Wolves, altruism and virtual ethics

Before judging the restoration of wolves to Yellowstone, look at history and at who is lining up on each side.

by Robert Nanninga


hroughout history wolves have been conceived as many things by human communities. Running the gamut from wise teacher to evil monster, Canis lupus, having been seen as both criminal and victim, can now add pawn to its resume.

There is now a battle being fought in federal courts regarding the recent relocation of wolves into Yellowstone National Park. The debate centers on the status of the restored wolf population, currently measuring approximately 90 animals, and the lack of protection resulting from their classification of "experimental." This classification removes the transplanted wolves from coverage under the Endangered Species Act a loophole that muddies the water in regards to which wolves can be legally shot. But I am getting ahead of myself.


History lesson


An important piece of the puzzle is the fact that, historically, wolves have always been a part of the Yellowstone area. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the estimated population of gray wolves in the Yellowstone area was estimated at thirty-five thousand. Previously seen only as sport animals, trappers (also known as wolfers) responded to a shift in the fur market in 1850 when the winter pelts of wolves became a desirable commodity. In the 1860s, The American Fur Trading Company reported shipping seven thousand pelts annually from outposts on the Missouri River. Poisoned buffalo carcasses were very effective in producing a large take during winter months. As long as buffalo numbers persisted, so did the wolves. But with the near extinction of the buffalo and the migration of ranchers into the Yellowstone territory, this meant less food and less room for wolves.

With the loss of their natural food choices, the wolf had two options remaining: eat livestock or starve. By 1894, ranchers were losing half of their calves to hungry wolves, and wolfers were called in for complete eradication. Wealthy stock-grower associations had enough resources to enroll state and federal lawmakers to legislate Canis lupus out of existence. Wolf bashing was commonplace in the early twentieth century. Myths sprung up as the animals continued to decline, and killing the last wolf in any area was considered a reason to celebrate.

Yellowstone National Park, created in 1872, provided a haven for wolves between 1886 and 1914, under the protection of the U.S. Cavalry. Protection within park boundaries ended when Congress funded a Biological Survey intent on, "destroying wolves, prairie dogs, and other animals injurious to agriculture and animal husbandry." In 1916, the park service was established and continued the slaughter of wolves. Vernon Bailey, the chief naturalist of the Biological Survey, favored killing the wolves in the spring when the family was in their den. The last verifiable instance of wolves in the park was the trapping of two cubs at a buffalo carcass in 1926. Over the next fifty years, there was the occasional sighting of single animals, yet none of the reports were ever substantiated. Canis lupus was erased from Yellowstone and from most of their North American habitat at the behest of ranchers and sport hunters. The national park had failed to live up to its charter, "to conserve, the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wild life therein." The wolf, a vital link in the biotic community, would require human intervention to be restored to the Yellowstone area.


Ethical Egoism


"So," you ask, "what's the big deal?" To begin with, both sides of the conservation/restoration issue are advocating what they believe is best for all. On the surface, this is admirable. But when we put their claims through an ethical filter, we see that one side falls short: the anti-wolf lobby.

Ethical Egoism is the first hurdle that those claiming altruism must clear, and complete failure of the anti-wolf interests to safely navigate this first obstacle is not surprising. According to Philosophy Professor James Rachels of the University of Alabama, "Ethical Egoism is the idea that each person ought to pursue his or her own self-interest exclusively." This ethical theory is based in individualism, which is at the heart of American culture. By expanding to the scope of species, we begin to see how this anthropocentrism has shaped all state and federal policy and continues to do so.

The only people who profit from the absence of wolves are the cattle industry and those that support it. Demanding, cajoling and supporting western politicians, ranchers are blatant in their belief that their rights supercede all other considerations. With the sole purpose of protecting an industry fat on government subsidies, a small minority is controlling state and federal policy in regards to public lands and environmental regulations. Wolves are not the only species affected by this egocentric view: buffalo, prairie dogs and anything that could possibly cut into profits must be eradicated. It is my opinion that these self-interested ranchers do not have the reasoning capabilities to achieve even limited altruism. By refusing to see the biotic breakdown resulting from their actions, they trade the long term well-being of all involved for short term gain.

Removing predators from an ecosystem is not in keeping with Aldo Leopold's Land Ethic, which should be the foundation of all environmental and conservation considerations. This, in turn, limits any conversation regarding the impact of their actions to a selfish diatribe of property rights and anthropocentrism.

Ranchers also engage in utilitarian discourse when justifying their claim that the livestock industry serves the great good by providing a product that consumers demand. Totally disregarded is the larger concern of the biotic community. The question remains: how do habitat destruction, overgrazing, increased methane levels, e. coli and heart disease promote greater good?

The stock-growers are at the beginning of a global conglomerate of interests who make their living from the exploitation of cattle and environments in which they are grown. Tragically, this ideology does not look beyond the next quarterly report or at any environment other than the commodities exchange. Without considering the consequences on the next seven generations, a person cannot reasonably claim they are promoting the greater good. Removing wolves from Yellowstone in the name of utilitarianism has resulted the in winter starvation of prey animals such as deer and buffalo, as well as population increases of other predator species such as coyotes. Ranchers use the threat of brucellosis transmission to livestock in justifying the slaughter of buffalo as they leave Yellowstone in search of winter forage. With the restoration of wolves, this highly controversial action would be unnecessary because predation by wolves would cull out any sick animals.

Ranchers, and to a lesser extent sport hunters, have no claim on virtue based ethics, although they can claim virtual ethics. By failing to see past their own ego and their true place in the biotic community they are ill-equipped to participate in rational discourse pertaining to habitat and species conservation. Yet, money talks louder than reason, and currently the cattle industry has a stranglehold on government policy regarding wolves and their restoration to the Yellowstone area.

Now is the time to speak out. By removing beef from your diet, you can cast a pro-wolf vote. By writing your senators and congressional representatives, you can give these vital creatures, and the biotic communities in which they exist, a voice in their future.

Robert Nanninga is an independent video producer, actor, vegan and an active member of the Green and environmental communities.