The return of apex predators to both national parks and rugged, yet unprotected areas of the United States impacts conservation and regeneration of biodiversity for both wildlife and native landscape. Not surprisingly, it also creates challenges within the well established ranching community.
To bridge the divide between wolf-lovers and ranchers, the conservationist Karin Vardaman had to change many minds—including her own.
Early one morning in April, 2016, Karin Vardaman and four travelling companions woke in a motel in Siskiyou County, a rugged and remote region where rural California meets the Oregon border. They were in a town called Montague—a dot on the map that had begun, in the eighteen-eighties, as a stop on the Southern Pacific Railroad. After visiting a small market to pick up breakfast and snacks, they continued on to the old community hall, a narrow, low-slung building by the railroad tracks. Large, glass-paned windows ran the length of one side; below them, murals depicted horse-drawn wagons from the area’s pioneer days. Outside, a few dozen people were gathering. Watching them, Vardaman had an uneasy feeling. Oh, boy, she thought. Here we go.
Inside, chairs were arranged in a semicircle. Vardaman stood at the center, near a screen on which a PowerPoint slide displayed the title of her workshop, “On Wolves and Livestock.” Tall and sturdy, in her fifties, she has a flowing mane of lustrous red hair, framing slate-blue eyes and a narrow face. She introduced herself to the crowd as an advocate with the California Wolf Center. The Center, she said, was sponsoring a new, collaborative project called the Working Circle, through which it hoped to find a way for cattle and sheep to coëxist with endangered gray wolves.
Before Vardaman could continue, a man in the audience stood up, interrupting her. He wore a cowboy hat and cowboy boots. He calmly thanked her and her team: they had helped the local economy, he said, by shopping at the market. What he didn’t appreciate, he went on, was their coming into town and dictating to the community what it should and shouldn’t do about wolves. As he spoke, his voice rose in anger, and he stepped suddenly toward Vardaman; at the same moment, more than twenty other people rose to their feet. Some waved anti-wolf flyers above their heads. Others held rifle cartridges, their brass glinting in the light. They chanted, “Shoot, shovel, and shut up!”—an anti-wolf slogan. Vardaman watched as several people opened their jackets, revealing handguns.
For most of the last century, there have been no wolves in California; government-sponsored livestock-protection campaigns exterminated the state’s wolf population by 1924. But in December, 2011, a lone male gray wolf from Oregon, known as OR-7, was tracked via radio collar as he crossed into the Golden State. Slowly, over time, a few others followed. In 2014, the gray wolf gained protection under California’s Endangered Species Act; not long afterward, in Siskiyou County, two wolves were spotted by a trail camera. Today it’s thought that there are at least twelve to fifteen wild wolves in the state. This nascent comeback has opened a rancorous breach between California’s agricultural community, which fears losing livestock to wolf attacks, and its environmentalists, who have been galvanized by the idea of an iconic predator resurrected.
A version of this polarizing conflict has played out wherever wolves have reappeared, from Michigan to the Northern Rockies and Washington State. To an extent, livestock producers and wolf conservationists are divided for pragmatic reasons. If a wolf kills a heifer calf, a rancher can suffer a substantive economic hit—one or two thousand dollars, plus the loss of income from all the calves that the mature cow would’ve had over her lifetime. (Since the wolves returned to Northern California, an estimated eleven calves and cows have died in wolf attacks.) Conversely, if a rancher kills a wolf in an area where the wolf population is still recovering, it could be a significant blow to the animals’ survival.
And yet ranchers and conservationists are divided in other ways, too. Continue reading