MSU Dept. of English.
“Wolves, Wildlife and Politics”
Hannah Community Center
East Lansing, Michigan
March 22, 2012
Despite the focus of this evening and series, I need to tell you that I don’t write books about issues. I write about characters, who live in a certain cultural/geographic context, which gives rise to situations and various issues that then come to bear on the characters. Issues are only strands of the fabric from which the story gets woven.
The ways of journalism I learned here at MSU have served me well as a novelist.
We were taught to strive for objectivity and to keep ourselves, our opinions and prejudices, out of news. I suspect that train has left the station as US journalism has dived closer to the world’s political news model with a yellow tinge – just as it was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Journalism of 1961-65 tried to teach us: how to create and nurture a beat; how to find and protect a source; how to listen for a good quote, which starts us down the road of effective hearing, that is, how to hear not just what people actually say, but how they say it. (Not to mention what the sources are not saying publicly.) I learned how to do background research here, and how to get involved closely in a story and keep my eyes and ears open. It even taught me to listen carefully to dialogue and to hear the rhythms of language of place and class. Journalism training instilled all this in me, and more and what I took away from here 47 years ago will always be treasured.
Most of all, we were taught to go get the story. Rick Bragg addresses this in Brown Dog of the Yaak. He wrote: “I think most readers want to see writers, artists charge hard, or move powerfully or gracefully, out of this world — but then turn and come back to some anchor in that art, whether it’s a physical place, or an emotion, or both.”
When you do this as a writer you sometimes hear something like I once heard from an old, but reformed violator. He told me, “If there’s a lot, take a lot. If there’s just a few, take ‘em all.” You would never hear this sitting at your desk. It’s like Captain Kirk at the end of one of the movies telling his helmsman to “Take ‘er out there, thataway.”
I have been an author since 1985, and over the course of almost three decades my reputation has soared from internationally unknown to regionally obscure. I am by one person’s estimate, the Poet Laureate of Groundlings and the I-Don’t-Read-So-Muchies. My fans are far more likely to borrow my books from the library than to buy them. Or one person will buy a copy, then pass it around to 30 or 40 other folks. People frequently tell me that while they don’t read much, but they have read all of my books. If true, this is probably a good thing.
Our being here tonight is propitious, the gray wolf having recently been delisted from endangered species status in Michigan. My view on wolves is that they belong in the state, and that our MDNRE should have the power to control problem animals, as they do other creatures. Conservation should never be about popular opinion measure by superficial polls, or citizens voting on such issues, but about science, in full recognition that scientists will be quick to admit they don’t have all the answers. We either manage our resources scientifically or politically. The two don’t mix well. Nitty-gritty conservation issues should not be decided by voters at large. I take issue with citizens who spend a few weeks in the woods each year and dare tell wildlife biologists how to do their jobs, criticizing them loudly when biologists do something different than the self-appointed experts want.
I write in my Woods Copy series about law enforcement men and women called conservation officers. My stories move all around the state, but focus on the life of one officer in the Upper Peninsula, that place Old Curmudgeon Jim Harrison once characterized as a “wilderness by default.”
The terroir of the UP is always a character in my stories because the weather and terrain up there effect every aspect of life for every individual who lives there, a place where you must stay involved and pay attention. Above the bridge you have to live life, not let life live you. To reflect this sentiment I wrote in the U.P. poem, called, “90 Miles from The Walmart: “We burn time here, unlike below the bridge, where the reverse obtains.”
Over the past decade I’ve been on 300 – 400 patrols with conservation officers from around the state. I’m approaching a full year of time in CO trucks. These patrols have lasted from four hours to 17 hours, night and day, in vehicles and on foot, in all kinds of weather, over all kinds of terrain, involving all kinds of cases, from arson and drunk drivers to search and rescue, suicides, robberies and break-ins, assaults and escaped felons, not counting all the fish and wildlife matters that take most of a CO’s time. I love this work in part because our state’s officers are every bit as professional and dedicated as the aircrews I flew with in the USAF in the late sixties in a considerably warmer part of the world. Our COs are carefully selected, continuously and rigorously trained, and they have exceptional people skills.
