Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Wolf Hunt

Would you be o.k. with having a wolf in your back yard? Over the course of last spring, the Michigan legislature approved Senate Bill 288, allowing wolf hunts to resume throughout the state. The legislative victory came in part in deference to sportsmen and rural residents who felt that the proliferation of wolves in some northern reaches of the state threaten the safety of homes and the productivity farms. It also came as part of a legislative assault on a previous generation of protections for biodiversity and species richness in Michigan landscapes.

Brad Cardinale, a scientist of biodiversity and colleague of mine, has been frustrated about these issues for months.   As someone who literally loses sleep trying to understand and protect the complexity of natural systems, he is committed to correcting what he sees as hidden agendas, biases, and inaccuracies in conflicts about natural resources in Michigan. On May 3, 2013, he wrote the following email:

You are probably aware of Senate Bill 78, which has been dubbed the 'Anti-Biodiversity' bill.  This bill, which was originally sponsored by Senator Tom Casperson, modifies Michigan's Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act to explicitly prohibit state agencies from managing state land for the purpose of achieving or maintaining biological diversity. The bill alters the definition of conservation, emphasizing the need for more 'balance' with extraction and economic gain from public lands, and it eliminates a requirement that the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) manage ecosystems like forests in a manner that ensures their recovery. Though it is not obvious from the bill itself, Senator Casperson claims that the goal of this legislation is to stop the DNR's formation of Biological Stewardship Areas (BSAs) … a state-wide network of public lands and voluntary involvement by private land-owners to conserve Michigan's flora and fauna in a coordinated way…. 

Casperson, the Republican Senator from Escanaba, Michigan who sponsored Bill 78, is also linked to the contentious wolf question. He went on record noting that residents of Ironwood Michigan, one of the Michigan towns where wolf sightings have been most frequent, were living in fear of wolves.  Investigating the veracity of that, journalists from Michigan Radio station’s “environment report” went on location in Ironwood.

What they captured there was a lot of ambivalence. Some locals admitted wariness about wolves in the area, given that their children play in unfenced backyards.  However, those interviewed stopped short of stating they wanted, necessarily, to see the wolves shot.  Many were curious about options for managing this situation.  Others expressed what might almost be termed brand pride about having wolves in the area, noting that wolves symbolize wilderness and freedom and should thus be protected from hunters.  In Ironwood and elsewhere in Michigan, however, Senate Bill 288 passed, and the hunt is on.  

Well, the hunt is on for many Michiganders. But others still stand strong—if not exactly united—in opposition.

Why not united? The state is a container for diverse interests and identities. Divides between urban and rural, working class and third-coast leisure class, and varied racial and ethnic American identities prevent the emergence of environmental and economic consensus. 

Further, these divides can preclude progress toward a competitive green economy to position our state within the U.S. in ways commensurate with what northern European powers are becoming in relation to their other E.U. neighbors—cleaner, greener, leaner economic machines. Of course northern Europe is also riven with internal conflict about everything from the highly experimental “rewilding” efforts that are introducing wildlife to previously ecologically damaged zones, to the politics among diverse social groups that include indigenous peoples still living herding and hunting lifestyles.  Sound familiar, Michigan?

Since the beginning of the debate about Michigan wolves, Tribal nations such as Ojibwe and Chippewa have shown staunch advocacy for wolves as a sibling species to humans. Back in January, when Senate Bill 288 was first formulated and debated, many Tribal leaders stood against the hunt, and issued statements about “wolves as our brothers.”

Many Michigan Indians still hold deep (if dynamic) beliefs that inform tribal hunting norms far from those of state mandated hunting laws and practices. My colleague Nick Reo is an enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. Nick works with US American Indian Tribes and other Native peoples on applied research concerning the management and use of natural resources. 

If he were to work on wolves, Nick would do what he has done with his studies of deer hunting practices that foster red oak regeneration in tribal forests: systematically follow the way tribal hunting practices differ from government mandated ones, and thus have demonstrable ecological effects on other species in the landscape, producing important distinctions between tribal forests and state managed forests. Or perhaps he’d reflect on the ethical and ecological knowledge systems that undergird Tribal approaches to taboos on wolf hunting.

