Cry, Wolf

How a Campaign of Fear and Intimidation Led to the Gray Wolf’s Removal from the Endangered Species List.


“NABEKI” DIDN’T EXPECT everyone to love her when, in September 2009, she founded the website “Howling for Justice” to celebrate the return of gray wolves to the Northern Rocky Mountains and to protest the then-pending wolf hunts in Montana and Idaho. She didn’t expect to fear for her life, either. But after she posted the names of Montana wolf hunters on her site, the threats began. On a single day in February 2010 the anti-wolf movement sent to her 3,000 messages. Some of the e-mails expressed their desire for her to leave the Rockies immediately. Some messages contained graphic descriptions of wolf killing clearly meant to cause her anguish. “When I pulled the trigger, I think I saw the wolf cry,” one person wrote. “Then it’s [sic] guts where [sic] blown onto the hillside and it moaned.” A few of the messages hinted at attacking her personally.

Courtesy Lynne Stone, Boulder White Clouds Council
Courtesy Lynne Stone, Boulder White Clouds Council

“Until that day I wasn’t thinking about the hatred,” Nabeki, a professional from California who moved to the Rockies 15 years ago, told me. Nabeki is an Internet ID, a pseudonym that she asked me to maintain since she fears for her safety. “The idea that someone can hate you that much and not even know you is really daunting. It was the first time I got really scared. To this day I’m still scared.” What bothers her the most, though, is the sense that no one outside the Northern Rockies grasps the peril wolf advocates face. “I don’t know if people realize how serious a culture war this really is.”

For the last few years, a new version of an old war against the American gray wolf has raged in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. Almost two decades ago, spurred by environmental activists with a vision of restoring a historic wolf population that had been extirpated, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) captured 66 wolves in Canada and released them into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho, where they flourished. To naturalists, wolf reintroduction seemed morally right, a chance to remedy a previous generation’s crime of wolf extermination.

But to many in the region, the resurgence of wolves became a source of rage. Wolves killed livestock, infuriating ranchers. Many hunters saw the wolves as competitors for deer and elk. Yet the fury against wolves went deeper than what the animals actually did. For decades, the Rocky Mountain states have been the center of an extreme right-wing culture that celebrates the image of man as “warrior,” recognizes only local and state governance as legitimate, and advocates resistance – even armed resistance – against the federal government. To members of this culture, wolf reintroduction became a galvanizing symbol of perceived assaults on their personal freedom. Resistance was imperative. But whereas attacking the federal government could lead to prison, killing wolves was a political goal within reach – something the individual warrior could do. So advocating for the killing of wolves became a proxy battle, an organizing tool to reach out to all those angry about environmental regulations, gun laws, and public land policies. Since the early 2000s, and with increasing virulence since 2009, anti-wolf activists have promoted the image of wolves as demons – disease-ridden, dangerous, and foreign.

Wolf hatred unites the right by emphasizing wolves’ connection to the government.

The fear-driven demagoguery has worked. Afraid for their lives, pro-wolf voices like Nabeki have retreated from speaking out at public forums. Mainstream hunters, ranchers, loggers, and politicians from both political parties have signed onto the anti-wolf stance. With the public debate dominated by wolf paranoia – and fearful of wider losses across the West – conservation groups were pushed into a legal compromise that ultimately failed.

The result is an impending slaughter. On April 11, Congress removed gray wolves in Montana and Idaho from the endangered species list and legislated that in those two states, plus Wyoming, all but 300 to 450 of the region’s estimated 1,650 wolves may be killed. The remaining wolves will not necessarily disappear as a regional species, but their small numbers mean they will become “ecologically extinct,” serving no function within the mountain ecosystem. How this all happened is yet another example of a dysfunctional political system in which fear – both irrational fear and fear harnessed for political gain – determines policy.

