Elvis, Wolves, and The Death of Environmentalism


How wolves, the rural West, and yes, Elvis, can inform the heated "death of environmentalism" debate

Gary Wockner / Voices / Tidepool / June 17, 2005
"It is useless for the sheep to pass resolutions in favor of vegetarianism while the wolf remains of a different opinion."  William Ralph Inge, Outspoken Essays 1919 

In a provocative speech delivered last year to the Environmental Grantmaker's Association, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger declared that environmentalism was dead. Since then, many influential environmental leaders have joined in this "Death Debate." These leaders are disputing the movement's efficacy, especially over the last ten years as anti-environmental sentiment and policy-making have curtailed past environmental gains. Resolution in this debate remains elusive; the only certainty is that environmentalism's death is as questionable as Elvis' but lacks his celebrity appeal. 

At the same time that environmentalism supposedly died, however, one of the greatest environmental success stories in history was playing out on the landscapes of the rural West. Typical of doom-and-gloom environmentalists, many of us ignored this extraordinary success and focused on other failures. In-so-doing, we missed two things we need most: 1) the lessons our movement's celebrities -- wolves -- can teach us, and 2) hope. 

The Death Debate has primarily pitted a group of urban think-tank environmentalists against the urban-based leaders of the larger mainstream environmental organizations. While their differences are pronounced, the adversaries are all calling for a realignment of environmentalism with a broader "progressive movement" in America. Pieces of this realignment include more diversity inspired environmental-justice funding, more leftist-inspired anti-globalization campaigns, myriad urban programs focused on transit development and green building, and broad-scale coalitions to address global warming. 

While debate continues to rage about these urban and suburban issues, participants have ignored discussing rural America and the environmental stories playing out on rural landscapes. This discussion is critically important because it was rural right-wing America that so radically voted against us in the last election and in part inspired the Death Debate. As the county-level results map ofthe last election revealed, the red/blue divide is rural/urban; the environmental divide is the same. 

Additionally, as an ecologist who travels frequently throughout the interior West, I am forever reminded that rural America contains the land -- the very environment -- we environmentalists want to save. Most people realize that our food and water comes from rural land, but few people fully understand the diverse ecological benefits rural habitats provide. Of paramount importance, almost all wildlife species -- and especially endangered species like wolves -- live in rural America. 

As we continue our Death Debate, we need to reach beyond the cities and into rural America and engage the right-wing politics that influence the way those landscapes are managed. As uncomfortable as this may seem to urban environmentalists, this reach may offer some answers in the Death Debate. Over the last ten years, no other controversy has galvanized rural environmental issues like the reintroduction of wolves, and so no other issue might offer better guidance for the environmental movement. 

Wolves To The Rescue 

As one of fourteen people who is charged with developing a management plan for wolves here in Colorado, I've spent a significant amount of time over the last few years studying the role wolves will play in our ecosystem. Further, I've studied human attitudes about wolves, studied wolf conservation programs, and I've watched wolves frolic in Yellowstone. Of course, wolves do more than merely frolic. Last summer, my family and I watched a pack of wolves chase a small herd of elk in Yellowstone's Lamar Valley -- and encounter which ended without a kill, but encapsulated how wolves have changed the whole Yellowstone landscape. 

When wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone and Northern Idaho in the mid-1990s, the ecological ideas of how large predators affected ecosystems, and the conservation policies that could support predator restoration, were mostly theory. Now, ten years later, grounded knowledge has replaced theory, and the wolf stands out as far more than a poetic symbol of wildness. 

The ecological story runs thus: Prior to wolves, elk numbers in Yellowstone had been growing dramatically, and burgeoning populations of sedentary elk were severely overgrazing the native landscape. When wolves started chasing elk, many other changes followed. Willows grew higher and spread more widely, beavers returned and made ponds, riparian-dwelling plants and animals returned including songbirds and trout, elk carrion fed scavengers such as grizzlies and ravens, and coyote populations dropped resulting in more ground squirrels and gophers which in turn fed hawks and eagles. 

Wolves have also nudged the behavior and life-histories of other animals back along their natural evolutionary course. Without wolves, the system continued to simplify and fragment, and each species' evolutionary course was stunted; with wolves, that course has realigned. The elk in Yellowstone, for example, have changed over the last ten years since the wolf's return. They now live shorter lives, they move around more, and they are more vigilant. They have become what they used to be -- wild elk. When the wolf fails to chase the elk, the elk and everything around it becomes something different, something more singularly caused by humans instead of by the myriad factors in natural evolution. 

