The idea that killing wolves is as necessary to the recovery of them as eating elk is to the predators themselves is an anathema to most of the people who love wolves.
It was the point ranchers made to me when I researched my story Sunday on living with wolves.
But the man who first made this point, long before wolves were released in Idaho and Yellowstone, is still regarded as the pre-eminent wolf biologist in the United States if not the world, David Mech. His study of wolf-moose relationships on Isle Royale, an island in Lake Superior, redefined our understanding of predator-prey relationships.
When his scientific report turned into a popular book, “The wolves of Isle Royale, it appeared to confirm what biologists back to Aldo Leopold had suggested: That predators and prey lived in an equilibrium, the moose and wolf populations relatively stable.
But when habitat conditions changed in the 1970s and hard winters made the moose more vulnerable, the wolves got the upper hand and dramatically reduced the moose herd. Wolf numbers actually rose.
But when the moose were gone the wolf population disintegrated and it has taken years for both populations to recover. So much for the balance of nature.
I met Mech in 1985 soon after I had arrived in Idaho. He came into my office with two wolf advocates, Hank Fischer of Defenders of Wildlife and Renee Askins, a recent Yale graduate.
They were there to tell me how they wanted to reintroduce wolves into Idaho and Yellowstone. Central Idaho and Yellowstone’s dense elk herds were the perfect place for wolves, he said.
But what about ranchers?”
Mech explained that in Minnesota cattlemen had few problems with wolves killing livestock. But when they did, the government could kill them.
The same approach would be made in Idaho and around Yellowstone, Mech said. When he later met face-to-face with Idaho ranchers in St. Anthony he made the same point.
At the time, Defenders of Wildlife was as much an animal rights group as it was a wildlife conservation organization. Much of its funding came from people who would abhor the idea of killing wolves to save them.
But Fischer and his bosses recognized that Mech’s trade-off was the necessary unpleasantness wolf lovers would have to ensure if the predators were to be released here. They made their deal with the devil and even set up a fund to pay ranchers for the losses they suffered.
This was the foundation on which wolf reintroduction was built.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s Mech was treated like a rock star by wolf advocates and other environmentalists. The soft-spoken, balding, bearded biologist hated the public role of alpha in the wolf research field.
As wolf numbers exceeded recovery goals in the Midwest and in the Rocky Mountains, advocates improved methods of managing wolf-livestock conflicts without killing wolves. With wolves on the ground and their future reassured, the rhetoric changed.
Wolf killing was barely tolerated. The idea of eventual wolf hunting, which Mech said would be helpful for wolf management, became abhorrent to wolf advocates.
When Mech, now 70, continued to express his views about wolf killing, the people who had placed him on a pedestal now wanted him on a petard. But he doesn’t let it bother him now anymore than he embraced his celebrity in their world before.
Managing wolves, Mech told me in the 1980s, meant managing humans. Unlike wolves they have values.