EVERY WAS HAS ITS warriors, and Toby Bridges is in the vanguard of the campaign against wolves – an unmatched propagandist, agitator, and organizer. When I met him in January at Perkins Restaurant in Missoula, Montana he was dressed the part in faded green hunting clothes, his graying hair cut short. A manufacturer’s representative for muzzle-loading rifles, Bridges grew up in the Midwest, but visited Montana for decades to camp and hunt. In 2007, he moved to Missoula with his wife. By then, some 500 wolves lived in packs scattered among the mountains. Bridges claims that their presence had utterly altered the state he loved. “I went to places where I’d been ten to 12 years ago and the game just wasn’t there. Instead I saw lots of piles of wolf scat.”

The idea that environmental groups and the Endangered Species Act had “forced [Montana] to have too many wolves” enraged him. “I didn’t move out here to Montana to watch it all die and I don’t mind being pushy,” he told me. In 2009, he founded, a website on which he posted furious anti-wolf essays.

As it happened, 2009 was a pivotal time for wolves in the Rocky Mountains. Because the animals had flourished, the USFWS “delisted” them as endangered and returned their “management” to state governments in Montana and Idaho. (Wyoming was excluded because it hadn’t developed a USFWS-approved management plan.) Both states responded by holding hunts in which several hundred wolves were killed. In response, a coalition of 14 national and local environmental groups (including the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife) sued the USFWS, arguing that the agency had violated the Endangered Species Act by subdividing the Northern Rocky wolf population into two groups, when the wolves in all three states represented a distinct population. In August 2010, federal judge Donald Molloy ruled in the conservation groups’ favor, and Montana and Idaho were forced to cancel upcoming hunts.

Courtesy Lynne Stone, Boulder White Clouds Council
Courtesy Lynne Stone, Boulder White Clouds Council

The court ruling infuriated a right wing already inflamed by the election of Barack Obama. On Lobowatch, Bridges escalated his rhetoric. “It’s time to fight dirty,” he wrote, then informed readers that xylitol, a readily available artificial sweetener, causes canines to lose coordination, suffer seizures, and die. “If Donald Molloy goes against the wishes of today’s hunters, there’s going to be a whole lot of very sweet [elk and deer] gut piles and wolf carcasses dotting the landscape this fall.”

Bridges also set out to strengthen some important alliances. One was with Gary Marbut, who serves as the executive director of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, a powerful lobbying group in Montana that promotes a broad right-wing agenda including bills legalizing noise suppressors while hunting, formation of state militia groups, and a law prohibiting federal law enforcement from making arrests without a local sheriff’s approval. Bridges also connected with Montana State Senator Joe Balyeat, a Bozeman Republican who is an extremely conservative states’ and county rights advocate and an avid bow hunter. While reaching out to people in positions of influence, Bridges began addressing hunting groups and publishing on hunting websites such as Black Bear Blog. And he enlisted the support of Jim Beers, a former USFWS agent whose leadership in the “Wise Use” movement – which employs a certain interpretation of the Bible to advocate for increased exploitation of public lands – had made him famous in the region.

Montana’s anti-wolf alliance of ranchers, hunters, and militia sympathizers is built around some shared myths that focus on the evils of wolves in general and the Rockies’ wolves specifically. The anti-wolf movement asserts that because the reintroduced wolves were captured in Canada, they are foreign – alien and un-American.When we met at a Missoula pizza parlor, Gary Marbut described Canadian wolves as “an invasive subspecies” that spread out from Yellowstone and Central Idaho and “bumped off and wiped out an indigenous species of wolf that were smaller, had different pack structures, and hunted differently.” To “prove” this, websites like Lobowatch regularly run pictures of large, fierce-looking wolves looking ready to attack.

These “foreign” wolves also have brought disease, specifically E. granulosus, a tapeworm, the myth asserts. “Wolves in the Rockies dispense billions of microscopic eggs in air and water,” Marbut said. “When they get into people they cause cysts ... that can be fatal. We are at risk in Montana.”

