How did wolves become so popular
The "most famous wolf in the world" and his tragic death
The subject of wolves is extremely polarizing. Tell us about the two opposing camps and their views.
When the wolves were reintroduced to the northern Rockys, it was an extremely controversial decision. The livestock industry is huge business there. The ancestors of the ranchers exterminated the wolves there and the ranchers had no interest in seeing the animals return.
Guided deer hunts are also big business in the northern Rocky Mountains. The Crandall area east of Yellowstone is considered to be one of the best deer hunting areas in the world. Eight to nine companies operate there that offer guided tours. People come from all over the country and the guides can charge thousands of dollars per hunt. They knew that if the wolves came back there would be less elk, which could endanger their livelihoods.
On the other hand you have the advocates of the wolf, the environmentalists and the biologists. They knew the Yellowstone was badly out of whack. There were far too many elk and prey because all predators had been wiped out 70 to 80 years ago. They wanted to restore the ecosystem to its natural balance that existed before the Europeans came and the wolves hunted.
After the wolves were reintroduced, a new customer base of ecotourists and wolf watchers emerged. Service providers emerged who ran tours for people who wanted to see deer and wolves. The battle between these two rival camps came to a head just as ‘06 became famous.
The term “trophic cascade” is used to describe the impact a top predator like a wolf has on the ecosystem. Tell us what exactly that means - and describe how the reintroduction of the wolf to Yellowstone caused flora and fauna to flourish.
When the wolf was brought back it changed and improved the landscape rapidly in ways that even biologists had not foreseen. At first there were many more elk in Yellowstone than there was actually room in the park. The wolves reduced this number back to their historical value before the Europeans came to Yellowstone.
In addition, other species then began to do well. The deer could no longer gather in large numbers in the valleys and graze there in peace. They had to be much more careful and spend more time at greater heights.
One effect of this was that the vegetation recovered. The aspens and willows returned, which in turn attracted the beavers to the park, who mainly feed on willow trees. Beavers change the profile of a river and deepen it by building dams and basins, which is better for fish.
The wolves also reduced Yellowstone's coyote population, which was the densest in America. The coyotes had ensured that there were far too few rodents in the park. When the wolves started killing some of the coyotes - not out of hunger but to defend their territory - the rodent population soared again.
The result was that other animals that feed on rodents - such as large birds of prey, foxes and badgers - also returned. The renaissance of all these species was a direct result of the reintroduction of the top predator.
You write: “Wolves were just the latest hotspot in a fight that has been simmering in the western United States for decades. The real battle was for public land. ”Tell us why.
Large areas of the US west are owned by the government. This means that the rules are made in Washington, not in the capital of, for example, Idaho, Wyoming or Montana - the states around Yellowstone. That has caused bitterness over the years, especially as the environmental movement became more popular and Washington became more responsive.
Some of the traditional ways of land use in the west - clearing forests, mining, hunting, raising livestock - embody very powerful interests. So the great political struggle of the last generation revolved around who should make the rules and for what purposes public land should be used. This came to be known as the Sagebrush Rebellion, when representatives of the western states protested against the Washington bureaucrats who they believed were beyond their authority.
‘06 was finally killed by a hunter outside the confines of Yellowstone. They tracked down the man who shot them. Did he tell you why he did this?
In Wyoming, government officials are not allowed to make public the name of a person who shot a wolf, including the location where the wolf was shot. This is to protect the privacy of the person, because that is quite controversial. His name was never featured in any newspaper article about the death of 06, but I was able to locate him in Crandall, Wyoming.
It's a pretty small church where everyone knows everyone. Surprisingly, he had agreed to give me an interview. I knew my readers would want to know what kind of person would shoot such an animal and why.
At his request, I named him Steven Turnbull in the book (not his real name). He is middle-aged and a real hunting aficionado. He is very fixated on deer and spends almost as much time with it as the wolf watchers in the park with the wolves. His whole life has revolved around hunting. I compare him to a ski freak, but with a rifle and bow instead of skis or a snowboard. [Laughs]
He and many other people in Crandall feel that bringing the wolves back was a mistake because it resulted in a dramatic decline in elk disease in the immediate vicinity of Yellowstone. Crandall was popular because the elk came there in winter when it was too cold and snowy to live in Yellowstone. That made it easy to shoot a deer, of course. After the reintroduction of wolves, however, it became much more difficult.
Turnbull did not know that he shot the most famous wolf in the world and that it was an animal that was marked with a collar. In winter it is difficult to see the collars from a distance because the wolves' fur is so thick.
But he was thrilled that he had shot a wolf in Wyoming's first legal hunting season. For him it was the high point of his career as a trophy hunter to shoot an animal that no one had legally hunted for a long time. He also found that he was doing his community a favor. He said it was perfectly legal and that he would do it again.
He's not ideologically against wolves like many people in the area are and as one would expect a hunter like him to be. He told me that he thinks they are fascinating beings who have their place in the landscape. But he was annoyed by the lower number of deer. In our last interview, he told me that for the first time in his life he had not received a permit to shoot a deer. That upset him extremely and one of the last things he said to me was, “I'm against wolves. I want to be sure that that's clear. "
What was the most inspiring thing about wolves?
Many books have been written about how to best handle the wolf. I wanted to write a book with a narrative line that follows the life of this one wolf in fictional detail. Also, part of the book's argument is that every wolf is like this, not just the one who became famous. Every wolf life is an adventure story.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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