Wolves At The Door In much of the American West, the gray wolf is a divisive political issue. NPR's Nathan Rott and photographer David Gilkey spent weeks reporting from Montana, where wolves are no longer protected.
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Wolves At The Door

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Wolves At The Door

Wolves At The Door

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

For 40 years, the gray wolf has been on the endangered species list. Now, the federal government wants to remove its protected status across the Lower 48 states. And that has stirred deep emotions. In much of the West, wolves are a polarizing political issue.

NPR's Nathan Rott spent several weeks in Montana where the animals are no longer listed. He has the story about the complex relationship between humans and the predator they respect and fear.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Stand with me on the Grand Loop Road in Yellowstone National Park. We're at Hellroaring Overlook, a high break in the pines. It's a Thursday morning, clear and crisp, and there's an excitement in the air that's as thick as the smell of coffee. Get in closer to where Rick McIntyre is clasping his Thermos and a spotting scope, and you'll see what all the buzz is about.

RICK MCINTYRE: You want to take a look, you'll see a black and a gray that that are gathered around the site.

ROTT: Oh yeah, there's the other one, a black and a gray walking around.

It's a pack of gray wolves and a grizzly bear feeding on what looks like an elk carcass. To the naked eye, they're just dark specks on the opposite slope.

Hey, how far away would you say that is?

MCINTYRE: Oh, maybe two, three miles, something like that. I've got a tape measure. I can give you one end...

(LAUGHTER)

ROTT: Yellowstone National Park, where McIntyre works has become one of, if not the best place in the world to watch wolves. There are a couple dozen people here shivering with cold or maybe it's just the excitement. It's a magical thing seeing a wolf in the wild.

Wolf-watcher Kim Beam says it best.

KIM BEAM: It's like being a kid again.

ROTT: Watching them move.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And then our gray is walking to the left now of the bear.

BEAM: Correct.

ROTT: Seeing them play.

BEAM: Chasing the birds around, it's like bored puppies, you know?

ROTT: Hearing them howl.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOWLING WOLVES)

ROTT: It's even more special when you think that just a few decades ago most scientists say there were less than 50 gray wolves left in the Lower United States. They had been hunted, trapped and poisoned until their howls...

(SOUNDBITE OF HOWLING WOLVES)

ROTT: ...were nearly gone. And then they were brought back.

DOUG SMITH: Wolves went from being scapegoat underdog to being the environmental movement poster animal.

ROTT: That's Doug Smith. He's a biologist and the head of the Yellowstone Wolf Project. He was there in the mid-1990s when the federal government reintroduced gray wolves to the Northern Rockies, 66 animals in total. Today, there about 1,700 wolves in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.

SMITH: People are saying that the restoration of wolves to the Yellowstone area and central Idaho is America's most significant wildlife conservation accomplishment in the 20th Century.

ROTT: And that's one way of looking at it. Here is another.

BILL HOPPE: Well, we just got these wolves shoved down our throat.

ROTT: That is Bill Hoppe, a rancher and hunting outfitter. And that is an opinion you don't often hear in Yellowstone National Park. Outside of the park, where about 95 percent of wolves actually live, they co-exist with people. And people have differing opinions. Doug Smith says it's become something of a culture war.

SMITH: Some people like to refer to it as the abortion issue in wildlife management is wolves. It's intractable. It's polarized. It's value-laden.

ROTT: I know this because I grew up here in Montana. I've seen the bumper stickers: Preserve a Wolf, Take It To Your Local Taxidermist; Howl More, Whine Less. I've heard some people say wolves heal our forests, and others say the best way to manage wolves is to shoot, shovel and shut up.

Now, the silent majority isn't that extreme. Most people are somewhere in the middle. But it's hard to understate how divisive this issue can be. Don't believe me? Come with me to a coffee shop in Gardiner, Montana. It's a small frontier-turned-tourist town, in south central Montana, near the northern entrance to Yellowstone.

CARA CUNNINGHAM: You can't be neutral in anybody's mind. It's like, you have to be a side.

ROTT: That's Cara Cunningham, a barista and junior in high school here. She and a customer, Luis Kyle, are trying to explain why the word wolf gets whispered in town.