Anti-wolf advocates also believe that it’s only a matter of time before these foreign, disease-ridden wolves attack humans. In 2010, numerous Internet postings told of elk hunters surrounded by howling wolves and saved only by their guns. One Idaho guide told his clients to “never leave the camp without a gun and a buddy,” because 24 wolves surrounded them. Val Geist, a retired professor of biology at the University of Calgary, told a Montana blog that when wolves “sit and stare at humans [it’s] a prelude to an eventual attack.” State Senator Joe Balyeat believes that if wolf populations continue to grow, “someone in Idaho or Montana will be killed or mauled by wolves within a year, and it may very well be a small child.”

The anti-wolf movement thinks wolves threaten civilization itself. Marbut sent me his 2003 essay, “Wolves Circling the Fire: Of Beasts and Tyrants.” Its first sentence reads: “There was a time in Man’s evolution when he huddled around the nighttime fire gazing outward at the glowing ring of eyes – the predators who viewed man only as food.” A few good wolves “came in and joined Man at the fire and became dogs.” The rest stayed outside, always ready to attack. According to Marbut, “one might reasonably view Man’s entire development and creation of civilization as a process of fortifying against wolves.”

These claims resonate with many people because they build on a long tradition in western culture of demonizing the wolf. During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church ruled that wolves belonged to the devil: Demons could take the shape of wolves, as could witches. Puritans then brought these ideas to America. Minister Cotton Mather called New England before settlement a “howling wilderness.” Asked to investigate Salem’s alleged witch infestation, Mather concluded in his book, On Witchcraft, that “Evening Wolves” (werewolves and witches) were but another of the Devil’s tests as New England passed from “Wilderness” to the “Promised Land.”

These sentiments remain alive in the Rocky Mountains today. Jim Boedner, director of natural resources for the Montana Livestock Growers Association, told me that wolves kill cattle, make them sick from “stress,” and scare elk herds down from the mountains onto grazing fields, where they compete with cows for forage. State Senator Balyeat – who wore a turquoise shirt with images of rust-colored elk the day I interviewed him in his capitol office – keeps a computer file full of photos of deer and elk calf remains. “The key thing that animal lovers don’t understand about wolves is that there’s a difference between wolves and other predators,” he said. “Wolves, grizzlies, and mountain lions are all killing machines, but wolves, in distinction, are also a breeding machine. I am an award-winning CPA, but it doesn’t take a CPA to do the math.” By Balyeat’s calculations, wolves have a 30 percent annual reproduction rate. If there are 550 wolves in Montana, and each wolf eats 46 elk a year, in ten years 5,830 wolves will eat 258,180 elk. “That’s more elk than we have in the entire state of Montana!” Balyeat says.

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In the name of science

While arguing the specifics of wolf behavior, the anti-wolf movement unites segments of the political right by emphasizing wolves’ connection to a shared enemy: the federal government. Starting in the 1970s, ranchers in the self-described “Sagebrush Rebellion” claimed that because the National Forest Service had given them permits to graze livestock on public lands, that land had in essence become their private property. Therefore the imposition of environmental laws violated their rights. Some, like Wayne Hage, founder of the private property rights group American Stewards, go even farther. They say that the federal government should have sold its holdings in the West to ranchers in the late nineteenth century, but instead appropriated them. Like this “taking” of land to create national parks and forests, reintroducing wolves that then kill livestock – ranchers’ private property – represents another act of government domination.

According to Jim Beers, the wolf reintroduction in the mid-1990s was the result of federal government crime: The Clinton administration had illegally taken $60 million that hunters and fishers had paid in excise taxes on guns and gear and used it to pay for wolf reintroduction. Beers told this story repeatedly to hunting groups; it still circulates widely on anti-wolf websites.

To Gary Marbut, wolf depredation represents a “theft” from hunters. He told me that Montana’s game herds were “a savings account we were building up for our children and grandchildren. The wolf advocates elected to raid that savings account to feed their pet critters.”

Suzy Foss, a rancher in the Bitterroot Valley and a county commissioner, said that wolves are now in Montana because “monkeys in some government agency in a Washington high-rise think they’re good for us. They will destroy our society.”

