Just a few weeks ago (February, 2022), a US District court re-listed the gray wolf as a federally endangered species. This pertains to wolves in the lower 48 states, except the northern Rocky Mountain region. I don’t know about your newsfeed, but this transpired with seemingly far less fanfare than the October 2020 announcement that the US Fish & Wildlife would remove the wolf from the Federal Endangered Species list. Particularly since this latter event triggered the opening of a wolf hunt season in Wisconsin in February 2021.

The Wisconsin wolf hunt, which culled over 200 wolves in less than three days, made national news. It was controversial. People we upset – or elated.

To better understand the strong feelings surrounding this story, I first took a closer look at the recent history of federal protection for wolves.

What’s not shown here is the complexity of the many federal and circuit court rulings, US and differing state Fish & Wildlife department resolutions, not to mention varied treatment of Southwest versus Rocky Mountain versus Great Lakes wolf populations. (More info on the timeline of wolf protection is available from Earth Justice and the International Wolf Center.)

This back and forth seems indicative of the mixed – and often strong and opposing – opinions on wolves and their management.

Interestingly, this scenario of wolf-human conflict was the topic of research conducted by three Norwegian social scientists in 2017. They wrote at length about the social dynamics between and among community members and the conflicts surrounding wolf management, hunting, and preservation. Their perspective – which can easily be applied to the situation in Wisconsin – includes the notion that “all ideas about nature, including scientific ideas, derive from human thought processes, which never take place in a vacuum but rather in a particular social context.”

That is to say, opinions about wolves are constructed by diverse people and these opinions vary depending on each person’s experience and the community context within which they function. People’s opinions, interpretations, and understandings about wolves are created through social interactions.

The perception of “community” (and who is considered included in any given community) is, the researchers contend, important to the wolf story. Understanding community boundaries, the potential of a community’s unifying force, and the symbols that people use to signify their membership within the community are critical. However, even within a community that shares certain characteristics (i.e. geography, norms, beliefs), there is still great diversity in economic, social, and cultural standards. A seemingly unified “community” may have actors within that do not agree on various aspects of wolf management.

Additionally, the ways in which “knowledge” is built, interpreted, conveyed, and manipulated (and how these differences can cause conflict) is also important. The researchers documented how conflicts over issues such as wolves and wolf management are really “conflicts over what to consider valid knowledge.” In Norway, issues such as wolf population size, tracking, and behavior are interpreted, understood, and believed differently by the various “community members,” including hunters, land managers, biologists, and wolf enthusiasts.

In many cases, hunters’ and outdoor enthusiasts’ knowledge is disregarded by scientists, while scientists’ ways of conducting research and wolf surveys is distrusted by local people. Whose knowledge is “correct” is further exacerbated by notions of power dynamics and hegemony. Does it seem likely that the same scenario is playing out in Wisconsin? After all, six Ojibwe tribes sued the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) over wolf-hunting quotas.

Knowledge-building and determining whose knowledge is to be used for decision-making is tricky business. With so many different “community members” involved, how do we determine whose knowledge is “correct”?

A second wolf hunt (which was slated for the fall of 2021) was paused by court order and then rendered moot by the federal re-listing of federal protection this year. But in the months leading up to the scheduled hunt, the debate raged on. Should citizens’ will sway the decision? The tribal nations? The DNR? Lawmakers in urban settings, or landowners who live near wolves? Which community member has the right to determine the fate of wolves?

One has to wonder, will the story be considered a “conflict” and again make headlines if and when wolves are de-listed in the future?

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