Whether on ecological or ethical grounds, in the wolf case, he would  find at least a few experts from the Department of Natural Resources in agreement with Indian positions: open hunting is not the answer. According to one wolf expert with DNR, an open hunt can increase pressure (or perceived pressure) on populations enough that they can overbreed in response, and in the end the “solution” becomes part of a continued problem of populations out of balance. Better to have seasoned ecologists carry out carefully targeted culling of individuals whose deaths won’t trigger mating and breeding responses in the broader population. Casperson begs to differ, and feels not just experts, but citizens should have a role.

Scientific and political contestation aside, the stance of Michigan’s American Indian communities in the political fray about wolves calls to mind the power of cultural politics. Take Stephanie Meyers' wildly successful merger of teen angst and vampire fiction genres, the blockbuster tween novel-and-film franchise Twilight. These films re-branded American Indian youth in the minds of movie audiences, casting ripped young actors as pack of carnal, compelling, lower-economic-class-but-higher-moral-ground teens that shape shift into wolves on the basis of heredity and relations with others in the pack, or tribe. Cardinale, Reo, Casperson and I all have in common roles as parents that have us scrambling to make sense of such content.

Even in Hollywood it seems miraculous that these hot, inhumanly buff tribal teens stand in a fragile alliance alongside BMW-driving, Nordic-looking, dietarily abstemious but economically ostentatious white peers in a fight against old world vampires. In that respect, the storyline is yet another American narrative of unlikely allies on an untamed frontier defeating old empires. The evil predators are cathedral-and-sepulchre based vampires called the Volturi, who have a kind of papal aesthetic (certainly there is no wilderness-taming protestant chic there).

There is nothing narratively surprising here.  U.S. audiences adore imaginary about new world forces tinged with noble savagery joining in a fight against corrupt and heavily perfumed hierarchies of imperialist elites. Elsewhere in this blog I have traced such tales through films like Avatar, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Brave. If time permitted one could continue on through The Hunger Games Such tropes gratify an almost childlike American love of against-all-odds-alliances in the interest of greater good and lofty ideals; they are powerful in their erotic and ethical charge.

So maybe it is natural to find myself wishing for a Twilight-like last minute alliance between DNR experts (or some of them), environmental activists (or most of them), and Ojibwe, Ashinaabe, or Chippewa leaders. I can almost see them, flannel shirts rippling in the breeze, facing off in the forest against and an opposing army of State legislators in their neckties, Ted Nugent in spandex, and a cammo-clad band from the congressional sportsmen's caucus (who are sponsoring bills at national levels faster than you can say “martinis for lunch in Lansing.”) 

But such alliances, effective as they may be at hamstringing our legislature, are not as persistently powerful for any social action as they are for reinforcing the deeply divisive political climate in our country (and state) these days. Nor can they seem to overcome the primordial fear of wolves themselves that is bound up with “settler” mentalities (and the challenges of settler realities) all over the world. So the question becomes, will these new images and symbols work in the minds of young movie-going Americans to shape new generations of environmentalists?

According to recent trends in the Fish and Wildlife world, fewer of and U.S. state's future constituents will have grown up learning to hunt with family members for food, protection of farm animals, or fun (though raw data from USFWS reports put Michigan’s licensing rates over time at high levels and relatively low dropoff compared to some states). Such limited successes notwithstanding, more and more young Americans will come to connection with wildlife species through watching and imagining them on a screen.  With such filters on our experiences of the wild, comes a playful romanticism that is hard to predict as a force in real-world-wolf-politics.  

After this year’s experiences in Michigan, as well as in the Yellowstone area, one can only hope it will temper the all too often vindictive relationships between wolf hunters and wolf advocates.  When the death of a widely known and studied she-wolf at a Wyoming hunter’s hands this year left leaderless a research pack from Colorado who crossed state lines (how could they have known they had crossed the boundary?) tempers flared in local press, and several states had to examine their hunting policies. In the end, the death of the she-wolf known as “832F” from Colorado prompted nearby Montana to close its wolf hunt in deference to the ongoing research across state lines, and its importance for longer term management.  When a door closes, somewhere a window opens?

Meanwhile, the ongoing debates about wolves in Michigan aren’t limited to questions about their presence in our own backyards. The dwindling population of wolves on Isle Royale, where they are the only predator for a burgeoning moose population, has also made for vivid debate at state and national levels.  Despite the involvement of a rock star like Nugent in the actual debates, which echo movie star antics like those of the Twilight teens, America seems only to be watching vampire movies, and not so much how states like Montana and Michigan handle these challenges.  We need to tune into what is happening on what may be some of the final frontiers of contact between humans and these formidable, myth making creatures.