CUNNINGHAM: If you like say: Oh, I like wolves, then someone that doesn't will be like: Oh, well, then I have no respect for you. There's like nothing else.

LUIS KYLE: The respect goes right down.

ROTT: Don't you think that's a little crazy? I mean, it's a wolf.

KYLE: When you step back, it's - most issues get polarized left or right, from union help to national health care to the wolves. And then you can't stay out of it. It's like a current.

ROTT: Would one of you mind reading it?

PEGGY HOPPE: OK.

BILL HOPPE: I don't care what it says.

ROTT: This is Bill Hoppe again and his wife, Peggy. She's at the computer.

PEGGY HOPPE: (Reading) It is no longer the wolves you have to worry about. We are watching you. Mm-hmm.

(LAUGHTER)

PEGGY HOPPE: (Reading) I hope your cabins burn down...

ROTT: The Hoppe's have gotten a lot of e-mails like this. Letters and phone calls too - scary ones.

PEGGY HOPPE: (Reading) I will pray your family suffers terribly every night for the rest of my life.

ROTT: What did they do to bring on this hatred?

(SOUNDBITE OF A VEHICLE)

ROTT: Two mornings later, about five miles north of town, Bill Hoppe meets me at a spot next to the Yellowstone River to show me. Hoppe tucks his hands into the frayed pockets of his canvas coat and starts walking through the tall grass, describing a morning a few months before.

BILL HOPPE: And then I climbed over the bank and I could see sheep laying dead there. And then there were sheep laying dead all the way clear to the other end. And there was a little lamb about a week old laying there under that tree right there that was trying to die. I had to shoot that one. And I shot another one down there that I had to shoot.

ROTT: Biologists from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks confirmed it: Wolves killed 13 of Bill Hoppe's sheep. And in Montana - where wolves have already been de-listed, and are managed by the state - state law says you can kill a wolf that's killed your sheep if it comes back on your property. So Hoppe buried his sheep, lambs first so his grand-kids wouldn't see them, and went hunting every day, twice a day. Until one morning, he found a wolf on his property and shot it.

BILL HOPPE: I did everything by the rules and the law and the regulations that they gave me. And just my luck it was named Daddy's Girl out of Yellowstone National Park.

ROTT: Daddy's Girl was no normal wolf. She was collared, tracked by biologists, seen by tourists even followed by fans on Facebook. Hoppe's biggest mistake he says is that after he shot it, he let a friend take a picture of him with the dead wolf.

BILL HOPPE: And he put it on Tweeter(ph) or Twitter or Facepage(ph) or whatever the heck, and it was around the world in 30 minutes. And that was the start of it.

SUE JOHNSON: I had school teachers in L.A. writing me and all of their little kids about how they hated me.

ROTT: This is Sue Johnson. She lives a few twisty miles up a dirt road from the Hoppe's family home. She shot a wolf too, a black one - charcoal black with yellow eyes. It's laying across the entertainment center in front of us, stuffed on a display over a flat screen TV and two empty gun cases.

JOHNSON: She was number five, I think, or something. Oh my, gosh. People - she honestly was their pet, their life. Every day, they'd check on the computer to see where she was. And they hated me.

ROTT: Sue Johnson, Bill Hoppe and many other outfitters and ranchers I spoke to say people just don't understand: Wolves are killers. And they need to be managed aggressively. Montana's legislature agrees. Hunters can now kill up to five wolves every season in Montana; licenses just cost $19 a pop.

Wolf advocates say that's too aggressive and worry that if wolves are delisted nationally, other states will follow suit. Hunters and state officials point out that through three years of wolf hunts in Montana the population really hasn't seen that much change. For them, that's still too many wolves and wolves are bad for business.

But drive back down the mountain into Gardiner and you'll hear another view altogether: Wolves are business.

NATHAN VARLEY: The wolves have created a big motivation for people to visit our areas. And so they're valuable economically.

ROTT: This is Nathan Varley. He's a biologist and the co-owner of a wolf-watching guide company, with his wife.

