Will Obama Administration, Wyoming Governor, Find Common Ground on Dealing With Wolves?
Earlier this spring, I met with Jon and Deb Robinett, managers of Steve Gordon’s historic ranch, the Diamond G, up the Dunoir Valley near the northeast corner of Grand Teton National Park.
It was an insightful interview as I prepared a story on wolves that recently appeared in the Christian Science Monitor.
As of May, neither Gov. Matt Mead nor his wolf envoy, Steve Ferrell, had made any attempt to contact the Robinetts about their experiences living with lobos. A curious snub, since Gov. Mead has dispatched Mr. Ferrell to solicit opinions from informed stakeholders. He’s crafting a wolf management plan that can pass muster with the federal government.
On Thursday the governor is meeting in Cheyenne with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the new director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Daniel Ashe. The expressed goal of the meeting is "to continue discussions on developing a sound, science-based wolf management plan for the state."
A prevailing perception is that Mr. Ferrell, former head of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, has only sought opinions that he and the governor want to hear; that Gov. Mead has no intention of backing statewide trophy game status for wolves. Some say he’s fearful of losing face among anti-wolf hardliners.
That’s unfortunate; it only exposes the folly of macho stubbornness.
In neighboring Montana and Idaho, where wolves are classified as wildlife, not vermin, the federal government approved state management plans and wolves today are delisted.
In Wyoming, Gov. Mead and Mr. Ferrell are said to be pushing a “flex plan.” Wolves would sort of be professionally managed in a portion of western Wyoming at certain times of year, but otherwise subject to slaughter across most of the state.
Wolves, according to a law supported by the Wyoming legislature, could be killed by almost any means, at any time of day, in any month, for any reason—even when they are having zero discernible negative impacts on wildlife or livestock.
Never before has the American public spent years and money recovering a species only to sanction its immediate re-annihilation. The eyes of America will be closely watching Secretary Salazar’s move, and many believe the environmental integrity of the Obama administration will ride on whether he accedes to Gov. Mead’s demands.
Respected scientists tell me Wyoming’s flex scheme is “harebrained” and unsupported by any credible science, rivaling Montana’s widely-condemned method of dealing harshly with wandering Yellowstone National Park bison.
The Robinetts have lost family dogs, horses and cows to wolves, but they are not advocating that lobos be wiped out. They pragmatically favor trophy game status in Wyoming as the surest way to achieve delisting.
Insiders say the reason Gov. Mead continues to dig in his boot heels is that he’s afraid of burning political capital, even though he knows trophy game status is the right thing to do. In fact, trophy game was the recommendation made more than a decade ago by Wyoming’s top official carnivore experts.
Besides the Robinetts, there’s someone else—a venerable Wyoming sage— whose knowledge the governor and Mr. Ferrell also have evaded. This individual is a beloved figure in Jackson Hole who lived a good portion of her life in Grand Teton National Park. Her name: Louise Murie MacLeod, whose husband, the eminent wildlife biologist Adolph Murie, courageously led America out of the dark ages of predator extermination that Gov. Mead now stands on the precipice of possibly re-entering.
Now in her 99th year, Weezy, a botanist, is sharp of mind and memory. One would think Gov. Mead might pay her a visit. She was, after all, a contemporary of the governor’s late grandfather, Cliff Hansen, a former Wyoming governor and U.S. senator.
Mr. Hansen taught his family to respect the wisdom of elders. Weezy’s perspective, in terms of longevity, is unmatched. She could educate Gov. Mead about courage and the bitter backlash that comes when people say truthful things the political status quo doesn’t want to hear.
While unpopular in the day, Weezy and the Murie clan nobly fought to preserve Grand Teton for future generations. They also spoke out against the irrational cultural hatred of wolves and grizzlies, and they presciently identified the enduring value—economic, spiritual, and biological— of wild ecosystems.
Over decades, as Ade Murie meticulously assembled field notes as part of his biological research, it was Weezy, near Grand Teton headquarters at Moose, who typed them onto paper. Ade Murie’s insights were published in a pioneering study of Yellowstone coyotes, and in two classic books, The Wolves of Mt. McKinley and The Grizzlies of Mt. McKinley.
Mr. Ferrell, Gov. Mead, and Secretary Salazar ought to give them a read. Between Weezy and the Robinetts, there isn’t a citizen trio alive in Wyoming today that better grasps the real reality—not the fairy tale depictions— of wolves.
Gov. Mead, grandson of a rancher who fought the expansion of Grand Teton Park but admitted later he was wrong, finds himself in a similar bind with wolves.
Wyoming long ago could have had a delisted wolf population if leaders had listened to the state’s top Game and Fish Department expert, Dave Moody, who advised trophy game status Wyoming-wide. Instead, Mr. Moody was muzzled.
Gov. Mead can continue to placate anti-conservation, wolf-despising citizens as a way to remain popular or, observers say, he can stiffen his spine and be a solutions-oriented leader. The path he and Secretary Salazar take with wolves will reveal much about the character and integrity of both men.