It is unlikely that many minds were changed at the town hall meeting in Enterprise last week hosted by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The overwhelming majority of the 300 people who showed up for the three-hour session at Enterprise High School knew exactly where they stood on the issue of reintroducing wolves to Oregon - they were adamantly opposed to the idea.
I decided ahead of time that I was not going to voice my position on wolves in the face of such a large and hostile crowd. It did not seem like the time or place to admit that I am willing to at least consider the notion of allowing wolves to roam free in Hells Canyon and the Wallowa Mountains along with all the other critters who inhabit this little corner of the world. Besides, my job was to observe and report, not shoot off my mouth, which I know from previous experience is something I usually regret after the fact.
In some ways I identify with wolves - lonely, unpopular and misunderstood. They are beautiful animals and exceptional hunters who use teamwork to accomplish their goals. A few years ago I even bought one of Shelley Curtis's bronze sculpture of a lone wolf, which she entitled, "Lelupe Solitaire," and reverently placed it on one of my grandmother's tables where it quietly reminds me that we sometimes have to do what we do in life regardless of whether the people around us understand or even like it. In other words, sometimes we just have to go it alone.
When the wolf issue first came up several years ago I was surprised by the intensity of the opposition registered by my old friend Mack Birkmaier, a Wallowa County rancher whom I respect and admire, and other ranchers in this part of the state. Mack let me know he felt like I'd kicked him in the stomach by suggesting that if ranchers were talking about a wolf or two getting into their cows, then they must have already solved all of the major issues facing the cattle industry were down to sweating the small stuff. My reasoning went like this: There are no wolves in Oregon. Even if wolves are reintroduced, it will take years, maybe decades, for their populations to rebuild. In the meantime, how much damage could they do in the grand scheme of things? I considered Mack's fears overblown, that he and his cowboy buddies were "crying wolf" so to speak.
The light came on for me the other night when someone compared the wolf to the spotted owl. Then it was Deja Vu all over again. I flashed back to my days as the editor of an agricultural paper in the Midwest. That is where I was working when I first heard about the spotted owl and all the predictions of doom and gloom from people in the Pacific Northwest timber industry. At the time I put those dire predictions in the same category as Mack's concerns about wolves - isn't it just like the people back home to get all worked up about a warm and fuzzy little bird, I thought. How could an obscure owl possibly shut down the mighty timber industry and rid the woods of all those husky loggers in cork boots. Ridiculous! "My friends - and I love them to death - but my friends back home are "crying wolf," I explained to the folks in Ohio and Pennsylvania. "They're making a mountain out of a molehill." We had a good laugh over that one. Spotted owls? Yeah, right.
Twelve years later with two of three Wallowa County sawmills gone, many friends departed for the land of opportunity elsewhere, and the local economy in tatters ... the spotted owl is no longer a laughing matter.
Neither is the big, bad wolf.
The issue isn't so much the ability of the wolf to kill livestock, deer, elk or even, heaven forbid, people. The issue is how certain people will use the wolf like they used the spotted owl - to advance an environmental agenda that is contrary to the way we live in rural Oregon.
Now I get it, thanks to all those yahoos at the school the other night. Wolves aren't the problem. People who use wolves to hurt other people are the problem - still.
- Rick Swart, editor and publisher