Just a few months before Congress freed the Forest Service of the burdens of environmental law, another branch of government had freed several packs of wolves in Wyoming and Idaho. Against the din of shrill criticism from western elected officials and a few vocal ranchers and hunters, the West’s repatriated wolves were busy changing the landscape.
Like a potter at the wheel, turning a block of clay into beauty, wolves were reshaping the territories of resident coyote clans, remolding the behavior of elk and deer, and in turn sculpting the countryside. Aspen and willows—withering under decades of grazing by sedentary elk, deer and moose—rebounded as elk and deer moved more frequently under the pressure of resident wolves. With more young trees cropping up, beaver began to reclaim stretches of local streams. Their dams quickly gave rise to new wetlands—and thus habitat for songbirds, insects and fish. A few years into this momentous experiment, scientific journals and the popular media would begin marveling at the big ripples wolves were sending through their homeland.
Undaunted by the magic that wolves were working, the livestock industry and a few angry hunting associations continued to trot out time-worn myths. Wolves will decimate livestock herds. All of the elk and deer will be gone in a decade. Local economies will collapse. Children will disappear from bus stops.
Held up to the mirror of fact, these myths crumble. Where wolves and livestock share the land, wolves kill less than one in ten thousand cows and sheep each year. Weather kills scores more livestock in those same areas annually. Canada never eliminated wolves, yet the nation’s hunting and ranching industries continue to thrive. Wolves (and many other carnivores) existed in significant numbers throughout North America before European conquest. How is it that these flesh-eating machines managed not to decimate their food supply before we came along to “manage” them?
Yet, in the face of the unrelenting cries of anti-wolf factions that “the sky is falling,” we had our work cut out for us. We’d have to assemble a solid base of facts to counter the anti-wolf rhetoric—and so, in the waning years of the 1990s, we did.