VARLEY: And, of course, they have to stay alive to be valuable.

ROTT: Do you understand where some of the animosity and anger comes from from the other side?

VARLEY: I definitely see the arguments as valid for people that don't like wolves. They're real.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMAZING GRACE")

ROTT: What's also real: the depth of emotions people feel for these animals. On a Saturday morning, a few dozen people have gathered just below the Roosevelt Arch in Gardiner for what amounts to a funeral - a wolf funeral.

LEO LECKIE: Now is the time to celebrate their lives, some stolen from us and others lived out naturally.

ROTT: Leo Leckie chokes up as he speaks to the crowd. They're here to member Yellowstone wolves that have died in the last year, like Daddy's Girl, or Canyon Pack 831 F.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Blacktail 829 F.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Snake River. 793 M...

ROTT: Curious elk gaze down from a hill above.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Madison Pack, 762 M.

ROTT: Everyone here is pro-wolf or a wolf advocate, like Kat Brekkan.

KAT BREKKAN: For me to sit back and not do anything about the injustices that I was seeing surrounding the wolf issue, I just couldn't do it anymore. It was against the grain of my soul.

ROTT: Brekkan points to the way that wolves are delisted in Montana as one of the top injustices because, she says, it was political. Let me explain. It came on a congressional budget rider in 2011 and was the first time the U.S. Congress has ever delisted an animal from the endangered species list. Brekkan says that the proposal to delist gray wolves nationally would be another politically-driven injustice.

Wolves used to roam many parts of the U.S. that still don't have them, places like Colorado, California and Utah. Without federal protection, she says, they'll never get there and she'd argue that the science is on her side.

BREKKAN: And to have politics derail what science already said no to is not acceptable.

ROTT: But what is the science? What are their names?

BEN JIMENEZ: Buster and Boo.

ROTT: In Montana's Bitterroot Valley, on a windy ridge near the Montana/Idaho border, I meet up with Ben Jimenez. He's a biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and he's got his two dogs with him. Wolves are one of the most studied animals on Earth. Jimenez is adding to that collection by looking at one aspect of the wolf debate: Are wolves really to blame for declining elk populations in some of the state's best hunting grounds? To answer that, we have to find a dead elk.

So that's it. That's it. Smells like a dead animal.

JIMENEZ: It does, doesn't it?

ROTT: The goal is to see what killed the animal. Jimenez puts on bright purple medical gloves.

JIMENEZ: Here's the stomach and everything pretty much untouched.

ROTT: This is like wildlife CSI. He grabs a torn piece of skin and fur near the animal's neck.

JIMENEZ: So, like, here we have holes, but what we're looking for is what's called subcutaneous hemorrhaging, so it's basically bruising. So if you find bruising under the skin, it means that whatever caused that wound when it happened, the blood was still circulating.

ROTT: By putting together clues like that, where the first bites happened, what parts of the animal are eaten and what the scene looks like, Jimenez can usually get a pretty good sense of what killed the animal. And for this one?

JIMENEZ: All signs point to cat.

ROTT: Cat. Or mountain lion, which he says isn't much of a surprise. Throughout the study, mountain lions have accounted for about 30 percent of the calf mortality. The big bad wolves? Around five percent. So why then do so many people blame wolves?

ED BANKS: So the thing about wolves that you always have to remind yourself, it really has nothing to do with wolves.

ROTT: This is Ed Banks. He's retired now, but he was in charge of wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies after reintroduction for U.S. Fish & Game.

BANKS: Everybody that's fighting for some issue tries to put it on the back of the wolf, whether it's animal rights issues, whether it's public land grazing issues, whether it's the loss of family values. And people do that with religion, they do it with sports teams. They do it with flags. Wolves are one of those issues.

ROTT: So, Banks says, the debate over wolves will never completely go away and he says the same is true of the animal. No matter what happens with national delisting or hunting quotas, Banks says wolves are here to stay, at least in places like the Northern Rockies, so their side of the story is pretty boring. It's the human side that's interesting. Nathan Rott, NPR News.

CORNISH: To experience this debate in sound and images from our reporting, visit npr.org/wolves.

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