Twenty years ago, wolves came back to the western United States. They were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park after a series of complicated maneuvers around funding, state law, and the endangered species act, so they might be protected and their value insured. At the time, a lot of people were not happy about it. A lot of people still are not happy about it. There are lots of reasons why.
The wolf is a complicated creature for Americans, and it’s a complicated creature for people everywhere the wolf has ever lived. Its legendary status as the enemy of man and his flocks of civilizing sheep is in the bible, and in myths from old, old corners of folklore. As the story goes, humans kept flocks of sheep. Wolves ate sheep. Wolves tricked the humans, scared the sheep. Killed the humans, ate the sheep. Grazing flocks used to move about fields ranging over a wide expanse of land. Wolves do the same thing. Eventually, in western Europe (how dull) enclosure acts secured the idea of property boundaries and land ownership and the sheep stayed in the same place. Wolves knew where to find them. Wolves were not stupid. Wolves remembered. The people were afraid.
The other story goes, one wolf stayed close to the fire, ate the bones, grew meek, bowed its head, offered an agreement.
We call that wolf dog. We call that dog the other face of ourselves. We see the other face of our face in the wolf, the one who chose not to bow, and of course – we are afraid.
As settlers came out and re-settled Oregon in the mid-19th century, there wasn’t any unified form of territory wide legislation, law, or government of any kind. Of course there wasn’t. Why would there be? Between 1841 and 1843, however, there were a series of meetings in Champoeg and Gervais and other spots along the mid-Willamette valley about a very important thing in the lives of these new folk:
Predators were attacking their livestock.
These new people had come, and brought all this new livestock. Predators were eating them ( the livestock ) .
(Of course, there were lots of people in Oregon before. You don’t keep livestock, you don’t have a problem with wolves. )
At these meetings, the local new folks established Oregon’s bounty system, in which animal hides could be turned in for redemption of several dollars, depending on the hide. Wolf pelts fetched the highest price. The very first government of the new state of Oregon, the new version of the pacific northwest that was full of settlers (invaders, invaders all), mostly white ones (not all, not all! that’s another myth that erases), was one that paid money on wolf-shooting. It’s not a new problem. No one shot the cows though, paid bounty on their hides. No one shot the sheep though, traded pelts for silver coins at the tavern.
If you go and look for it, and even if you don’t, there are a lot of folks who will come up with a lot of reasons about why wolves in Wyoming, Idaho, Montana and Oregon are a problem. Not only a problem, but a goddamn scourge. A horrid trespass on hard-earned land by government bureaucrats and whiny urbanites who don’t know shit. In a lot of ways, that critique is right. Government bureaucrats and urbanites, the people who, in our big western states, have the most power in issuing big legislation, don’t know a lot, don’t get a lot, and don’t care a lot about the living, working lives of the real people scattered across the high deserts, prairies and plains of our states, the remote canyons, the back-mountain sides, the banks of the rivers deep in the forest you haven’t been to.
But a lot of the folks coming up with big reasons why you oughta blame wolves for all your troubles are people who have a big investment in giving you an easy scapegoat. Blame the wolves for eating your cows! Look at those bloodthirsty predators! Look at those TEETH they have, by god, by god, those teeth. Don’t look at whose propagating these causes. Don’t question the uneasy alliance between the cattle ranchers associations, the hunters associations, the timber industry. Don’t look at the lobbyists. Don’t wonder where their money’s from, or what their aim is. Don’t wonder why you’re trapped so, in the livelihood that you feel is your birthright and your burden, your grandmother’s gift to you and her curse. Just blame the animal. Blame the wolf. Blame the free play radical that bursts, unseen, out the snow, all of a sudden, and cuts a throat.
Intruder! Trespasser! Interloper! Foreigner!!
