Category Archives: Essays

Ramblings of our clan about the values of wilderness, humanity, and the nexus between all.

Wolf at the Door?

Wolf pack

Longtime Denver Post writer, Ric Soulen, opines in his Colorado Journal that the recent decision to relax restrictions on killing wolves in the Northern Rockies is, “completely insane and without any scientific reasoning or humane sense at all and is being perpetrated for obvious political gain.”

We’d like to commend Ric for one of the most succinct summaries of wolf politics we’ve seen in ages. Click here to read his post.


Sinapu to the USDA & Congress: No More Aerial Gunning!

End this Senseless Program, No More Deaths, Please

On June 1, 2007, two federal employees died when their plane crashed during aerial gunning operations in Wayne County, Utah. A television news story stated that the pilot and gunner were professionals that flew “almost daily” on aerial hunts, and that the flight community was shocked by their deaths. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) – Wildlife Services’ employees, friends, and families of the two men are reeling from the tragic loss of pilot Joseph Harris and gunner Glen Stevenson. Sinapu extends its condolences to the families.

Crashed airplane.  Hopefully the coyote got away.USDA-Wildlife Services calls these deaths heroism in the line of duty. Instead, these deaths represent are the unnecessary result of an antiquated and failed federal program by the USDA to kill native carnivores on behalf of a few dozen Western livestock producers. Why does the federal government promote the act of shooting coyotes and other animals by federal employees and contractors from low-flying planes and helicopters given the accident rate in this business?

Since 1989, the USDA-Wildlife Services has crashed at least 25 helicopters or planes while aerial gunning, resulting in at least 10 fatalities and 26 injuries. Read Sinapu’s report.

• In March 2000, Quinton Van Cleve and Steve Pfeil died in Del Rio, Texas while aerial gunning. No witnesses saw the accident, but the National Transportation Safety Board determined that the helicopter experienced a “in-flight collision with terrain.”

• In March 1998, Lawana Clark died while training as an aerial gunning pilot in Lebec, California (photo above). Her plane’s wing struck the ground during a turn. According to government records, her shoulder harness had been altered—likely contributing to her fatality. (Her trainer, Andy Williams, was seriously injured when he was involved in a second accident in 2000 in Rio Vista, California when his plane struck a powerline and plunged 120 feet. In a third incident, in 1997, Williams was named in a crime report for allegedly shooting bullets from a USDA aircraft near a couple in Sierra County, California.)

• In 1998, aerial gunner Shane Cornwall died in Spanish Fork, Utah when his helicopter struck a tree after apparent engine failure.

• In 1996, Jeff Yates and Darwin Mabbutt’s plane in Holden, Utah crashed because the vehicle was 75 pounds overweight.

• In 1979, Robert Evans and Gary Lambert plane crashed in Artesia, New Mexico while hunting predators.

Obviously, flying close to the ground while chasing coyotes, foxes, or bobcats can lead to trouble, including collisions with powerlines, trees, or land formations. Many aerial gunning accidents occur because of unexpected wind shears. Flying low to the ground leaves little maneuvering room. In South Dakota, state agent Kevin Hoult caused his plane to crash after he fired a shot that lodged in the plane’s controls.

When people are dying while killing wildlife, then predator control has gotten out of hand. If the USDA-Wildlife Services won’t stop this foolishness, then Congress should. Far better methods to prevent livestock depredation (including non-lethal ones such as fencing, guard animals, and strobe lights) are far safer and more cost effective. Learn more about aerial gunning and the costs involved.

Hey buddy, can you spare some change for my wolf?

I don’t like bullies. Few people do. Yet, it seems like we live in a world where all of the rules are written by (and for) the bullies. Whether corporations seeking to absolve themselves of their responsibility to be good global citizens, governments seeking to secure natural resources (usually for corporate gain) or special interests striving to maintain the status quo, it’s the bully’s way or the highway.

So it is that we find ourselves, now more than 30 years into the effort to weave wolves back into their rightful place in the West, with wolves still only represented across less than 5% of their historic range; this despite the fact that we’ve got plenty of prey, land and public support to ensure the survival of wolves in the region for the foreseeable future. Clearly, 5% is better than nothing, and the government has managed to keep the species from going extinct. Were it not for the bullies, however, we’d be much further along the road to a restored wolf population.

Wolves - government Sponsored Terrorists?


