Wolves were once federally protected but now can be hunted again, making the fate and future of the wolf more controversial than ever. UK journalist Jim Wickens reports from Wyoming and Montana to provide his unique insight into the wolf wars of the West. His blog accompanies the exclusive Earth Focus report, Shades of Gray: Living with Wolves, now online!
Tears began well up in the corner of his eyes, but I wasn't sure if it was because of the icy wind blowing in from the mountaintops around us, or the questions that I was putting to him. We were speaking with Nathan Varley and his wife Linda, a couple whose economic survival is intricately intertwined with that of the wolves. But unlike the ranchers or the elk hunters, they need the wolves alive.
Growing up within the Park community Nathan knows Yellowstone better than most, working first as a wolf biologist and then seven years ago setting up a wolf watching eco-tourism company, one of several to have sprouted up in the wake of growing national and international interest after wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone. Today Nathan and Linda take small groups of tourists on foot into the Park, relying on expert knowledge and careful reading of conditions to guide paying members of the public to witness the spectacle of wolves in the wild.
For Nathan, the shooting of wolf number 832F, a famous Lamar Valley alpha female pack leader, potentially hurts him in his pocket book. He told us how he has been fielding dozens of calls from shocked and devastated clients, some of whom he said, return every year simply to see 832F or other favorite wolf individuals: iconic animals that now face the firing line should they stray outside of the park.
Native to the region, Nathan stands in a difficult position and he is careful to avoid criticizing his fellow Montanans, preferring to quote University of Montana research, which suggests that as much as $34 million may be generated every year in and around Yellowstone because of wolves alone. According to Nathan this kind of research demonstrates what he already knows: that wolf tourists come all year round to the Park and that they stay longer; which means they buy more food, and rent more rooms. Compelling financial facts that highlight another competing angle in this complex discussion around the fate of the Rocky Mountain wolves.
Nathan knows that among hard-talking outdoor pragmatists in Montana, it is the language of economics, not emotion, that stands the best chance of winning better support for wolf acceptance in the areas around Yellowstone. With this in mind, it seems that he is careful to avoid showing too many feelings on camera, but nonetheless his soft-spoken words and pregnant pauses seemed to say it all. The pain felt by them over the loss of the 'Yellowstone' wolves to a hunter's bullet is all too evident. But Nathan and Linda carry on, their fates intertwined with the future of the wolves under threat.
Driving away from Yellowstone, I get the chance to digest some of the facts and the voices that we have heard around this debate so far. Whether you love wolves or not, I can't help but get the sense that the ambitious scale of the quotas to trap and shoot wolves in the Rockies can be partly understood as a kind of blood-letting backlash, 16 years of pent-up resentment at the reintroduction of wolves, released at last. Just 20% of Yellowstone's 70 odd wolves are radio collared, but five of the seven wolves shot this year from the park were wearing radio collars. Though radio hunting is banned and frequencies are scrambled, statistically these figures do seem to suggest some kind of targeting.
F-you to the Feds. It seems Montana and Wyoming are quietly getting their own back on Washington's wolves, whether Nathan, Linda, or the cash-generating tourists they work with, like it or not.
The wild, it seems, is an unforgiving place.
Jim Wickens is one of Britain's leading investigative journalists and the co-founder of both the Ecologist Film Unit and also Ecostorm, the environmental media agency. Jim has spend the last decade documenting unreported issues around the world, including exposing illicit whale-meat smuggling networks in Japan, filming the brutal Namibian seal hunt, documenting soya-related murders and poisoning in Argentina, breaking the story of fracking problems in the US, and filming illegal trawlers far out to sea on the Burmese border.