“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.
“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 Lobowatch.com, 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.
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.