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As Lawmakers Debate Fate of Wolves, Film Commands Renewed Attention

Two Congressional bills aiming to strip protections for the North American gray wolf could push the species toward extinction By Nicola Payne In January, senators introduced two bills to strip federal protections for endangered gray wolves in Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. The bills block citizens’ rights to oppose them in court, make states wholly responsible...

Two Congressional bills aiming to strip protections for the North American gray wolf could push the species toward extinction

By Nicola Payne

In January, senators introduced two bills to strip federal protections for endangered gray wolves in Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

The bills block citizens’ rights to oppose them in court, make states wholly responsible for wolf management, and include language to weaken the Endangered Species Act, which has protected threatened animals and plants since 1973.

S.164, introduced by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), and H.R 424, introduced in the House of Representatives by Collin C. Peterson (D-MN), have been dubbed the “War on Wolves Act.”

If passed, the legislation would give wildlife management agencies in the four states the freedom to allow unmitigated baiting, tracking, and killing of the animals in the name of “population management control.”

“This War on Wolves Act would allow for the same unregulated killing that nearly wiped out the species in the first place,” says Marjorie Mulhall, senior legislative counsel for Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization “committed to advancing the promise of a healthy world.”

Photograph by Kim Brandenburg. Click to enlarge.
Photograph by Jim Brandenburg. Click to enlarge.

Today an estimated 5,500 gray wolves occupy shrinking pockets in the Lower 48 that constitute less than 10 percent of their original range. The majority of those wolves are found in the “hunting-friendly” states identified in the new bills.

The legislation would also set a precedent for future attacks on the Endangered Species Act—including capping the number of species that can be listed, raising the qualifications for a species to be listed, giving states greater input in listing decisions, and prohibiting judicial review. Endangered species, from the jaguar and the whooping crane to the killer whale, could be affected.

“Whether wolves still need federal protection is a scientific and legal question that should be reviewed by the courts,” said Collette Adkins, an attorney and biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Americans are outraged at the backdoor attempts by politicians to weaken the Endangered Species Act and bypass our rights as concerned citizens to challenge unlawful government decisions. Without federal protection, hundreds of wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan will once again suffer and die every year.”

Speaking from her home in California, Julia Huffman, director of the award-winning 2015 documentary Medicine of the Wolf, explains the politics behind the War on Wolves Act, the role of wolves throughout human history, and how the esteem our ancestors once held for these creatures seems to be missing in us today.

How did you first become interested in the plight of wolves in North America?

My introduction was my first dog, Bozo. Humans wouldn’t have tame dogs to keep as pets if it weren’t for their wild forebears. From a young age I had admiration for the wolf, and I carried that admiration with me throughout the years.

In 2012 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed gray wolves in the Great Lakes region from the Endangered Species list, handing management over to the states, specifically Michigan, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and Minnesota. Wolves had been federally protected for 40 years, and it’s true that their numbers had started to grow. However, the bigger picture is that at one time there were hundreds of thousands of them occupying up to 95 percent of the lower 48 states.

Immediately after the 2012 delisting, Minnesota, Wyoming, and Wisconsin rushed to create legislation that permitted wolf hunting. Michigan blocked a similar bill. The killing that followed wiped out about 1,500 wolves, about one-fourth of their total population. They were shot on sight, tracked by packs of dogs in Wisconsin, caught in snares and leg traps, hunted for sport and trophies.

I worked as a television producer for years. When I heard about the delisting and the subsequent rapacious hunting, I decided to use my experience to create a feature documentary about wolves.

Tell us what’s been going on with wolves since 2012.

As we were writing the end of the film in 2014, some incredible news came in. A federal judge, Beryl A. Howell, restored the federal protections for wolves in the Great Lakes region that had been removed two years before.

In her decision she wrote, “At times, a court must lean forward from the bench to let an agency know in no uncertain terms, that enough is enough. This case is one of those times.” Her ruling became the end to our film.

But now Congress will be voting on two bills many of us are naming the “War on Wolves Act.” They’re dangerous in that they would turn management of wolves back to states that demonstrated immense hostility toward wolves in 2012. They include what’s called ajurisdictional stripping provision” that bars the courts from hearing any legal challenges to the legislation from wildlife advocates. And perhaps most disturbing is the language of one of the bills that aims to dismantle the Endangered Species Act.

In my opinion this new delisting push is about big business. The Department of Natural Resources makes a profit from wolf hunting licenses.

The agricultural lobby is a strong political force motivated to look out for livestock interests over wildlife welfare.

And the extraction industry has an incentive to rid the land of wolves, wild horses, and many other species because if a species is considered endangered, then corporations can’t move forward with fracking or copper mining.

