Pick up the February 2007 issue of Outdoor Life magazine, and the first thing you’ll probably notice is a pretty scary-looking confrontation. The cover features an outdoorsy oil painting—think 1950s Boy Scouts manual—of two snarling wolves charging toward a hunter. “Wolf Attack,” reads the neon-orange cover line, pointing to a story about a hunter whose dogs were killed by wolves.

The story has conservationists fuming. “It makes it sound like the wolves are attacking these people and their dogs, but it doesn’t really explain what occurred,” says Suzanne Asha Stone, a spokesperson for the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife. “People went hunting with their dogs, and they released them near the wolves’ denning site. It’s unfortunate that this happened, but it’s not common.”

Neither the story nor Stone’s reaction is surprising; hunters and animal advocates have an acrimonious history together, to put it mildly. But there’s a backstory that makes the Outdoor Life article especially timely—and, if you ask Stone, especially worrisome.

Wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains are back from the brink of extinction. Before the westward expansion, wolves were plentiful in the Rockies, but by the early 1990s, only 66 remained. Then, in 1995 and 1996, 66 more were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. Today, scientists estimate that there are more than 1,200 wolves in the Northern Rockies—so many that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is currently considering removing the region’s wolf population from the endangered species list.

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For many, this is cause for celebration. But not everyone is happy about the return of the wolves. Ranchers and farmers say it’s difficult and expensive to protect livestock from them, and hunters point to several instances in which wolves have threatened people and killed dogs. Antiwolf sentiments are so rampant that conservationists fear that delisting will put the animals at risk again.

And they have reason to worry. In January 2007, Idaho governor C.L. “Butch” Otter spoke out in favor of an open hunt to reduce the state’s wolf population to 100, drawing national media attention when he said, “I’m prepared to bid for that first ticket to shoot a wolf myself.” In 2004, an Idaho man planted pesticide-laced meatballs in the state’s Salmon-Challis National Forest, hoping to poison wolves in the area. And at a rally this past March, Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition leader Ron Gillett likened his group’s fight to eradicate all the wolves from the state to the American Revolution. “I hope we’ve got a lot of Patrick Henrys here tonight, because that is what it’s going to take to get it done,” he told reporters.

Evidence that Americans have wolves on the brain isn’t just in the Rockies; it’s everywhere. In 2004, Bush’s campaign included a TV ad suggesting that John Kerry’s budget cuts would leave America vulnerable to terrorists, represented as a pack of salivating wolves. And in an episode of the HBO series Big Love in 2006, Bill Henrickson, the show’s protagonist, confronts (and shoots) a snarling wolf in the woods. Later, he decides to take on the show’s real “wolf”—a controlling patriarch out to destroy his business. 

NEXT: Historical precedent >>

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Historian Jon Coleman says that confrontations with wolves are part of our American heritage. When Coleman began researching his 2004 book Vicious: Wolves and Men in America, he found an interesting pattern: Wolf stories that had been passed down for generations were almost identical. “It’s a story about being surrounded at night,” says Coleman. “A child or a woman is trying to get home or visit a relative. They hear a howl, then another, and pretty soon they’re running, hearing the wolves all around. The person in danger always escapes. And the community always triumphs over the wolves, usually in a grand wolf hunt that ends with an angry mob destroying the pack.”

In a way, says Coleman, the old story resonates with the current debate. Ranchers, farmers, and hunters feel surrounded—by literal wolves, yes, but also by figurative ones: the federal government.

Mike Stevens, who runs a sustainable sheep ranch in Idaho called Lava Lake Lamb, agrees. “Many ranchers believe that this is just one more thing that the government is doing to us, that the wolf reintroduction was inflicted on rural people,” says Stevens. But when it comes to Governor Otter’s open-hunt plan, Stevens is skeptical. He doesn’t believe the answer to the problem lies in eradication.

A lasting solution will require something much more difficult—that is, for people to look beyond the cultural baggage and see wolves for what they really are: wild animals that are part of the Rocky Mountain ecosystem.

At his ranch, Stevens is experimenting with nonlethal wolf control. Shepherds and guard dogs accompany his herds at all times, and he has installed fencing in areas where there have been problems. The Lava Lake team uses radio equipment borrowed from the FWS to track collared wolves, so shepherds know which areas to avoid.

It’s intensive, hard work, and Stevens is constantly tweaking his strategy. After 25 sheep were killed in 2005, he began communicating regularly with an FWS biologist who was studying wolves in the area. And it paid off: 2006 passed without a single attack.

Stevens says there’s evidence that people might be coming around to seeing wolves his way. “Some ranchers have realized that the wolves aren’t going away any time soon,” he says. “So we’d better find ways to coexist.”

Story by Kiera Butler. This article originally appeared in Plenty in July 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007