Bullies with guns drove wolves (and grizzly bears) to extinction throughout much of North America, and the lobbies and legal firms that defend the legacy of those bullies continue to bully decision-makers into “keeping America wolf-free” (no doubt a patriotic act on par with fighting terrorism). Amazingly, these neo-bullies act as if every rancher (and hunter) in America hates wolves, when the truth is a few shades different. Amazingly, these neo-bullies represent a tiny fraction of our population and economy, yet their voice rivals that of The Mouse That Roared. Amazingly, most people are not aware of how disproportionately powerful these neo-bullies are.

Consider this: according to the Center for Responsive Politics, between 1990 and 2004, the livestock industry contributed an average of $3,310,896 to political campaigns and candidates for each two-year national election cycle (that’s right, every two years). Notably, these numbers do not include contributions for state-level offices.

During that same period, Sinapu’s annual budget has never breached the $250,000 mark. Money is muscle, and the livestock industry had enough muscle left over to give a hefty chunk away to politicians every couple of years, while groups like Sinapu struggle just to stay in the fight.

If the story of David and Goliath is starting to seep into your subconscious mind by now, it’s because you’re paying attention. Wild carnivores don’t have political action committees throwing down thousand-dollar checks for their favorite sons (oh, what a different world it would be!). In short, we have got to get stronger (and bigger) in order to successfully rein in the legacy of these bullies. I’m more confident than ever that we can do it though, because we have you and a growing legion of good citizens like you who dream of a wilder tomorrow.

So, herewith, I offer a challenge to all who want their children to inherit an America that once again has a writhing, howling, tail-wagging, elk-chasing, wild heart: for every dollar you spend on meat (especially beef and lamb), set aside a dollar to contribute to organizations that work to defend and restore wild America. How’s that for poking a finger in the eye of those wolf-hating bullies! If the scrappy tack doesn’t do it for you, then think of it as tithing for wildlife. Whatever works—just be disciplined about it.

At the end of the day, we will beat these bullies, and the wolves will sing up the moon. The more money we have coming in the door, the more staff we can hire to help us counter the political influence bought by industry lobbyists. Indeed, the more successful we are, the wilder America becomes.

Santa, the environment tops my list

Gray wolf.  Courtesy of Tim Springer.  Copyright 2004.Dear Santa,

You sleighed into Fort Collins a couple weeks ago, and I’ve been honing my Christmas list ever since. I’ve tried to be nice this year (not naughty), and now I’m sitting on your lap to give it a go.

My visit coincides with the Dec. 15 deadline for our newly elected state senators and representatives to submit their bills for the 2007 Colorado legislative session. As an environmentalist, I can think of no better Christmas gift than if five new bills get introduced and make it all the way to the governor’s desk next May.

Please, Santa, consider these gifts for both the people of Colorado and for our beautiful Colorado landscape:

1. Instream flow rights. Believe it or not, we need to change state law to make it possible to keep water in our rivers. There are people, organizations, cities, and even farmers who want to donate water to our rivers, but our convoluted water laws keep it from happening. The law now says we have to “use it or lose it.” We need to change the law to allow our rivers to flow freely again.

2. Wolf reintroduction. Imagine the howl of wolves roaming Colorado. Imagine Colorado elk being chased by wolves. There are wolves in the states around us – Wyoming, New Mexico and Montana – and the Colorado Division of Wildlife has already changed its policy to allow for wolves. It’s time now to reintroduce these critters into our wild landscapes. A bill in the legislature could make it so.

3. Plug-in hybrid cars. Never mind those old 2004 Prius gas-guzzlers. These new-generation Prius cars plug right into your electrical outlets, and they get up to 200 miles per gallon! To make it possible, we need tax credits or the redirection of other transportation money – let’s quit paying for gas to fund Osama bin Laden and his pals in the Middle East, and let’s get some meaningful hybrid-car funding mechanisms passed through the state legislature.

4. Solar panels on our roofs. Jimmy Carter did it 30 years ago on the White House roof, and we still haven’t done it here in Colorado. We’re poised to spend tens of billions of dollars on new power plants in the next decade, but only a fraction of that on renewable solar energy. Imagine if we passed a bill to reinvest a portion of that power plant money and put it in household solar panels. Colorado citizens could spin their electric meters backward and we’d save billions on electricity and curtail millions of pounds of air pollution.

