What People Want from Wolves
Version of Record online: 23 JUL 2004
Volume 18, Issue 4, pages 1163–1164, August 2004
How to Cite
DOREMUS, H. (2004), What People Want from Wolves. Conservation Biology, 18: 1163–1164. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2004.1843_1.x
- Issue online: 23 JUL 2004
- Version of Record online: 23 JUL 2004
Beyond Wolves: the Politics of Wolf Recovery and Management . Nie, M. A. 2003 . University of Minnesota Press , Minneapolis , MN . 266 pp . ( 253 + xiii ). $19.95 ( paperback ). ISBN 0-8166-3978-7 .
Like the book itself, the title of this slim, highly readable volume works on multiple levels. The author observes at the outset that the story of wolf recovery and management cannot be understood without looking well beyond the wolves themselves to much broader social and political issues, such as the place of ranching in rural communities and the legitimacy of federal intervention without local consent. But the title could just as easily refer to the significance of the book's lessons, which can be generalized to many other conservation policy controversies. Value conflicts are very near the surface when the topic of discussion is the place of wolves in modern America. In many other contexts, those conflicts, although they fundamentally motivate much of the controversy, lie hidden under a veneer of dispute about the scientific evidence supporting one conclusion or another. Because wolf controversies are so clearly about things other than the science of wolf recovery, they provide a vivid and accessible introduction to the sociopolitical dimensions of conservation challenges.
On one level, this book offers both breadth and depth as a case study of the politics of wolf management in the United States. The basic story is by now familiar. As white settlement expanded westward across the continent, wolves were targeted for systematic extermination through government eradication programs and bounty payments. By the middle of the twentieth century, wolves had virtually disappeared from the continental United States, with the exception of a single remaining stronghold in northern Minnesota. Then two things happened. On the human level, the environmental movement gained strength, transforming the political significance of the wildness wolves had come to represent. Wolves, once symbolic of the need to conquer wild nature, came to be seen by more Americans as a charismatic demonstration of the importance of preserving the last remnants of the wild. Meanwhile, on the landscape, a small number of wolves found their way from Canada to Montana, suggesting to wolf advocates that the virtual loss of wolves from the continental United States might be reversible.
In 1995, after a protracted planning period, the gray wolf (Canis lupus) was reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and federal lands in central Idaho, with great fanfare and national public excitement but also with strong opposition from the states and communities most directly affected. Biologically, the reintroduction has been a resounding success, to the point that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently down-listed the gray wolf from endangered to threatened throughout most of the country and announced its intention to completely delist the wolf as soon as possible. Politically, though, disputes persist. Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho are still struggling to devise plans for wolf management following federal delisting that will satisfy both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which must find that the plans will provide adequately for wolf conservation, and local constituencies that remain strongly opposed to sharing the land with a robust, free-ranging wolf population. Environmental groups, including Defenders of Wildlife, one of the early advocates of wolf reintroduction, continue to demand recovery over a broader area and have already filed suit to challenge the down-listing.
Several excellent books about gray wolf recovery, including the political challenges of returning wolves to the northern Rockies, are already in print. Nie makes two distinct contributions to this already rich literature. First, he updates and deepens the story. Nie brings the tale of wolf reintroduction and recovery into the present context. He correctly points out that the planned delisting (assuming it occurs and is not overturned by the courts), rather than ending controversy, will simply move the battleground from the federal arena to the individual states. He also provides more in-depth discussion of the institutional context, at the federal and state level, of wolf management. Second, Nie's treatment extends spatially beyond Yellowstone and the northern Rockies, which have been the focus of most earlier treatments. The gray wolf has been present all along in Alaska, the population in the upper Great Lakes has rebounded strongly, the red wolf (Canis rufus) has been reintroduced with mixed success in the southeastern United States, and attempts are ongoing to recreate a self-sustaining population of the Mexican gray wolf (Canis lupus baileyi ) in the Southwest. Nie canvasses all of these experiences for lessons about the future of wolf management.
Nie does not offer a one-size-fits-all solution to wolf-management controversies. Rather, his key insight is that the problem needs to be more clearly defined through public deliberation. In other words, before we can decide what steps to take to manage wolves, we need to know what it is we want to achieve. We need to define our goals not just narrowly in terms of the number of wolves we envision on the landscape, but broadly in terms of how we envision nature, human communities, and their relationship. To do that, we will have to be prepared to articulate positions explicitly on the basis of what we believe are and should be public values, not simply on the basis of economics or science.
The weakest aspect of the book is the lack of specific suggestions for how to move to the broad-ranging public debate Nie advocates. He calls for “stakeholder-based collaborative approaches” and political institutions that are “more representative, inclusive, fair, deliberative, and above all democratic.” Readers are likely to be disappointed that he does not explain in more detail what exactly that would mean or how we can get there.
Still, this weakness is a relatively minor quibble because defining the necessary process is not the task of this book. Nie's key point is the fundamental one that the goals of wolf management are not self-evident and cannot be determined by economic or biological analysis. They must be decided by some form of political debate. The aim of this book is to persuade the reader that a robust political search for goals ultimately must be the foundation for any coherent or effective management scheme. This is an important message, and the book communicates it effectively.
The book's value extends well beyond the context of wolf recovery. It is widely acknowledged today that environmental problems are not entirely about science. That observation, however, has not been translated into management strategies that effectively incorporate, but are not limited to, science. Many of the institutions and people charged with solving conservation problems (and with training future conservation practitioners) continue to behave in practice as if biology, chemistry, and physics were the only relevant elements of these problems. They tend to assume either that societal goals have already been determined or that their own personal goals accurately mirror society's. Too often, the decision-making process facilitates ignoring the difficult but essential task of identifying society's goals.
Although it is not explicitly so framed, Beyond Wolves can be read as a general introduction to sociopolitical dimensions shared at some level by every conservation policy controversy, and indeed by virtually every environmental controversy. Wolf recovery provides a concrete and compelling background for that introduction. Nie explains clearly and persuasively why goal identification in the context of wolf recovery is so important and so difficult. For the reader with a primary interest in other conservation problems, these lessons will translate well to a variety of other contexts.
As both case study and policy primer, Beyond Wolves is thoroughly documented, providing key primary sources. It is clearly written and understandable. For its unique breadth and detailed, up-to-date description of the institutional context, this volume should be on the shelf of anyone with an interest in wolf recovery. It will also be valuable for undergraduate or graduate courses in conservation policy and for the conservation scientist with an interest in policy problems.