A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
September 8, 2005 Volume 36 / Number 1


Watching Wolves: Creating Democracy

Scott G. McNall

The wolves were almost 150 yards from where I stood shivering in the chilly early morning air of Yellowstone National Park. Using a spotting scope, I could see two adult females and four of their pups rolling and playing in the grass outside of their den. Later in the morning, other members of the Slough Creek Pack came and went, and more pups appeared. Our party was not allowed to move closer to the den for fear our presence would cause the adults to move the pups and, thereby, lessen their chances of survival. I was watching these wolves in the wild as a participant in a national project—an opportunity that fulfilled a lifelong wish.

People do not have neutral feelings about wolves; they provoke an almost visceral reaction for good or ill. As Barry Lopez has pointed out in his book Of Wolves and Men, wolves have been hunted to the point of extinction. Apocryphal stories dating back to at least the 13th century tell how dangerous wolves can be, part of the dark and unknown. On the other hand, for some, the wolf is magisterial: a loyal member of a pack, selfless, and not given to senseless killing. Wolves are an endangered species in the United States, and a critical part of Yellowstone’s ecosystem.

Since being reintroduced to the park in 1995, their numbers have grown to about 250 wolves in separate packs. Before 1995, the last remaining wolf had been shot in 1926. Now, their presence draws thousands of people each year. Local businesses benefit from their presence, yet their reintroduction has been extremely controversial.

The ”wolf project,“ as the participants refer to it, is part of the American Democracy Project, sponsored by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the Carnegie Foundation, and the New York Times. The project has several different strands; all of them are concerned with the question of whether or not American universities are graduating students who understand that democracy is something that must be actively created. The project seeks ways to overcome the cynicism and defeatism that characterizes much of American politics. It assumes the truth of anthropologist Margaret Mead’s statement: ”Never doubt the ability of a small group of people to change the world.“

On one side of the wolf controversy are biologists and naturalists who argue that the reintroduction of wolves helps sustain the ecosystem. Wolves reduce the overgrazing of the park by elk; they provide carrion for grizzly feed, which increases the number of grizzly cubs; and they kill coyotes, which prey on newly born prong-horned antelope. In short, wolves are a key factor in balancing the ecosystem of the park.

But wolves don’t know the boundaries of the park. They move outside the park and kill cattle and sheep on nearby ranches. Farm and ranch owners have fought the reintroduction of the wolves for years with varying degrees of success. They are still fighting.

The issue is not as straightforward as it might seem. One could argue that because the wolves have moved onto private land, the owners have a right to eliminate them. However, much of Western land, including land that borders Yellowstone, is owned by the federal government. Private individuals lease it for logging, mining, and grazing. The question at the center of the controversy is ”Do ranchers have a right to use public land and shoot wolves?“

The question then is not simply ”Who is right?“ or even ”What makes the most sense?“ The science of reintroduction is pretty clear, i.e., reintroduction makes sense. But political decisions are infrequently based on just science. The political idea behind the project is that the study of wolves and their reintroduction makes a good case study to help students understand that committed people can sometimes make a difference, but to do so takes hard work, and in the end no group gets all it wants. The political rights of all parties must be considered.

The story of the wolves, then, is part of a larger story about the stewardship of public lands. Some of the universities participating in this project will use the case study being developed as a ”book in common“ on their campuses, others will embed the study in their orientation to university life courses, while others will seek to make the study part of their curriculum.

Jim Pushnik, the Jack Rawlins Professor of Environmental Literacy, also traveled to Yellowstone to watch the wolves. Now a group of us on campus, interested in the dual topics of democracy and the stewardship of public land, will meet to discuss how we can create an engaging case study to be used in appropriate classes to teach about the challenges of democracy; develop a project or projects that will help students become leaders and effective participants in a democratic society; use our own 4,000+ acres of preserves to create a case study and deepen students’ environmental awareness.

If you are interested in any part of these related efforts, I invite you to contact me, Jim Pushnik, or Susan Place, interim dean of the School of Graduate and International Programs, and we will include you in the discussions. The long-term objective is to fulfill the University’s mission to graduate students who will help create and sustain a democratic society.