The wolf hunt that begins this week in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana is as grim as the Grimm's fairy tale. Ever since the bloody wolf-delisting rider was slipped into a recent budget bill, this myth is driving wildlife politics. And it's still the same ending: The wolf must die. The heroic hunter rescues the grandmother and little girl. Everyone lives happily ever after, except, of course, the wild wolf.
In the medieval mindset of Little Red Riding Hood, the fairy tale forest was a looming wilderness -- a villain overshadowing the little village. Walking through the woods was dangerous. You never knew who might follow you home, devour and pretend to be your grandmother, and eat you alive.
This fairy tale was a time before humans domesticated nature, made tree farms out of forests and drove entire species, like the wolf, to extinction. This was before Alaskan wolf hunters in airplanes gunned down entire packs of radio-collared wolves. Before we poisoned, trapped, and shot wolves for sport. This was before we understood the science of wolves and their predator-prey balance that actually restores healthy ecosystems.
When the Brothers Grimm built their fairy tale of wolves on the original Perrault 17th century French folklore, they added a 19th century twist. The huntsman who saved Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother was not so much on a rescue mission as he was bent on earning the trophy of the wolf's skin.
The huntsman is not a hero. It's only the wolf skin he's after. This modern evolution of the fairy tale is evident on any of the online wolf licensing sites as the 2011 hunt now begins. One outfitter advertises, "maximize your predator experience... add a fall black bear to your wolf hunt." It offers a "proven predator calling technique" to lure the wolf, bear, mountain lion, coyote, foxes "and more" into your crosshairs. Blam! You got yourself a nice trophy, man. Something to brag about to your friends, to tell your kids the story of how you gunned down the big, bad wolf.
But who's really big and bad here? Who are the real villains and heroes in this new century?
When our forests and wildlife are shrinking as humans develop mega-villages; when Idaho ranchers in 2010 are losing only 148 cattle out of the state's 2.2 million head; when tourists are flocking Yellowstone to delightedly watch wild wolf packs restored to their natural habitat; when wolf biologists like Cristina Eisenberg document wolves as a "keystone species" that restore ecosystems and increases biodiversity -- shouldn't we update the old, medieval story?
Friends of Animals president, Priscilla Feral says, "What's about to happen to gray wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming -- who are a vital part of the ecosystem -- is vile. Governors of those states are subjecting wolves to pogroms from the Middle Ages." She urges Americans to boycott all travel to these three trigger-happy states. And call our congressional representations to protest. Already there are "Howl-ins" and "Phone-ins for Wolves," -- people demonstrating from Idaho to Central Park. Consider this a call to community from the wolves to the humans. Now, they need our saving.
Many of us are doing just that. We are the majority, but we must speak up and tell the governors of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming that we deplore this wrongheaded wolf hunt. The Natural Resource Defense Council estimates that in Idaho alone, 600 wolves or 50 percent of the population will be destroyed. There are only 1,500 wolves in all three states. There used to be millions of wolves in our wild lands. NRDC warns that "This could be the first time in American history that an animal will be removed from the Endangered Species and hunted down to unsustainable population levels."
This country should stop letting ranchers and hunters dominate the story and fate of wild wolves. And this administration should stand up for its environmental ideals, once exemplified when a post-Inauguration Obama, suspended Bush-era wolf hunts. Now the Department of the Interior is playing politics with predators. The Obama administration -- to gain political capital with Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming in Congress -- is cynically arguing that it has the authority to "carve out an exception" to the Endangered Species Act for the gray wolf. Politicians do not make good scientists or wildlife managers. Their short sights are set on re-election, not restoration.
"Wolves nurture the entire ecosystem," biologist Eisenberg explains in her book The Wolf's Tooth. "If we eradicate wolves or lower their numbers, the whole system will grow impoverished and collapse."
I once heard a wise wildlife manager tell the 1993 Alaska Wolf Summit bent on yet another aerial wolf hunt, "It's not the science or the government that will change the way we see wolves. It's public opinion."
And it's our stories. Isn't it time for we the people to update Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf for the 21st century and beyond? Who now is rescuing the grandmother and little girl and keeping the village safe for future generations? It's not the hunters. It may well be the wild wolves.
And it may be the whole village. Join the pack and protests. Howl out. Change the story.
Brenda Peterson is a National Geographic author. Her many books include: "Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals," in which she profiled the first wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone and wolf control in Alaska. Her new memoir, "I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth" was named a Best Top Ten Non-fiction Book of 2010 by "The Christian Science Monitor."
Read more on the issue by Peterson: "Wolves Endangered by Political Predators" in "The Seattle Times."
Howl-in/phone-in for wolves at Friends of Animals.