“Not one wolf from Canada volunteered to come down here – they were drugged,” she told me. She said that many Bitterroot Valley residents had told her that elk stayed out of the woods because “they’re terrorized,” that their livestock had been killed, and that they themselves had been “stalked or circled by wolves.” This, she said, is the reason why many people in the area carry guns.

THE ANTI-WOLF ACTIVISTS speak passionately, sometimes even persuasively, about their cause. But none of their claims are true.

Ed Bangs, director of wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, rejects the idea that Canadian and Rocky Mountain wolves are two different subspecies. “Once there were contiguous wolf packs from what is now Mexico City to the Arctic Ocean,” Bangs told me. They interbred and formed one species. Yes, the wolves in southern Canada ran a bit larger. But that’s because of what biologists call ‘Allen’s Rule’ – “as you move north, body size gets larger to preserve heat.” Hunters did not kill any “giant” wolves in the 2009 wolf hunts; of 188 killed in Idaho, the largest weighed 127 pounds, the average less than 95. What about those huge wolves shown on Lobowatch? They’re actually Arctic wolves, which don’t live in the Rockies. And while many wolves do carry tapeworms, scientists from the US Geological Survey Wildlife Health Center report that, “We know of no known transmission of E. granulosus from a wolf to a human.”

Neither is it true that wolf packs are lying in wait for the region’s school children. In the entire twentieth century, wolves attacked about 15 people in North America, killing none. (In 2010, wolves did kill a woman jogging on the outskirts of her Alaskan town.) In contrast, domestic dogs bite about one million people a year and cause about 18 deaths, mostly of children.

I asked wolf biologist Jay Mallone of Kalispell, Montana about the hunters’ stories of circling wolves ready for attack. He sounded jealous, and said: “For periods of time, all of us wolf biologists have lived among the wolves we studied and never been approached. I wish they would. It would make studying wild wolves a lot easier!”

Also: Wolves aren’t killing all of the West’s big game. Even the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a critic of wolf reintroduction, reports that from 1984 to 2009, the number of elk in Idaho went up 5 percent, in Wyoming 35 percent, and in Montana 66 percent. True, some local declines have occurred, and sometimes wolf depredation is a factor. In 1995, when wolves were first introduced in Yellowstone, there were 16,702 elk in the park. By December 2010, only 4,635 remained. But the cause of this decline is under debate.

Some studies point to bear predation, others to hunters (who are allowed to kill elk that have moved beyond the park), and still others to climate change – increased summer temperatures reduce nutrition, making elk more vulnerable.

It’s equally false to say that wolves are “breeding machines.” Predator populations change when numbers of prey decrease; climate and habitat conditions also influence reproductive rates. And while wolves do sometimes kill cattle and sheep, the numbers are surprisingly small. Federal statistics report that of Montana’s roughly 2.5 million head of cattle, wolves killed 97 in 2009 and 87 in 2010. Wolves killed 202 of Montana’s 250,000 sheep in 2009 and 64 in 2010. Suzy Foss’s county lost one cow to wolves in 2009 and two in 2010.

Carter Niemeyer, who worked for Wildlife Services in Montana from 1973 to 2000 and investigated more than 100 cases of reported wolf depredation, says he believes that only about 5 percent were verified kills. Pressure on investigators from ranchers and state officials corrupted the system, he writes in his book, Wolfer: A Memoir: “Everyone’s kids go to the same schools; everyone shops in the same grocery store. If a rancher thinks a wolf killed his cow, the investigator isn’t going to argue with him.” Niemeyer told me he thinks the system perpetuates wolf killing. “We have a tremendous amount of livestock loss reported, but very little documentation to prove it. These claims become statistics and statistics drive the urge for predator control.”

Ranchers’ most ambitious claims – that because they hold grazing permits on federal lands that these lands are their private property – are also specious, dismissed by the United States Supreme Court in 2000. “In Public Land Council v. Babbitt the justices voted nine-to-zero that grazing permits are a license, not a property right,” said John Marvel, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project. In fact, the cattle industry is a major recipient of the very type of government largesse that the right often decries as welfare. The federal government charges ranchers $1.35 a month for a cow and calf to graze, when it costs the US Forest Service at least $12.25 per head to maintain mountain rangeland. “The low fee,” Marvel said, allows “ranchers to be compensated for risks of grazing on public lands, which includes risk of depredation.” Similarly, there is no legal basis to the idea that individual hunters “own” deer and elk as their “savings account” because they pay taxes on guns. As Marvel put it: “Groups like American Stewards and people like Suzy Foss are living in a fantasy world.”