The conservation advocacy story of wolf recovery is additionally enlightening. Wolf reintroduction occurred for two reasons: 1) the Endangered Species Act, and 2) a wolf-friendly presidential administration in Clinton/Babbitt. These two factors -- federal regulation and presidential power -- combined to get wolves on the ground in Yellowstone and the Idaho wilderness areas. Since Clinton left office, however, the ESA has come under increasing attacks and the Bush/Norton administration is significantly less wolffriendly. 

But even in the face of this less hospitable climate, a surprising thing has happened in the Northern Rockies: wolf tolerance from rural landowners is increasing, and wolf numbers are growing dramatically. 

Why is success continuing? As wolf recovery has proceeded throughout the Northern Rockies, some traditional environmental organizations and various other conservation communities are rethinking and restructuring programs to embrace the opportunity wolf restoration offers. Wolves cross all sorts of political boundaries -- especially public/private, and therefore left/right -- and require new thinking. 

After listening intently to the legitimate concerns of ranchers, the nonprofit group Defenders of Wildlife created a program that compensates ranchers for livestock lost to wolves. Defenders has another program that builds fences, buys guard dogs, and pays for other proactive tools that promote wolf recovery. Given the success of these two programs, a few states (including Colorado) are considering similar incentives. 

Additional programs developed by other groups are also aligning to promote rural biodiversity and heal political fences in the Northern Rockies. Here are a few examples: 

* Organizations like the Predator Conservation Alliance and the Turner Endangered Species Fund are working directly with private landowners to provide "range riders" that help guard livestock from wolves and other predators. 

* Land trusts and conservancy organizations such as the Gallatin Valley Land Trust and the Nature Conservancy have proliferated. These trusts often purchase land or fund conservation easements on fragile wildlife corridors that will support wolves. 

* Predator friendly products such as beef, lamb, and wool from ranches like the Thirteen Mile Lamb and Wool Company are beginning to find markets. These products ensure that rural ranches are managed for ecological health, and these products allow urban consumers to back their environmental values with their checkbooks. 

And from my own experience down in the Southern Rockies with the year-long deliberations of the Colorado Wolf Working Group, I sensed an intense desire by all stakeholders to discard the age-old acrimony, and attempt to find new ways for wolves to live on the landscape. Wolves are still lightning rods for conflict, but if we can find ways for ecological and economic health to thrive on rural landscapes, we will have increasing support.  

The Broader Context 

The Endangered Species Act is seen as the "floor" for saving species -- it requires absolute minimum numbers for delisting and is a bare-bones approach to stave off extinction. The conservation movement, on the other hand, seeks a "ceiling" of ecological restoration. As example, whereas the ESA requires ten wolf packs in each of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho for delisting, we need significantly more packs -- from fifty to one hundred in each state -- if we want wolves to have the ecological impact they do in Yellowstone. 

What we want is continental-wide restoration of ecological processes. Federal regulation and presidential power might get us the "floor," but if we want broader success -- anywhere near the "ceiling" -- we will need to embrace new thinking. 

At the heart of this new thinking lies an incentive-based approach. In the wolf recovery example, sometimes rural landowners are paid cash for wolves' negative impacts, others times they are offered various programs or rewards. In all, the mindset of rural landowners is more actively engaged, in that private property rights are respected, and personal economic opportunities are not infringed upon and may even be enhanced. 

This approach diverges from the traditional path of the environmental movement, and diverges from many of the ideas promoted in the current Death Debate. The environmental movement and its death-critics lean precipitously towards urban leftist politics rather than rural political reality and thus focus on top-down regulation and elected-official powers. Further, the adversaries in the Death Debate are arguing that the broad swath of spending -- roughly $3.5 billion per year by environmental groups -- would be better spent on building coalitions of progressive activists rather than on promoting rural biological diversity. 

This could be an irreversible mistake. The fact is that we humans are dramatically increasing our numbers, are smothering the natural landscape, and are displacing a few million acres of shrinking and critical wildlife habitat every year. The lessons from wolf reintroduction suggest that we need to reach beyond the cities and suburbs and engage the rural countryside and its right-wing politics. Rural America contains the dwindling habitats that need to be ecologically restored, and collaborative incentive-based approaches are the best methods to get us that restoration. 

Throughout history in the rural West, the wolf has been on the wrong end of the stick, as have myriad other species and the process of speciation itself. But now, instead of doom and gloom, we have hope. 

Have you seen Elvis lately? Stop looking; he's dead. Instead, go to Yellowstone and look for wolves. Wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies is one of the greatest environmental success stories in history, and it's begging us to pay attention. 

Gary Wockner, PhD, (www.garywockner.com) is a writer and ecologist in Fort Collins, CO.