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The Deadlock of Predator Management in the American West

I struggle to understand why people show such low regard for predators

Life has one final end, to be alive, and all the tricks and mechanisms,
all the successes and the failures, are aimed at that end. — John Steinbeck

1. Theory

Dismayed by human hostility toward predators, I often turn to great books of the past for ways to Dismayed by human hostility toward predators, I often turn to great books of the past for ways to rethink predator management in the American West.. The Land of Little Rain, Of Wolves and Men, and Sand County Almanac come to mind. But no book has done more to untangle the animus toward predators than John Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed Ricketts’ The Log from the Sea of Cortez. This book is a must read for everyone, though wildlife and land managers who want to improve the quality of their thinking and surpass the limitations of their own perspectives will find it especially useful. But first we must acknowledge a truism among wildlife managers with any degree of autonomy, which is that predator management is more about managing humans. And to manage humans, we must understand what makes them tick.

While the notion that humans are the crux of wildlife conflcit has merit in wildlife advocacy circles, the agricultural community would likely consider the idea as just one more example of how environmentalists are placing the well-being of wolves, grizzlies and other predators above their own. But is that what’s happening? Do we really have a predator problem and not a human problem? How do we decide? We need to explore these kinds of questions if we hope to bring fresh insights and new resolve to the deadly and litigious impasse of predator management. Although there are multiple data sets we could consider, we can start by examining anti-predator discourse, which is consistently characterized by lower-order thinking and emotion.

Although a collecting expedition on the Sea of Cortez might not seem relevant to our treatment of predators in the mountains and deserts of the West, Ricketts and Steinbeck’s insights relate to how we think and therefore have broad ecological application. “We discussed intellectual methods and approaches,” Steinbeck writes, “and we thought that through inspection of thinking technique a kind of purity of approach might be consciously achieved” (109). Granted, most predator advocates probably do not associate inspection of one’s thinking (or any thinking at all, for that matter) with state and federal decisions vis-a-vis predators. But Ricketts offers a more charitable appraisal by distinguishing teleological (or subjective) thinking from non-teleological (or objective) thinking. Thus it’s not that people don’t think; it’s that they think differently. The question is how do we decide which method will define our relationship with predators?

Teleological thinking “considers. . .what ‘should be’ in terms of an end pattern (which is often a subjective or an anthropomorphic projection); it presumes the bettering of conditions, often, unfortunately, without achieving more than a most superficial understanding of those conditions” (112). One could argue that most predator management decisions are teleological, but most humans are actually predisposed to subjective thinking because that is all we’ve needed throughout most of human evolution. In other words, early hominids didn’t survive because their perceptions made it harder for them to act; they survived because their perceptions made it easier, which may explain why some modern humans still opt to destroy rather than coexist with predators. Non-teleological ideas or responses, by contrast, “derive through ‘is’ thinking, associated with natural selection as Darwin seems to have understood it. They imply depth, fundamentalism, and clarity—seeing beyond traditional or personal projections” (112). We begin to think non-teleologically when we consider all that is involved in coexisting with predators in contrast with how little is involved in destroying them.

Despite our evolutionary predispositions, we have never been better situated, nor had greater wherewithal (and urgency) to “[see] beyond traditional and personal projections.” In light of the unrelenting, brutal, and large scale destruction of predators, it is hard to believe that we are also living in a time of astonishing scientific knowledge, one that rivals the Enlightenment in terms of its implications. Discoveries in biology and ecology alone have raised serious questions about our uniqueness as a species and the extent of our dependence on the biotic communities of which we are part. But this knowledge is only valuable if we use it to overcome what Steinbeck describes as our “mental constrictions,” a process that would “place the whole problem in a new and more significant light” (118). Sadly, our treatment of predators has not changed much over the centuries. Indeed, too many of us seem locked in a state of willful ignorance.

2. Practice

Not everyone living in North America 400 years ago shared white, Christian settlers’ maligned view of predators, but it is easier to understand why, given the challenges they faced and the limited knowledge with which they had to face them (e.g., the King James Bible was the authoritative text at the time), coexistence wasn’t a priority. Thus, though it is still difficult to regard their slaughter of tens-of-thousands of wolves, grizzlies, and other predators as anything other than abhorrent, they simply did not know any better. Not because they willfully ignored information that might have lead to a more enlightened perspective of predators and other novelties in the environment, but because for the most part (and notwithstanding any indigenous knowledge they might have acquired) that information did not exist. This is meant to neither absolve nor condemn; it is meant only to illustrate how consideration of the broader (Steinbeck would call it the “relational”) context might improve our understanding of how people could behave in ways that by today’s standards would be problematic at best.

Understanding past events is arguably of tertiary importance compared to understanding the present with an eye toward future (and more responsible) outcomes. Unlike our 17th, 18th, and 19th century counterparts, modern humans have access to an extraordinary amount of information that could be used to prevent or mitigate our conflicts with predators. And yet it is precisely this information is absent from most predator management decisions.