5. Water conservation. Water districts around Colorado are preparing to spend more than $5 billion on new dams and reservoirs, but the state still has no water conservation standards or incentive programs. Let’s require that water districts and cities have aggressive conservation programs, and then let’s teach them how to reinvest 20 percent of that $5 billion and put it into water conservation for homes and farms. We’d never have to build another dam, and we’d save our rivers, save water, and save lots of money.

Now, Santa, I know I shouldn’t ask for more, but I have two additional requests. First, all my environmental friends have been beat down, trammeled, ransacked, pillaged, and burned over the last decade by the state and federal administrations. To be honest, my friends act like an abused spouse who has learned helplessness and has become psychologically paralyzed.

For them, I ask that you give renewed hope. With hope, I believe they can find the passion and energy to continue working hard to preserve our state’s environment.

And second, there’s lots of folks in the state legislature who are feeling nervous about supporting strong environmental values. They believe in protecting the environment, but they don’t want to stick their necks out for fear of losing the next election.

For them, I ask that you give courage. It is courage that will support their voice so they can stand up at the state Capitol to protect our environment.

And Santa, I smell a little cognac on your breath, so I wonder if I might request one more little gift: Can you ask Al Gore to run for president?

Sincerely yours,

Gary Wockner

Gary Wockner, Ph.D. is a writer and ecologist. He is a resident of Fort Collins. Reach him at  This article first appeared in the Rocky Mountain News.

Howling Back – Part I

Author’s Note: This essay originally appeared in Comeback Wolves: Western Writers Welcome the Wolf Home (Johnson Books. 2005). It’s an amazing collection of essays, poetry and thoughtful prose. To purchase a copy, click here.

Howling Back

The television image brightens from black to a shadowy, old-growth forest. As glimpses of a wolf moving through the undergrowth flash nervously through the scene—giving a sense of impending doom—a female’s voice drones darkly: “In an increasingly dangerous world, even after the first terrorist attack on America, John Kerry and the liberals in Congress voted to slash America’s intelligence budget by $6 billion, cuts so deep they would have weakened America’s defenses.” The scene switches to several wolves resting on a hillside, until the observer apparently catches their attention and they rise to give chase. The female announcer continues, “And weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm.” As the ad fades to black, the voice of President George W. Bush announces his approval of the piece.

Turning off the television, I stood staring blankly at the darkening screen. The ad’s not-so-subtle use of wolves as a metaphor for terrorists left me dumbfounded (click here to watch the ad). Yet the Bush Administration had never proven to be a friend to wolves. In fact, Secretary of the Interior Gail Norton—a Bush appointee—approached her stewardship of the nation’s wolves much like a princess would approach a stinky shirt. This ad, however, was a cheap shot.

After nearly a decade of struggling to build the scientific case and a constituency for wolves in the Southern Rockies, I felt my blood boil at this ad. The political hacks who created it were so proud of themselves they granted interviews to the major media outlets just to discuss their handiwork. They argued that the ad’s imagery “tested as very compelling with focus groups.” Really? What a surprise! The only thing that might have made it more compelling would be seeing the wolves chasing down and devouring the Secretary of the Interior.

I knew that my righteous indignation wouldn’t stop the ad from airing, however. This felt like familiar territory.

Go to: Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI | Part VII

Wolf tracks

Our coyote war in the West reminds me of the war in Iraq

Aerial gunning (from a helicopter)As the war in Iraq drags on, at least three lessons are clear. First, there is a strong ethnic-religious component to the war that our military power seems unable to address. We’re trying to use a hugely expensive military machine to grapple with religious fundamentalism, which is like using a gold-plated jackhammer to hoe a garden.

Second, the reasons used to justify the war — those weapons of mass destruction we could never find and the connection to Osama bin Ladin — turned out not to exist.

And third, our relentless bombing and killing of terrorists seems to make more religious extremists decide to be terrorists. In other words, the more terrorists we kill, the more we seem to make.

A recent proposal by the U.S. Forest Service to give the Agriculture Department’s Wildlife Services agency the option to kill coyotes in wilderness areas — by poisoning and gunning them down from a helicopter or airplane — offers eerie similarities to the quagmire in Iraq.

A coyote is a four-legged critter that weighs around 40 pounds, like a medium-sized dog. It adapts to almost any environment, lives both alone and in families, and it performs necessary ecological functions in nature’s grand food chain. Coyotes mainly eat rodents and other small animals, but sometimes they dine on free-roaming domestic sheep and calves that are grazing on public lands.

