Earlier this year, Gov. Kate Brown signed a bill affirming the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s decision to remove wolves from the state Endangered Species Act and essentially block judicial review. Although the delisting decision and subsequent passage and signing of HB 4040 dealt wolf recovery a blow, the wolf conservation and management plan ultimately determines the fate of this keystone species.
Eight years ago there were no wolves in Oregon. Twenty-five years ago there were no wolves in the West. There are currently not just wolves in Idaho, Washington and Oregon, but now in northern California as well.
Ecologically, wolves have been described as ecosystem engineers, keystone species and natural “vaccines” against disease spread. Through their predation of deer and elk, they decrease browse time, which allows appropriate plants to grow; they increase the available scavenger food source for a wide variety of other animals; they decrease the abundance of destructive mesopredators (raccoons, coyotes, skunks, etc.) and they thin otherwise healthy herds of elk and deer of chronic wasting disease.
Ecologically, wolf conservation is smart. In extrapolating how much time, energy and money I spent in the past couple years trying to photograph wolves in the wild, I imagine conserving this species makes economic sense as well. The argument that wolves are devastating livestock operations and harming humans doesn’t stand the test of time. Sure, there are some livestock losses, and in those rare instances that they occur, ranchers are compensated. However, the depredation of livestock does not outweigh the benefits wolves bring to our ecosystem. It’s baffling to me that the “big bad wolf” myth is still perpetuated and is ultimately creating more fear and anger.
The modern human and wolf interaction is novel. With the policies we enact and the support or opposition we provide, we collectively decide how we want to live with other species and within our ecosystem. Wolf protection and management is an experiment for future large carnivore recovery in this country and globally. For the last 10,000 years humans have done a terrific job of killing the monsters of our nightmares and we are left with a world bereft of these powerful animals. I’m pleased to see that as a society we’re investing in wildlife and fostering recovery for the many predator species we nearly wiped out: grizzly bears, wolverines, jaguars and mountain lions.
We can continue to deny protections or we can learn from our mistakes and coexist better. Wolves embody not just the image of wilderness, but also the definition of a natural system working. If we make decisions that give them that chance, we are not only supporting a healthy environment, but also contributing to the natural legacy of our state. Wolves deserve the strongest protections we can offer, and Oregon’s current and future generations deserve an intact ecosystem to explore and appreciate. I believe it is possible to have both.