Indians May Offer Solution to Wolf Problem

By Alston Chase

Who said politicians aren’t carnivorous? Just as Republicans reach the top of the political food chain, out West, folks find themselves distracted by more old-fashioned predators: wolves and Indians. Packs of salivating interest groups are gnawing over the carcass of Yellowstone National Park, and who emerges with the biggest bones after this dismemberment will tell us a lot about the alpha males and females in Washington, DC

For nearly two decades, new settlers in the Northern Rockies, aka environmentalists, have been jerking the reins of cowboys, whom they some­times call “agri-businessmen,” The fight concerns whether to introduce wolves to Yellowstone to replace a subspecies known as canus lupus irremotis, which the feds eliminated back in the 1920s. The newcomers insist return of the canines will restore ecological balance and improve the view. Stockmen fear these critters will make fast food of cattle and sheep. This opposition is seconded by hunters (sometimes called sportsmen), who, liking to kill things themselves, don’t want to share the range with fanged intruders.

Until recently, environmentalists seemed to be winning. Federal agents tilted to wolf, which, being extinct, was naturally listed as an endangered species. After many years of trying, authorities cranked out a “Recovery Plan” that seemed on the verge of implementation. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sent recruiters to Canada in search of furry volunteers willing to go south.

But that was before November’s Democratic debacle. Drooling at the prospect of a conservative legislative feast, hunting groups are urging President Clinton to stop wolf reintroduction until Congress has an opportunity to gut the Endangered Species Act. Meanwhile, the Farm Bureau is suing to stop or stall the transplant.

And as these groups head for a shootout at the DC Corral, a Native American tribe – the Crow – has appeared on the horizon, insisting that an 1868 treaty gives it hunting rights in parts of Yellowstone.

Talk about serendipity. Just as the incompetence of the white man is ex­posed, Yellowstone’s original landlords arrive to teach good stewardship. While the courts have not yet decided the Crow’s claim, personally, I’m on their side. If wolves have irredentist rights, then so do Native Americans. And whatever canines can offer, Indians will surpass.

Yellowstone is a monument to the white man’s folly. Prior to its establishment in 1872, the area had few elk and virtually no wolves. Indians, the best predator ever, kept game numbers down, leaving little for wolves to eat. Consequently, species that competed with elk for habitat did better then than now.

But the creation of Yellowstone upset this happy arrangement. The feds evicted the Indians and protected game. Outside the park, settlers introduced cattle and sheep. Presto, wolves, awash in food, multiplied like body-snatching pods. In response, government agents killed the predators, thereby causing an explosion in elk and bison numbers. When these bitrgeoning creatures began roto-tilling vegetation on which other species depended, park rangers culled the herds until stopped by angry opposition from hunters and environmentalists.

Activists did not want the Park Service to” interfere with nature.” Hunters sought to keep Yellowstone an elk breeding ground, so that when the animals left the park in search of food, sportsman could shoot them.

Throughout America, this unholy alliance – of those wanting to save animals and those wishing to kill them – has created conditions unprecedented in natural history. State game departments, deriving income from hunting licenses, promote deer overpopulation. Environmentalists lobby for more parks. And animal rightists object to killing anything but spinach.

Consequently, deer, more abundant than ever, are destroying rare vegetation and fueling a population explosion of mountain lions, which killed more people in the last decade than in the entire Previous century. Game redundancy is fueling the comeback of the wolf, ensuring that, given time, this creature will return to Yellowstone whether anyone wants it to or not.

Today, only Indian reservations have escaped these calamities. Many botanists attest that these are the only places where much rare vegetation remains. Since natives value hunting as a necessity, not a sport, they follow the philosophy, “If it’s brown, it’s down.” This gives plants and non-game animals a better chance.

Thus the Crows’ claim represents an opportunity. If the Park Service were to allow them to take elk in Yellowstone, vegetation could recover and other species rebound. This in turn would limit the wolfs prey base, diminishing the likelihood that this predator might become overly abundant.

Indians, therefore, should be permitted to return. But I’m not holding my breath. The wolf issue demonstrates that the only people more stupid about preservation than Democrats and environmentalists are Republicans and their allies. And as anyone who watches movie westerns know, when cattlemen start shooting homesteaders, the Indians lose. §