These are the deadliest insults to a white westerner. We live by the fact that we belong here, we die by it, we bite onto it with our teeth. And why? Why do we cling so hard to that piece of identity? Because we don’t belong here, not really, not more than any invader ever belonged anywhere. We hate being called “invader” so much because we know in our hearts that we are one. And goddamnit, we know we wish it wasn’t so. No one ever clung so hard to their lineage as someone for whom it was only eight generations long, at the longest. That is an Oregonian.
Some of the most compelling anti-wolf rhetoric in the past few years has relied on “FOREIGNER!” panic tactics, and it’s telling. THE WOLF REINTRODUCED INTO THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS IS ACTUALLY A CANADIAN HYBRID. THE REINTRODUCED WOLVES ARE ONE AND A HALF TIMES BIGGER THAN WOLVES THAT USED TO NATURALLY APPEAR IN THIS AREA.
You’ll hear stuff like that a lot. It’s nonsense.
But you’ll hear it. You’ll hear rationalized anger: “I’m not mad they RE-introduced native wolves. I’m mad that they INTRODUCED FOREIGN WOLVES.”
What’s our biggest fear? The wolf? The invader? Seeing ourselves in our enemy? Who’s the invader? Who has got to change?
There’s a lot of bullshit in those tactics, and I don’t care for it. I don’t care for the demonization of an animal who ought, ought to live in its spot on the earth it would have carried on living on for a few more millennia (not forever, nothing is forever) if not for American colonization, introduction of livestock, capitalist property ownership structures, and fear-mongering, manipulative governments who decided that forceful eradication via mass poisonings (That’s right, poisonings, big, mass, poisonings, poisonings) big bounties, big contests and big payoffs was necessary for the formation and invention of the New (white) American West. Fences. Fences. Roads. Roads. The biggest enemy of the wolf is a road. Ranches. Ranches Cows. Cities. Money, capital, creation, work, (Water tables, let’s not think about those.)
The powers that established, then bet on the wolf as enemy of the American western rural people are no friend of mine.
The idea of fences is no friend of mine
The idea of juniper raging across the high desert is no friend of mine
The idea of cattle cattle cattle thousands of head of cattle cattle is
No friend of mine.
The idea that these “people” who came, so shortly ago, should have a more important more prescient “right” to their “heritage” to their “history” of land that involves actively killing and destroying that land; to ranch the land their great , grand, father, mother, ranched, lived on, ran, to further drought it, grout it gorge it, is no friend of mine.
But the problem is, there aren’t just ideas. There are people who happen to live on ranches and love their lives and live their work. I know some of them, I respect them. And I come from invaders, too. And I have no history, but that of poor invaders, wandering toward some home they could drag gold out of in a dry creek bed, and failing. So what can I begrudge anyone?
My point is this. You might live off of your few head of livestock, and if the 1% of livestock kills in the united states due to wolves happened to be your cow, your cow that you depended on, for your income, your livelihood, your children, your life, your dinner tonight, well for gods sake I don’t begrudge you your anger or your fear or your vigilance and your desire for revenge. But I ask you to consider
The wolf is not the enemy you seek.
The problem isn’t wolves. The problem is a state government (Idaho’s, Montana’s) that doesn’t afford you reparations. The problem is a state government that doesn’t actively think that actively figuring out how to help people living working, living in rural lands and working is an absolute priority, because they aren’t the voting mass of our states, that’s the problem. The enemy is our land use policy. The enemy is the goddamn tax collector. The enemy is how we think about land ownership, the enemy is debt. The enemy is how people are cut out of education, of how education is centralized in a ridiculous, unthinking urban center that will necessarily prioritize urban concerns over big land and stalwart people living still strong lives on big land. The problem is big money and big corporations having big power over what we can do, where we can go, and what we can think. The problem is bigger than an animal: the problem wants to make us an animal, and keep themselves as a civilized human in places that we aren’t allowed to go.
What do you want most? To live, to let your family live, to feel free.
The wolf is not our enemy in that.
In that, the wolf is our friend.