Gray days for wolves.

Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Protection for the gray wolf, totem animal for the Clinton administration’s conservation legacy, is likely to be ratcheted down from endangered to threatened, thanks to a proposal unveiled last week by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Its announcement was a fitting coda to eight years of an administration that we kept wishing would do better.

The USFWS recommended on July 11 that the gray wolf be listed as threatened in the Rockies and the Midwest but continue to receive protection as endangered in the Southwest. In places where the wolf was long ago shot and trapped out of existence, the agency’s intentions are inconsistent. The wolf would be protected in New England, where there are reintroduction plans. But in California and Nevada, where it was also extirpated, the wolf would receive no federal protection at all.

Why protect the wolf in some parts of its historic range, but not others? Why downgrade protection for an animal most biologists believe isn’t really established?

The short answer is election-year politics. Though the Clinton administration hasn’t made enough progress with the wolf to ensure the continuation of the species, it is still eager to declare victory and move on.

Leggo My Ego

Reintroduction has never been simply about wolves. It is about male ego and the soul of the West. The wolf is cannon fodder, serving on the front lines in the war between the New West and the Old West.

Wolves were sent to Yellowstone after Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt lost two crucial battles on grazing and mining reform. Both industries are regulated — if you can call it that — in an antiquated fashion that allows widespread environmental destruction at taxpayers’ expense. They should have been easy prey. They weren’t.

After Western congressional yahoos trounced him, Babbitt turned his attention outside the Beltway, using wolves as surrogates. His message was a good one: It’s time to turn back the frontier, restore some of the majestic landscape that made the myth.

How the West was grazed.

But the Western livestock industry wasn’t ready to cede the territory. Ranchers and Old Westerners did to wolves what their congressional lackeys had done to Babbitt. They shot ‘em down.

The death toll among the reintroduced wolves has left many of us wondering if there has been too much playing God, not just in Yellowstone but anywhere there are wolves.

By the time the TV cameras showed up to record the release of reintroduced wolves in Yellowstone National Park in 1995, about 80 wild wolves had migrated naturally from Canada to Montana. To appease ranchers, the Yellowstone wolves were called an “experimental” population. That means they didn’t have the legal or, even more important, the habitat protections afforded other animals under the Endangered Species Act.

Normally, Montana’s wild wolves would have been protected under the Endangered Species Act. But under the reintroduction plan, they, too, became “experimental.” And under the administration’s new proposal, all Western wolves would be classified this way.

Some Wolves Told to Pack It Up

The government, through the USFWS, has pandered to ranchers by giving up legal protections for wolves, removing them, and even killing wolves suspected of preying on livestock. So far, the agency has killed 40 wolves in the northern Rockies, mostly by aerial gunning. Critics say the agency has been indiscriminate, killing wolves that aren’t preying on livestock. Two packs were recently removed from Idaho because of livestock predation. Sixteen wolves have died in the Southwest.

For crying out wolf.

Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The ranchers are right about one thing: Wolves kill cattle and sheep. The answer is simple. Cows should go and wolves should stay.

Do we really want to continue sacrificing endangered species to livestock grazing in the arid West? Biologists tell us this outdated, heavily subsidized practice will result in irreparable ecological harm if it isn’t stopped within the next two or three decades.

Since its initial defeat on grazing reform, the administration has dodged the question. So have most of the nation’s conservation groups. Wolves have paid the price.

Neither the Clinton administration nor the majority of conservationists are committed to principle. This crop of well-intentioned pragmatists don’t understand the difference between compromising on details and selling out your beliefs.

The ugliest part of the story is how wolves with a taste for livestock are being “trained” with aversive electric shocks. The wolves aren’t being injured physically. They are being shocked out of wildness, turned into domesticated animals like cows or herd dogs. By “training” wolves and confining them to places like Yellowstone, critics say, we’re creating little more than an outdoor zoo.

The wolf has always been our very own beast in the shadows, the dark side of the Western myth. It may be that we’ve given up killing the wolf only to break its spirit. Either way, we should be ashamed of our cowardice.