Cotton: Returning wolves and grizzlies should be celebrated, not shot (column) | SummitDaily.com

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Cotton: Returning wolves and grizzlies should be celebrated, not shot (column)

The recent news that a beloved white wolf was shot — likely inside Yellowstone National Park — highlights the fact that even our most protected spaces are not always sanctuaries for rare wildlife.

Last year, just days after a court ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allowed politics to trump science when it refused to provide Endangered Species Act protections for wolverines, a rancher killed the first wolverine seen in North Dakota in 150 years. The wily traveling animal was the storied M56, who became Colorado's first confirmed wolverine in generations when he arrived from Wyoming in 2009. M56's death is emblematic of the tragic fate of many animals trying to reclaim lost habitats.

For wolves and wolverine, the risks of dispersing to former homelands are exceedingly high. You've likely heard of OR7, called "Journey," the wolf that traversed Oregon and became the first seen in California in 85 years. Upon returning to southern Oregon, he encountered a female fellow wanderer; their family is known today as the Rogue pack.

Unfortunately, Journey's story is the exception. Echo, the Grand Canyon wolf, was killed in Utah despite significant media attention to her presence. Again, she was the first confirmed wolf in the area in decades. Echo's story was all the more compelling because dispersing animals are rarely female.

Even though Echo weighed 50 pounds more than a coyote and wore a bright orange radio-collar, a hunter shot her, claiming he thought she was a coyote. The government declined to prosecute, notwithstanding Echo's protected status, citing its misguided "McKittrick Policy" under which wildlife killers are only charged when the feds can prove their intent to target a protected animal.

These are the well-known stories, but there are dozens more. Wolves are killed in Colorado, Kansas and Iowa; each time, they're the first seen there in human generations. Shot without any repercussion, with the government failing to enforce Endangered Species Act safeguards.

These intrepid animals' stories captivate the public. They have a larger-than-life presence in our minds and on the landscape. Perhaps they remind us of our own youth — how we felt setting out into the wide world to forge our path, seeking a new home, building a family.

Anthropomorphizing animals has its problems, but in many ways, we are not so different from Echo, Journey or M56. I've left my home in Oregon to work in wildlife conservation, first in Colorado, now in Montana. I, too, wander the West looking for the best berry patches, swimming holes and gorgeous mountain meadows. Sometimes I encounter a grizzly or wolf.

They pose far less of a threat to me than my species does to them.

These iconic animals are more than emblems of hope, renewal and recovery. They have key ecological and conservation roles to play. That is, if we don't shoot them first.

Even grizzlies aren't safe. Scarface, Yellowstone's most famous bear, was shot in 2015, when he wandered outside the Park's invisible boundary. And in the last two weeks of May, two grizzlies were illegally killed in Montana. The first died at the hands of a careless-at-best black bear hunter in an area where grizzlies hadn't lived for decades. The second was shot and its body dumped off a bridge. Scarface and the other two died despite federal protections.

If the Yellowstone ecoregion's grizzlies are stripped of protection, this nightmare will come true regularly, sanctioned by our government not just tacitly, but explicitly.

If we allow Montana, Idaho and Wyoming to permit grizzly trophy-hunting seasons, the strongest animals — the best chance to breathe new life into imperiled gene pools and re-establish connectivity among remaining isolated populations — will die in the echo of high-powered rifle shots.

As in the bygone Wild West, the old guard's prevailing attitude is to shoot first, ask questions later. But unlike 100 years ago, we now know how important carnivores are to healthy, thriving ecosystems. And we've learned that it's not too late to restore the balance we foolishly upset.

M56, Scarface and Echo lived extraordinary lives. They overcame seemingly insurmountable barriers, both natural and human-made: crossing mountain ranges and highways, traversing landscapes fragmented by suburban sprawl, fossil fuel development and an out-of-control public-lands road network. Humans have destroyed much of the natural connectivity between habitats, yet these animals persevered: resilience incarnate.

Far too many dispersing animals meet untimely deaths, victims of human carelessness at best, and at worst, of disproven anti-carnivore myths. We should learn more from their plight than just their individual extraordinary stories. The biggest impediment to the recovery of wolves, wolverines and grizzlies, and in turn to the benefits they bring back to the broken ecosystems on which we all depend, is us.

It's long past time we start showing respect to these incredible animals, lower our guns, raise our voices and welcome them home.

Bethany Cotton is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is wildlife program director for the nonprofit WildEarth Guardians and lives in Missoula, Montana.