A couple months ago I joined a handful of other likeminded individuals at the Utah State Capitol to oppose House Bill 228 (the brainchild of House Representative Casey Snyder), otherwise known as the Livestock predator removal amendment. The bill was one of two designed to do what all predator-related bills are designed to do, which is to make it easier to kill predators while all but eliminating accountability. But on that day in early February I was there to talk specifically about 228. Opaque, ill-defined, and ecologically illiterate, this poorly written bill was emblematic of the anti-predator mentality of legislators throughout the West, where each year more and more predators are killed for non-evidentiary reasons.

On a very basic level I knew I wasn’t going to change the hearts and minds of the people sitting around that table. They, too, are likeminded and many have built their entire careers on catering to the desires of the agricultural and hunting communities. On a rational or extra-tribal level, however, I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. After all, if the committee had read the bill they would see its many problems. How could they not? And as state representatives and members of the House Natural Resources, Agriculture & Environment Standing Committee, surely they were prepared to give serious consideration to the opposition’s arguments and valued the logic and science on which those arguments were based.

Given this context and the fact that the lives of hundreds of black bears, lions, and coyotes were at stake, I held out hope that committee members would subordinate their own and their constituents’ personal beliefs in service of the truth. But the longer I sat there, the more I realized that the meeting was not designed to consider objective truth; it was designed to remain impervious to it. This is likely obvious to anyone who has attended a predator-related legislative meeting anywhere in the West; what may not be obvious are the different ways this goal is achieved.

All the bill’s proponents took a similar tack when making their case, but two comments stand out as particularly illustrative of the constricted thinking described by Steinbeck and Ricketts, and what we are up against as people who care deeply about predators and their right to exist. After hearing testimony from those who supported and opposed the bill, Representative Carl Albrecht made this observation: “We’ve heard from folks who represent science. I would state that those who live on the ground and live with predators every day and try to salvage their sheep herd, their cows, their calves over a period of 40 to 50 years as a family; that’s observation; that’s science.”

Apart from being patently false, Albrecht’s comment undermines truth-finding and responsible policymaking by dismissing the single most reliable and accurate means we have of knowing anything. Livestock producers do indeed acquire a great deal of hard-won knowledge during their time on the land, but most of that information is related to how environmental factors—predators, weather, disease, forage—affect livestock production. Wildlife biologists and ecologists are also interested in these factors, but they use the scientific method and precisely suited tools to conduct lengthy studies and experiments before drawing conclusions about what’s happening. We would be wise to consider both ways of knowing in our bid to address these complex challenges. Albrecht would have us value the subjective gleanings of personal experience above all else.

Equally indicative of a constricted mindset was a comment made by Representative Casey Snyder in his closing remarks: “I would submit to you that those who supported this bill were not speaking in the abstract. This is real to them,” he said as motioned to the ranchers and herders who sat with their hats in their laps. “This bill has real implications to them. It’s going to affect them personally . . . . So I would encourage my colleagues . . . to listen to those voices and not to the voices that may not be impacted in a personal way.” By suggesting that the reality of personal experience is somehow more important than the reality of the abstract, Snyder’s comment echoes Albrecht’s belief that observation outweighs science. But Snyder’s comment also alludes to another signature of subjective thinking, which is the primacy of emotion.

Although the implications to which Snyder refers are never named, he is likely referring to the trauma of witnessing and/or discovering depredated animals; and to how depredation threatens a livestock producer’s ability to survive. These are indeed real concerns and they matter, but making wildlife policy decisions on the basis of them represents a dereliction of duty by any reasonable standard if only because they are not all that matters. If there is any doubt about Snyder’s standard or where his priorities lie, consider his emphasis on the personal—as opposed to the collective or ecological—significance of predators. In an anthropocentric universe, wildlife management is about people. Animals are either resources or competitors with nothing in between.

I struggle to understand why people show such low regard for predators, but as much as I disagree with them, as much as I shudder at the thought of all the unspeakable ways they treat these important and amazing animals, unlike Mr. Snyder, I would not recommend that they be ignored. No matter how you cut it, it makes sense to listen to what people have to say and, when necessary, to change in light of it. We can do so much better than to follow the example of the Snyder and Albrechts of the world. The work of scientists and critically thinking people everywhere can help show us how to think objectively and thereby overcome the self-interested limitations of our own minds.

References

Steinbeck J (1995) The Log from the Sea of Cortez (Penguin edition). Penguin Books, New

York.

Livestock Predator Removal Amendment (House Natural Resources, Agriculture & Environment

Standing Committee) Bill 2020.

Maximilian Werner is an Associate Professor (Lecturer) of Writing and Rhetoric Studies at the University of Utah.  His most recent book Wolves, Grizzlies, and Greenhorns–Death and Coexistence in the American West will be published later this year. Reach him at mswerner@gmail.com and @ProfMWerner.  

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