For decades, the U.S. government has responded by spending millions of dollars every year to kill coyotes by poisoning, trapping and aerial gunning. Here in Colorado where I live, the federal government spends about $1.8 million per year on Wildlife Services, a small portion of which goes to aerial gunning of coyotes on public lands. In the past, wilderness areas — places thought of with reverence by conservationists and the majority of American citizens — have been off-limits to aerial gunning.

And so the first similarity to Iraq is this: Even though there are many ways to control coyotes’ preying on livestock, the Bush administration is choosing the most heavy-handed lethal option with complete disregard for human cultural institutions. The Forest Service is proposing to send airplanes and helicopters with guns into wilderness areas to shoot what is essentially a 40-pound wild dog.

The second similarity is equally intriguing. In the United States in 2004, coyotes and other domestic dogs killed about .1 percent of calves and about 3 percent of sheep. On public lands, those losses are significantly smaller, and in wilderness areas, those losses are absolutely miniscule. Again, the reason given to justify this aerial war uncontrolled killing of livestock in wilderness by coyotes turns out not to exist or is severely exaggerated.

The third similarity is downright eerie. Recent scientific studies have shown that coyotes are very resilient when it comes to federal killing programs. In fact, when some members of coyote families are killed, it causes other members to disperse and breed more rapidly. Their biological response mechanism seems to tell them they are under attack, and their reaction is to spread widely and bear even more pups. Indeed, since the U.S. government began extensively shooting, trapping and poisoning coyotes 150 years ago, the range and numbers of coyotes have expanded dramatically.

In other words, the more coyotes we kill, the more we seem to make.

There are many options to control coyotes’ preying on livestock, such as guard dogs, fencing, techno-gizmos that scare off coyotes, actual range-riding cowboys on horseback and as a last resort: killing. They are all a part of a much larger option, which is learning to live with the non-human world around us, rather than constantly inventing war-like ways to kill and subdue it.

But that is not the trend here in the American West, nor in Iraq. The Bush administration is building hammers fast, and all it can see is nails.
Gary Wockner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He is a writer and ecologist in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Editor’s note: Comments on the coyote-gunning proposal can be sent by Aug. 7 to Forest Service, USDA, Attn: Director, Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Resources, 201 14th Street, SW., Washington, D.C. 20250; by electronic mail to; or by fax to 202/ 205-1145.

By Gary Wockner
Writers on the Range
Moffat County News
July 16, 2006

Click here for original article.

Howling Back – Part II

Salvage logging's legacyIn early 1995, just a few months after I had arrived in Boulder, Colorado, the Republican controlled House of Representatives took up the mantle of the logging and livestock industries, crafting a bill to suspend environmental laws that govern these industries on public lands. Facing this unprecedented opportunity, industry lobbyists twisted many important arms in the Capitol. Despite their efforts, however, as the bill came to a vote it appeared as if the Senate would rebuke the House version by a one-vote margin. Regrettably, Colorado’s Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell switched his vote, giving a green light to the “lawless logging bill”; within weeks, the U.S. Forest Service had several massive tracts of pristine Western forest up for sale.

Incensed by this betrayal of the last fragments of America’s wild forests, thousands of citizens in the Western United States took to the streets in protest. Although similar provisions to suspend environmental review of livestock grazing were equally pernicious, images of chainsaws raging in America’s wilderness sparked the most outrage.

By the summer of 1995, that outrage drove me—once a Republican—to chain myself to four of my friends atop the roof of the Colorado Republican Party headquarters in Denver. Hundreds of people milled around in the streets below, chanting songs for the forests, waving signs and banners and doing their best to ensure that the people of Colorado knew that there was trouble in paradise.

For several hours, we remained atop the building, giving the local papers enough time to take a few good pictures—and allowing the police time to figure out how to cut the bike locks binding us together. Even before the police and fire department had removed us from the roof, the crowd below had successfully raised our bail by simply passing the hat. Nonetheless, the police held us for eleven hours—subjecting us to an unrelenting barrage of sarcasm.

None of us believed that we’d single-handedly move our government to restore law to our public lands. Like the millions of citizens of this country who’d risked their freedom in decades past to protest injustices, however, we were obliged to bear witness to this latest insult. Bearing witness comes at a price, however—and this particularly nasty battle had left me running on fumes.

Go to: Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI | Part VII

Wolf tracks