THE FANTASTIC CLAIMS made by the right wing did not go unchecked. Between 2009 and 2010, the major national environmental groups focused on their lawsuit against the USFWS’s partial delisting. Mike Leahy, regional director for Defenders of Wildlife, told me that his group decided that the most important fight was “at the national level.” Meanwhile, a loose confederation of local wilderness activists tried to counter the anti-wolf propaganda by showing up at public hearings in Idaho and Montana and offering a defense of the wolf’s place in the Rocky Mountains.

Most the wolf supporters were relative newcomers to the area. They were middle-aged boomers who had moved to Montana and Idaho to live near wild and beautiful lands. Many of them identified as conservationists: They had read the classic environmental books on the interconnected web of life, they knew about the Native American spiritualism that understands animals as symbolic kin. They included Nabeki, a California transplant who became involved in protecting roadless areas and limiting off-road vehicles. Jerry Black was another one, a retired pilot and long-time wetlands activist from Washington who thought he would just fish and hike when he moved to Missoula to be near his children. But the anti-wolf movement repulsed him. “It’s as if wolf advocates are two-legged wolves,” Black explained, “and wolves represent four-legged environmentalists.” Marc Cooke moved from the East Coast to pursue wildlife photography, only to find the wildlife under siege. In Idaho, Ann Sydow and Nancy Taylor, co-chairs of the Northern Idaho Wolf Alliance, shared a common interest in showing real (albeit captive) wolves to people – “wolf ambassadors” is what they call them – and could not stomach the attacks on the animals. Lynne Stone, an Idaho settler from Washington, had helped form the Boulder White Clouds Council, which tried to stop mines from dumping cyanide and mercury into Idaho’s rivers. That work led her to becoming a wolf advocate.

Between 2008 and 2010 this collection of part-time activists did whatever they thought would work to resist the wolf hunts. Jerry Black wrote federal agencies to try to find out why wolves killed by Wildlife Services were photographed with school children. Lynne Stone tried to scare wolves away from livestock with blank shotgun shells. Marc Cooke showed up at state hearings to argue for minimizing the number of wolves allowed to be killed. Nabeki started her Howling for Justice website and a Facebook affiliate, Wolf Warriors.

These ad-hoc efforts were not what you would call a powerful movement. But the fact that anyone would stand up for wolves enraged the wolf hunters. The fury the anti-wolf movement had directed toward animals was extended to humans.

wolves photo
Photo from

As Gary Marbut told me: Just as wolves prey on animals, wolf advocates prey on society. “They are feasting on our savings account, our culture, our way of life, in order to impose their own culture of wolves.” They, too, were foreigners, people who “grew up in cities.” Anti-wolf bloggers have called the wolf defenders “pieces of communist crap” who “DO NOT belong in my country, who should be deported … and that’s my second choice of things to do with you.”

Between 2009 and 2011 the viciousness escalated. Lynne Stone received an e-mail photo of a dead wolf pup lying in the back of a pickup on December 24; the accompanying text read, “merry christmas.” Soon the threats extended to the activists themselves. Ann Sydow opened her local paper to find a letter to the editor recommending that she “go for a walk in the woods and not come back.” Just showing up to a public meeting became dangerous, Marc Cooke explained. “When I go, they stare at me,” he said. “Half of them have pistols at their sides. They say ‘Marc, we know who you are. We know where you live.’”