Politicians will have you believe that wolves are dangerous to humans, which they are not. There have only been two wolf-related deaths ever recorded.

They will also say that wolves decimate cattle and elk herds, another histrionic piece of disinformation. Wolves kill less than two percent of all livestock in wolf country. This recent legislation is nothing more than exploitation of natural resources for pure economic gain.

What it comes down to is simple: If we don’t use balanced reasoning and the word of law to protect the North American gray wolf, we will lose it.

Photograph by Jim Brandenburg. Click to enlarge.
Photograph by Jim Brandenburg. Click to enlarge.

Do you think people are ready to hear facts rather than anti-wolf propaganda?

We have so much at stake right now in our country. A good portion of the population is just trying to make sure they keep their First Amendment rights. So I’ll say that even though this is an anxious time, it is absolutely the most important time to take action. It is the time.

We have to demand that our politicians use science-based evidence to make decisions about these iconic species, and not make the wolf issue or any other endangered species about politics or greed.

What is the narrative scope of your film Medicine of the Wolf?

It takes viewers on a journey through the eyes of the great National Geographic contributor Jim Brandenburg, who is based in Minnesota and has photographed wolves for more than four decades—longer than anyone else in history.

I also interview Dr. John Vucetich, the director of the longest-running wolf and moose study in the world, which took place in the Isle Royale in Michigan. He describes how science and politics have become opposing forces when it comes to wolves.

The film addresses the spiritual side of the wolf issue as well. Early humans and wolves met on the Eurasian landscape, and in each other they found a mutually rewarding partnership.

The Native Americans of North America lived with the wolf, and they revered the wolf. The wolf taught them to be good hunters, to listen to the land, to understand ecological wholeness—all crucial pieces of human survival. We forget that wolf and man go back at least 100,000 years.

I was honored to learn from Chi Ma’iingan, an elder from the Red Lake Nation, the Ojibway tribe in Red Lake, Minnesota, who has since passed away. Chi Ma’iingan, whose name means Big Wolf, taught me about the Ojibway’s deep connection to the wolf. To the Ojibway people, the wolf holds the medicine and teaches humility.

He explained that man has lost their connection to the land and to the wolf, and there is a great spiritual void now in our country.

In Latin, medicine means to heal. I chose the title Medicine of the Wolf because that’s what wolves as the top-level carnivore do for the ecosystem.

They brought health back to Yellowstone National Park when they were reintroduced there in 1995, says Delia Malone, the wildlife team chair for the Colorado chapter of the Sierra Club. They were a restorative force that resulted in the recovery of woodlands and streams, songbirds and waterfowl. By selecting inferior animals to prey upon, they created healthier, more robust herds of elk and pronghorn. All of that they can do for other areas of North America, if we allow them to.

What developments do you hope Medicine of the Wolf will bring about?

A North Carolinian hunter wrote me a letter saying he’d been under the impression that if he encountered a wolf in the wild, the right thing would be to kill it. Watching my documentary, he said, changed that perception. If the film helps to move more people’s hearts and minds in that way, then that’s success in my view.

Photograph by Jim Brandenburg. Click to enlarge.
Photograph by Jim Brandenburg. Click to enlarge.

If you could do one thing, right now, on behalf of wolves, what would it be?

Lawmakers need to review the Endangered Species Act and reexamine what it means for a species to be recovered. That legislation was put in place in 1973 as a crucial bill of rights for plants and animals, the only one of its kind. I would demand that politicians abide by it, not erode it.

Any last words?

In our modern American culture, I think we’re missing something. Western culture doesn’t necessarily teach us to understand the idea of equanimity of all things, to accept that everything on the planet has its own value, separate from how it relates to us. Somehow, our egocentricity has tried to put us on top.

My hope is that we can regain our feeling of reverence. I think about our lineage, our ancestors, and what many indigenous cultures have preserved, and the question that comes to mind is this: Shouldn’t we have reverence for the wolf?

Call to action: Tell Your Representatives to Reject the Dangerous War on Wolves Act

Call to action: Stop Congress from Unleashing a War on Wolves

Nicola Payne has an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University. Her writing and reporting have appeared in National Geographic, Outside, and the New York Times.

Minnesota native Jim Brandenburg traveled the globe as a photographer with National Geographic magazine for over three decades. He has done assignment work and has been published in numerous national and international publications including the New York TimesLifeTimeAudubonSmithsonianNatural HistoryGEOModern MaturityBBC WildlifeOutdoor PhotographerNational Wildlife, and Outside.

Watch the full documentary  ($4.99) >>

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