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The New West: Remembering role of Nez Perce in wolf recovery

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A wolf in Yellowstone National Park. Wolf recovery within Yellowstone was reinforced outside of the park when the Nez Perce stepped forward as full participants in the recovery effort. NPS PHOTO
CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS ENVIRONMENTAL COLUMNIST

Nearly a quarter century ago, L. David Mech made a pair of bold predictions about the challenges awaiting wolves in the American West. As he and I stood on a bluff in Yellowstone National Park discussing what was then the highly unlikely prospect that the howls of Canis lupus would ever be common again in the Northern Rockies, the world’s foremost wolf biologist demonstrated foresight that now seems prophetic. 

“Bringing back wolves will be difficult,” he said. “And if it happens, it would be momentous. But then the real test begins. Has society moved past its historical prejudices attached to these animals or is the hysteria destined to be repeated again? To me, that will be the true gauge of whether Americans have become smarter about our relationship with wolves.”

Then he added something else: Maybe the only group of citizens who fully understand the native importance of wolves on the landscape is native people.

Today, following decades that have passed since wolves were successfully reintroduced both to Yellowstone and wilderness areas of Idaho, it is remarkable how prescient his musings were.

Throughout the Northern Rockies, millions of dollars have been spent killing wolves. In fact, more wolves have been lethally removed than exist today—1,800 across the five-state area—and in most instances the cost of destroying them has far exceeded the value of the livestock or big-game hunting opportunities lost to wolves.

Idaho and Wyoming represent ground zero for the social test spelled out by Mech.

A few years ago I went to Idaho as the state was undertaking aggressive action to lethally-control lobos. “Wolves are under siege in Idaho but the reality hasn’t really gotten the attention that it deserves from wildlife-loving Americans,” said Suzanne Asha Stone with Defenders of Wildlife. 

Few conservationists have the perspective Stone does. She was there during the winters of 1995 and 1996 when wolves were reintroduced. “While public attention has been focused on Yellowstone wolves because they’re literally visible to millions of people who come to watch them, here in Idaho the saga has been largely out of sight and mind to most people,” she says.

Stone pointed to one group that played a pivotal role in giving wolves a second chance and has quietly been an unsung conservation hero: the Nez Perce Nation. She introduced me to Josiah Blackeagle Pinkham, the Nez Perce’s cultural resources ethnographer.

“We have our own stories about wolves, coyotes and other animals that speak to our attitudes of coexistence,” he explained of the animals known to the Nez Perce as Hími·n. “They go back to a time long, long before Europeans ever realized this continent was a place on the map of the world.”

After a pause, Pinkham noted that in the Nez Perce lexicon there is no natural word for “eradication,” meaning the deliberate annihilation of a species as was carried out by European settlers against bison and wolves and other predators. “That concept is foreign to us,” he said. 

A college-educated father, son of an author who once served as tribal chairman, grandson of a noted shaman, and a hunter, fisherman and naturalist, Pinkham is keenly aware of two divergent world views that surround him as he pointed toward a spot on the horizon where tribal members recently spotted wolves.

When former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt gave the green light for wolf reintroduction to proceed in the West in 1994, Idaho refused to participate in an attempt to stymie wolf recovery. Much to the state’s surprise, the Nez Perce stepped forward.

The tribe has primary jurisdiction over 760,000 acres of reservation in Idaho and, due to treaty rights dating back to 1855, has guaranteed access to more than 17 million acres of original tribal homeland covering a variety of federal public lands in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington—including wilderness areas where the federal government intended to release wolves transplanted from Canada. 

“I visited the tribal council when the wolf reintroduction proposal was moving toward reality and asked for their advice and support,” Stone said. “When the state of Idaho refused to support the restoration efforts, wolves needed involvement from the Nez Perce to monitor their survival and their response was, ‘count us in.’”

The Nez Perce committed as full participants in wolf reintroduction. “The Nez Perce approach involves asking the question: ‘How am I going to restore this greater whole so that it can function on its own without my intervention,’” Pinkham said. “As ‘land managers,’ we’re one of the few entities trying to manage ourselves out of existence, not in terms of our presence but in terms of the need to constantly tinker.”

Carter Niemeyer, a retired federal predator control expert who oversaw efforts to kill wolves that came into conflict with ranchers, investigated reports of depredation and concluded many livestock deaths were blamed on wolves without evidence. He says the Nez Perce’s patient, calm, long-term perspective—one that rejects rash, knee-jerk decision-making—is exactly what’s needed in the social and political discussions swirling around wolves.

It’s a perspective Josiah Blackeagle Pinkham and the Nez Perce embrace with open arms.

Todd Wilkinson is founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal (mountainjournal.org) devoted to protecting the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and is a correspondent for National Geographic. He’s also the author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399, which is available only at mangelsen.com/grizzly.

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