The intimidation worked. Afraid for their lives and their families, regional wolf advocates stopped participating in public hearings held by fish and game agencies and legislative committees and retreated to the relative safety of the Internet to spread their message. In theory, government officials are supposed to run public meetings in an inclusive manner that, in the words of Montana administrative rules, promote “social tolerance.” But in the experience of Travis McAdam, executive director of the Montana Human Rights Network, “Public officials never get up and remove the people who scream at meetings. The same ones who are doing cat calls are carrying guns, and they’re making democracy fail.” Soon, the voices of the wolf haters became the only ones heard in the policy making process.

With few, if any, local constituents speaking up on behalf of the wolves, the political calculus for Montana and Idaho politicians was easy. Office holders across the political spectrum raced to denounce wolves. Montana’s sole congressman, Republican Danny Rehberg, repeatedly spoke against wolf reintroduction and federal protection. After Judge Molloy’s August 2010 decision relisting wolves under the Endangered Species Act, Rehberg introduced a bill in the House of Representatives to remove this protection – in essence, a Congressional nullification of the ESA. Montana’s Democratic Senators Jon Tester (who faces opposition from Rehberg in the 2012 election) and Max Baucus then introduced a similar bill in the Senate.

Wolf blood will flow across the Rocky Mountains this fall and winter.

In October 2010, Idaho’s Republican governor, Butch Otter, ordered state wildlife managers to “relinquish their duty to arrest poachers.” Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, announced that Montanans could open fire on wolves in the northern part of the state if they felt their livestock were endangered. And in February 2011, Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson and Senator Tester placed into the federal budget bill a rider delisting wolves.

Having successfully captured both Republicans and Democrats in the region, the far-right-wing offensive then shattered the environmental movement’s will. Worried that Congress would pass one of the bills and set a dangerous precedent allowing political intervention against any species listed as endangered, all of the national groups that had filed suit to protect the Rockies’ wolves (with the exception of the Humane Society of the United States) announced they had reached a settlement with the Department of the Interior (which oversees the USFWS). The agreement basically reversed the environmentalists’ 2010 legal victory putting wolves back on the list of endangered species.

Besides the Humane Society, three regional groups declined to settle. John Marvel, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, explained why his group refused to go along with the deal: “Our board of directors came to the conclusion that the outlook for wolves from this settlement or from Congressional delisting was the same and it was inappropriate for us to assist in this outcome.” That analysis quickly proved prescient. Neither John Tester nor Danny Rehberg nor Mike Simpson withdrew their bills. Then, on April 9, Judge Donald Molloy rejected the proposed agreement, and kept Montana and Idaho wolves on the endangered species list. Almost immediately, Congress rendered his ruling irrelevant by passing the budget with the anti-wolf rider included. The rider will also remove from the endangered species list some wolf populations in Washington, Oregon, and Utah.

The far right’s campaign to scapegoat wolves thus succeeded. Although the courts were prepared to uphold the Endangered Species Act, the anti-wolf voices dominated the political contest. The national organizations had lost track of the basic reality of politics – namely, that all politics are local – and instead concentrated solely on legal maneuvering and online petitions. Local wolf defenders were essentially abandoned; outnumbered, it was no surprise that they should lose. Fear of wolves – and hatred of what they symbolized – spread from the far right, to the Republican Party, to the Democrats. And then that fear, or some form of it, was internalized by the mainstream environmental movement. Afraid of witnessing an even broader weakening of the ESA, environmental groups decided to sacrifice wolves, calculating that doing so might save other species covered by the act.

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Wolf blood will flow across the Rocky Mountains this fall and winter. For the right, that blood will represent an impressive victory. For wolf advocates, it means grief. Their only hope lies in the belief that the killing might backfire, creating a national sense of shame. Nabeki, for one, thinks the war is not over. “The delisting has galvanized the grassroots movement,” she said. “People are so outraged about this. They’re becoming more bold.”

And there is hope in the wolves themselves. When I visited Montana, activists from both sides whispered to me, as if sharing a secret, “You know, wolves are really smart.” Perhaps their intelligence will enable them to survive. They will climb higher into the mountains, move about only at night, and hide, somewhere, until times change.

Read James William Gibson’s writings at Marc Cooke helped arrange interviews with wolf hunters and advocates for this story.

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