All Commentary
Sunday, March 1, 1992

A Species Worth Preserving

Mr. Kell is a biologist and writer living in Blacksburg, Virginia.

What if you broke your leg in a tumble from a hammock? Would your pain and inconvenience be any less if you learned that few people break their legs this way? Probably not. You feel pain as an individual; knowing that total human suffering has increased only a tiny bit won’t make you feel better.

Whether a broken leg is a major event depends on your perspective: Do you look at how it affects the individual or how it affects the collective?

Public policies also can be examined from these perspectives.

For example, many environmentalists want wolves to be reintroduced to Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, which are within the animal’s historical range. Many ranchers oppose the idea because they fear that wolves will kill their livestock, Some environmentalists counter with the argument that wolves will kill less than 1 percent of the livestock in the affected area.

A fraction of 1 percent may seem small, and ranching as an industry wouldn’t be greatly affected, but the income of a particular rancher could be seriously impacted. If a rancher lost a few head of cattle to a wolf, it would comfort him little to know that those were the only livestock killed by wolves in the whole state that year.

When environmentalists argue that wolves would have little impact on the livestock industry, they are thinking of the industry as a whole and not of individual ranchers. The rancher, on the other hand, is thinking about his particular herd and income. One is thinking collectively, the other individually, and each wonders how the other can be so unfeeling and irrational.

Is there any way these groups can come to view the problem from a common ground? What if environmentalists try to understand how wolves affect individual ranchers, and offer to compensate those who lose animals to wolves? This might help ranchers feel less threatened by the reintroduction of wolves.

Such a solution is being used by Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental group trying to reduce opposition to the reintroduction of wolves in Montana. They raised a $100,000 compensation fund through donations, a benefit concert by James Taylor, and sales of a print featuring a family of wolves above a geyser basin in Yellowstone.

Defenders of Wildlife has paid $11,000 in compensation since 1987. These didn’t involve kills by reintroduced wolves, but were caused by a population that started naturally when wolves moved into Montana from Canada in 1979. Even so, Defenders of Wildlife felt the payments were needed to check the spread of an anti-wolf mentality.

Defenders of Wildlife hopes that the fund will be enough to run the program for 10 years. By that time they hope the wolf population will be large enough so the species can be removed from endangered status; shooting of problem wolves by animal control officers would then be permitted.

This isn’t the first time that conservationists have turned to private funding to protect the environment. Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, and Trout Unlimited have been buying habitat for years. But only recently have environmental organizations assumed financial responsibility for the actions of wild animals. The Great Bear Foundation in Montana started a program in 1985 to compensate ranchers for stock killed by grizzlies.

Like an insurance company, Defenders of Wildlife doesn’t want to pay out more than it must, so they are educating ranchers to reduce the risks of losing livestock. They even bought a guard dog for one rancher who had lost cattle.

Environmentalists in other parts of the country are considering similar compensation programs. In the American Southwest, there are plans to restore the Mexican wolf. Conservationists have formed several coalitions and are trying to win public support for the reintroduction. Terry Johnson of the Arizona Game and Fish Department says: “A compensation fund is crucial to Mexican wolf reintroduction. Without it there is no hope for support or even neutrality from the ranching community.”

Wolves seem to generate more animosity than the other large predators—grizzlies, mountain lions, and black bears—that run wild in Montana. The reintroduction of wolves is still opposed by many, and their future in Yellowstone is uncertain. One thing is certain. Environmentalists who are willing to bear the costs of their actions are a species worth preserving.