne] Pacelle, [senior vice president of the Humane Society of the United States,]...from 1990 to 1998 voters have sided with animal protection advocates in 10 of 13 ballot races addressing specific hunting and trapping practices.
Pacelle, like other animal rights and welfare interests, is unmoved by the 'biology knows best' and 'viable population' stand on wildlife management. That is, just because some practices do not threaten the viability of a population, they are not necessarily the right thing to do....
Conflict between hunters and animals rights/welfare interests over the issue of wolf management, and a possible public hunting or trapping of wolves, will become only more evident and embittered in the future. There is perhaps no better example of core values being pitted against one another and projected onto such a highly symbolic animal. Whether at the hands of the public or the professional wildlife manager, the issue will go beyond the science and killing of wolves. As in other types of wildlife policy conflict, in the eyes of many participants, what is at stake is no less than the very meaning of nature and our role in it.
Defending Wolves on Value-based Ground
....Western water politics and...public lands ranching are often attacked on economic grounds -- the policy story of an unknowing taxpayer being gored by privileged special interest. While such rhetoric is often true and may be fruitful in the short run, it may be detrimental as a long-term environmental strategy. The conservation community might then consider refraining from the subsidy argument as a primary way of defending wolves and attacking the livestock industry....While our natural resource and wildlife policies now appear antiquated, governed as they are by the 'lords of yesterday', they were a reflection of American frontier values. Government gave away land, water, timber and minerals, while paying wolf bounties in the process, because developing the arid West was a national goal governed by the ideals and values of manifest destiny. It is then an issue not of the subsidy, but in which direction those subsidies should flow and on whose behalf. If environmental values have changed since frontier America, then redirecting subsidies towards policies more in sync with these values is the direction we ought to take.
At its core, the debate over wolves is a debate over public values. But many environmentalists...have often been reluctant to argue on openly ethical and political grounds. Environmental goals -- from wilderness to wolves -- are not just about viable populations or economic costs and benefits. Instead, they are about public values: the judgments citizens make about who we are and where we want to go as a nation....There is nothing wrong with...debating...endangered species using a language of morals and ethics. Aldo Leonard (1949) talked of wolves, predators and 'Substitutes for a Land Ethic' in A Sand County Almanac:
A parallel situation exists in respect of predatory mammals, raptorial birds, and fish-eating birds. Time was when biologists somewhat overworked the vidence that these creatures preserve the health of game by killing weaklings, or that they control rodents for the farmer, or that they prey only on 'worthless' species. here again, the evidence had to be economic in order to be valid. It is only in recent years that we hear the more honest argument that predators are members of the community, and that no special interest has the right to exterminate them for the sake of a benefit, real or fancied, to itself.
....It is dangerously thin ice on which environmentalists expose the economic costs of public lands ranching while at the same time selling wolves as a potential economic boom. This is not to say that the former is not true or important to know about. But wolves have been and will always be about public values, not just economic costs and benefits. Touting wolves as an economic windfall because of increased park visitation, 'wolf-jams' in Yellowstone and the general benefits related to eco-tourism -- although all true, significant and a useful retort in most wolf debates -- is an environmental strategy with no heart and no hope. The wolf debate should be centered in large part on value-based ground, not on visitors-days and entrance fees.
This caution will become more apparent with upcoming state wolf management responsibilities. Wolves in the state of Minnesota provide one example. In all likelihood, Minnesota wolves will be controlled and managed to some degree. As the Minnesota wolf population grows, so too will the economic costs borne by the state. Add into this mix a hypothetical (or not so hypothetical) economic downturn with gas prices increasing dramatically. As a result, visitation to northern Minnesota, the International Wolf Center (an eco-tourism facility in northern Minnesota) and our national parks (including trips to Yellowstone) decreases. What now becomes of this economic framing? Are wolves no longer worth the economic costs? Furthermore, this scenario says nothing about what this type of strategy means for species and places lacking such economic value. An honest and constructive political discussion of wolf recovery and management must go beyond an economic or scientific framing.
This short assessment may frustrate those attempting to simplify the debate and solve the 'wolf problem'. But the wolf problem cannot be solved like we solve a math riddle. There is neither a magic bullet nor instruction manual, offered from science or policy, that will bring peace and an end to this conflict once and for all. The best way to approach the issue is through the often loud and messy democratic process....[I]t is imperative that the wolf decision-making process be as inclusive, participatory and representative as possible. The process must offer more access and accountability. Multiple stakeholders with multiple values must be given a larger role to play in the wolf (and wildlife) decision-making process....A well-structured stakeholder framework can offer a more constructive way of dealing with value-based political conflict and the socio-political dimensions of wolf recovery.
References: 14