Of 5,000 candidates in the state civil service pool, three or four will eventually make it to duty as conservation officers. Were I to apply, I’d never make the cut.
Conservation Officers are fully commissioned peace officers empowered to enforce all the laws of the land. Some are also federal deputies, which enables them to pursue across borders. COs work with city cops, county sheriffs, the Michigan State Police, US Fish & Wildlife, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, US Forest Service law enforcement, the Secret Service, Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Immigration, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the FBI.
So why choose a conservation officer for a main character in for my stories?
I found the work interesting, and that little fiction had been done on the subject until C.J.Box and I came along at about the same moment. His stories are set in Wyoming, mine largely here.
The notion of outdoors, it seems to me, is important for many reasons, not the least being a huge philosophical shift in human values that has happened over the past century or so: This is the massive flip-flop from conceiving of wilderness as a dark and foreboding mythic terra nullius harboring monsters and death, to something apart and beautiful that somehow helps us define what it is to be human. The result of this philosophical shift is, that rather than conquer, subdue or eliminate the wild ( as was the push throughout most recorded history) we now seek to preserve and protect.
At this time in the U.S. conservation and natural resources are subjects of widespread and increasing social interest, from a number of angles, and wilderness and wildness are part of the overall picture. Soon there will be a reality show about COs in Maine, and another set in Western Canada.
If one is interested in conservation and the UP, who better to show us than a DNR officer whose life is intertwined 24-7 with the outdoors?
The shift in public value of wilderness and wildness seems to me a major one that hasn’t gotten a great deal of serious academic attention. I mention this because the status of wilderness bears directly on wolves, which were not so long ago relentlessly pursued with a goal of eternal obliteration. Over the ages, mankind declared war on wolves, sometimes driven by churches and religions. Wolf dens were destroyed relentlessly, whole litters killed. The animals were trapped, snared, poisoned, shot from aircraft — killed in every conceivable way, and revulsion for the animals was common in this state, even when I was in high school in the UP, fifty one years ago.
People tend to be for or against wolves. Part of the formula seems to involve a latent level of anti-government, anti-establishment feeling, wherein nothing the government does can be right. Our current political campaigns are filled with such rhetoric and thinking. And it is common thinking in parts of the UP (and other rural parts of our state).
I once explained to my pal God how Americans could say and mean that they love their country yet hate their government, and he didn’t believe me. After trout fishing one night, we went into a bar, and ordered our dinner. I stepped to the bar and ignited a group tirade down the precise lines I had told him about. He was astonished. Still is, I think.
The anti-wolf view still lingers, more widely than one might assume. “I-can-see-Russia-From-Here Sarah Palin, then governor of Alaska, was reportedly “unenthusiastic” about a law to prevent killing wolves from aircraft, whinging to the media, wolf killing is, “an All-American sport, and a way of life in Alaska.”
Killing them certainly was a long-time business in the Lower 48 and here in Michigan as well, with bounties employed to eliminate several species.
Back in the late 19th century a North Dakota “wolfologist” by the name of Frank Corbin claimed wolves multiplied at the rate of 600-800 percent per year. Corbin claimed to have killed 400 wolves within seven miles of his house, and 1,100 over nine years, by digging dens to encourage females to use them, then catching the pups on fishing hooks, killing them, and “bountying” the pups while leaving his adult brood stock in place to breed more bounty producers. True? Who knows. The status of wolves in Corbin’s day was below that of rats, and there remains today a small, largely secretive group of people of indeterminate size who continue to think this way.
Go to the U.P. and you’ll see various bumper stickers and signs: “Shoot, Shovel, and Shut Up. “
Or “So Many Wolves, so Few Recipes.”
And “Support Wolves: Smoke One Pack a Day.”
