Wildlife as a Philosophical Matter

Anyone who loves wildlife in the West should pay attention to what has been going on around Yellowstone National Park. Montana’s position on wolves has, to put it delicately, taken a ‘hard turn.’ This needs to change.

The 2021 Montana state legislature crafted aggressive laws to reduce the state’s wolf population. Wolves can now be killed with the aid of bait, snares, electronic calls, night vision scopes, and spotlights. They can be immobilized by traps and shot. If someone possesses both a hunting and a trapping license, they can kill up to twenty wolves in a season. The costs of the killing can be reimbursed by the state. Wolves in Montana can theoretically be reduced to fifteen breeding pairs, a reduction of over eighty-percent.

Two hundred and seventy-three wolves were killed in Montana before the season closed in the spring of 2022. Thanks to changes in district quotas, the toll was particularly high around Yellowstone Park. Twenty-five of Yellowstone’s wolves were killed by the three states bordering the park. Tribal nations, scientists, members of Congress, local business owners, the Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, and concerned citizens across the country all raised their voices in protest. The wolf’s status is currently under federal review as a precursor to a possible relisting under the Endangered Species Act.

There is a lot to say about the politics of this ‘hard turn.’ But I’m not offering an invitation here to talk politics. I’m offering an invitation to talk philosophy.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Wheaton via Flickr

In the last decade, Americans have adjusted their thinking very rapidly on a number of topics of public interest. ‘Marriage equality’ has been one. ‘Gender’ another. These ideas have flexed and adapted over time. ‘Racial justice’ is understood much more broadly today than five years ago. ‘Public health’ – a concept most people thought very little about in 2019 – abruptly gained currency as Covid ravaged American communities. In each of these cases, a term or idea with many years of history underwent a rapid change.

That’s what big ideas do. They bend and tweak as time passes. When science changes or social expectations shift, the contours of large and complicated ideas also shift. We recognize and celebrate their evolution.

So what about the idea of ‘wolves’?

We know much more about wolves today than we did a century ago. We know about their intelligence, their adaptability, and the complexities of their behavior. We have exposed some myths and marveled at some recently-learned truths. We see in their lives similarities to our own which few appreciated five decades ago. The idea of a wolf (or a whale, or a beaver) has evolved. What comes to mind with the term ‘wildlife’ is something much richer, much more complex than before.

At least, it should be.

The recent changes of law in Montana cast doubt on that hope. The laws are a throwback to a different age. It should be no more acceptable to brandish a nineteenth-century idea of wild animals than to wield a nineteenth-century idea of gender. We are more informed than that. We can be better citizens than that. It is doubtful the views of wolves embedded in current Montana law are shared by the majority of the state’s residents, let alone the majority of Americans. Close to five million people visited Yellowstone in 2021. Almost all of them would have been thrilled to see a wolf.

Attitudes to wildlife may play out in politics, but they are fundamentally issues in philosophy. What comes to mind when you think of a wolf? Does it track reality? Or is it a compilation of myth, ancient history, and prejudice?

One Reply to “Wildlife as a Philosophical Matter”

  1. I may be quite wrong here, in trying to understand the hard turn the state legislation regarding the wolf population I would like to be better informed as to what underpinned the thinking that led to the coming about of the said legislation. Is this a argument that can be placed in the agricultural/farming drawer or is it more for sport shooting and some misguided attempt to attract more people into the area for recreational purposes? From a philosophical point of view the protection and maintenance of wildlife whether natural at the time or through rewilding must underpin human existence hand-in-hand. The tension between philosophy and economics is well established as broad arguments but we as a society appear to have gone backwards in so many aspects over the last 10 to 20 years and in the last five years with increasing acceleration especially where it comes to the nexus between science and social human progress.

    Is this state legislation that now affects the wolf so adversely just a mirror of those huge retrograde steps?


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