One can never underestimate human creativity in finding ways to manipulate situations to their own purpose. Corbin went around with wolf scalps attached to his coat – to advertise his prowess.
Enmity for wolves seems to have grown out of myth, based largely on lack of actual knowledge, and driven in part by organized and primitive religions. How we have historically thought about wolves no doubt also grew out of faulty inductive reasoning: generalizing from specifics. For example, experienced outdoorsmen might tell you that scavengers won’t touch a dead wolf carcass. I have also been told (and read) that dogs and grizzly bears, both of which will eat just about anything, will refuse wolf meat. Microflora will of course destroy a wolf carcass, but nothing else.
So where might that observation lead to in terms of man’s concept of wolves? Both Bible and Quiran mention wolves only negatively and the wolf has been used metaphorically for eons to describe general and specific evils. I’ve seen several wolf carcasses and if they’ve been out a while, they show up as desiccated lumps of fur, guts and blood gone, even the bones untouched by calcium-seeking porcupines. What sort of conclusions were drawn by people seeing such sights?
Some Native American groups concluded that, of all of the great spirit’s things and creatures, only the wolf lacked a manitu or soul, and therefore was deserving of little respect. Our state’s native American tribe, the Ojibwe (Anishnaabe), interpreted wolves differently. Their belief taught that all other animals were created in pairs, but the wolf was the last animal created, and it was created alone. Under this belief system, the wolf was supposed to “walk the earth with man as a partner.” Now think about how Europeans attempted to eliminate Native Americans, and parallel that with how those same Europeans treated wolves, right into modern times. Interesting parallel. For white folks: Indians and wolves, perhaps same-same? Not being facetious here.
I have tried to paint wolves accurately, and not to anthropomorphize them – yet there is no denying they are smart, attractive, curious, social, family-oriented creatures that have managed to persist despite the onslaught of human loathing and firepower.
I like having wolves back in our state: They were here when we arrived (and I mean Native Americans in this instance), and wolves deserve to have their place here now.
I tend to be pretty hard on hunters in my books because of all the nonsense and shenanigans I’ve seen when I’m out with conservation officers. But I fully support hunting, have no philosophical problem with hunters who follow the rules. I don’t even object to Hundred-Yarders, those clueless individuals who plop their pop-up blinds within 100 yards of their trucks so they won’t get lost, or can get out fast when fear overcomes them, as it often does.
I saw my first wolf tracks in Idaho near Hoodoo Lake in 1962, saw my first gray wolf in Michigan on the Fox River Road north of Seney in 1998, had my closest experience with a wolf around 2004 on the Iron River, and heard my first wolf calls last summer in Luce County. Since 1998 I’ve seen approximately twenty of the animals, tracked one that had been poached in Iron County, and helped find another that died of natural causes, also in Iron County.
I’ve seen live wolves in Iron, Dickinson, Delta, Mackinac, Luce, and Keweenaw Counties. I’ve also seen several wolf carcasses.
Despite dozens of calls from citizens of a dead wolf on the side of such-and-such a road, investigation revealed the following: coyotes, miscellaneous dogs, cats, foxes, a badger, a raccoon, and two bear cubs. But not one wolf since I started doing ride-alongs with COs in 2001. Not one, which might suggest a lot of wolf reports in whatever context are better kept in the questionable column. Familiarity may breed contempt. It surely breeds an illusion of knowledge. And the illusion of knowledge sometimes breeds panic and cluelessness.
Wolf Expert Dave Mech once reported he had, over 35 years in the field, had only 15 encounters with wolves without the aid of radio collars or aircraft.
Wolves sing a song of determination and resolve.
So I will close by saying that if you are fortunate enough to see a wolf, count yourself very very lucky.
The Endangered Species Act of 1973 was a positive step for wildlife preservation.
But some species like wolves tend to polarize opinions and when this happens pro-wolf groups try to act in behalf of the animals, but often end up causing largely deleterious effects.
As I said at the outset. I prefer to let science and those who know the science steer the wildlife ship, and keep politics out of it.