As I am falling asleep in my room back home, I occasionally hear the wolves howling on the other side of our lake. I know these mournful cries belong to the wolves because, unlike coyotes, their notes are sustained across a single legato wail.

There is something eerie and thrilling about the wolf calls: a part of me wants to jump out of bed, pull on snowpants, and trek across the ice with a flashlight in hand. I have never actually seen a wolf in the wild, even though they are so tantalizingly close to my home. For me, these illusive creatures remain as mysterious as their night sounds.

The wolves are not so furtive to the biologists and researchers who study them. I recently had the opportunity to speak with three people who have carefully followed the livelihoods of local wolf packs and documented the environmental significances of such populations. Through my conversations with these three wolf-enthusiasts, I find myself feeling more connected to the wolves across the lake. In addition to learning about wildlife management and the important role that wolves play in both our society and environment, I have gained newfound respect for these environmentalists who dedicate their work to initiating change – whether that be changing public perceptions of wolves or changing the policies that help mediate wildlife conflict.

As a preface to this essay, I would like to note my choice of using the word “environmentalist” as opposed to “activist.” Interestingly, two of the people I interviewed were adamant that they not be considered environmental activists. Dr. Dave MacFarland of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WiDNR) Carnivore Research department identified himself as an “agency employee” whose “role is to implement and develop policy,” whereas “traditional activists work within groups to choose issues and effect change through membership.” David Ruid, a U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspector (USDA-APHIS) Wildlife Specialist, expressed similar sentiments toward self-proclaimed activists: “I am not an extremist, which is a typical characteristic of environmental activists. I use sound science and empirical data to drive my decision-making process.” I was surprised to hear that these two wildlife professionals would be so eager to distance themselves from the label of environmental activism; I would argue that they are both somewhat misguided in their beliefs about how activism really works. Granted, there are some extremist groups, but this does not necessarily mean that all environmental activists should be identified as fanatic radicals, and this certainly does not indicate that activists do not rely on “sound science and empirical data.” Furthermore, many environmental groups do seek to implement or develop legal policy; just because they are not employed by the government, does that mean that they are not official or justified in their actions? Even my third interviewee, Professor Jan Dizard, who did consider himself an activist, made sure to say that he does not “carry signs around, on the street.” While protesting with signs can definitely be a form of activism, it seems as if there is this stigma or stereotype that shrouds the true meaning of activism.

My brief rant aside, I nonetheless gained valuable insight into the complexities of wildlife management and environmental conservation during each of my interviews. With respect to wolves, I learned that due to their reputation as a high-profile species, wolves have a particularly sensitive ecological, cultural, and political role. Dr. MacFarland put it especially well:

…Conflict with wolves is often a proxy for other issues in this country, and I see this in my work everyday. [Some people] see wolves as a symbol of the natural wilderness and environmental pristineness, and on the other side, [there are people] who see wolf management as an opportunity for government invasion. Thus, wolves represent ideological shifts throughout our political culture.

    Understanding the sociological role of wolves is fascinating, and I could tell that each of the people I interviewed had long ago realized that working with the environment really translates into working with people. When asked about the hardest part of his work, Dr. MacFarland responded, “The people! …Wildlife management itself is… fairly predictable. I would say that I spend about 10% of my time on the ecology of wolf management and 90% on dealing with citizens.” Mr. Ruid also touched on the difficulties of wolf preservation in light of differing public opinions: “Large carnivore conservation is about finding the middle ground between user groups. You cannot hope to achieve everything you think is correct. You will have to make compromises and facilitate the viewpoints of others.” Thus, in preserving wolf populations, we also highlight important divisions within our communities that, in turn, affect the kinds of environmental policies that can be realistically enacted. Dr. MacFarland points out:

The real challenge… is that people oftentimes have very divergent views of what should be occurring. It is a huge challenge to create policy that has broad public support. With respect to wolves, there are a number of people who want to see the population under control, and they would like to use recreational hunting methods to accomplish that. Then there are people who think that the current wolf population is too small to occupy their proper niche…

Such disagreement over how policy should proceed while still appeasing a majority of a group’s constituents is not unique to the wolf situation. I learned that broader environmental movements can also get stuck in the decision-making process. Prof. Dizard told me about a decision to thin the deer herd in Belchertown, MA in the late 1980s, for example. He said, “All hell broke loose. Animal rights activists began to scream bloody murder, critics of logging were up in arms, hunters wanted to shoot.” Prof. Dizard pointed out that while everyone agreed that something had to be done about the overpopulation of deer, actually solving the problem proved to be the most challenging step. This notion struck me: perhaps the easy part of activism is identifying a problem and deciding that change needs to occur. Figuring out a strategy that satisfies the views of a diverse constituency, however, seems to be the real difficulty that a movement has to deal with.

In addition to addressing the “people politics” involved in environmental work, another thing that all interviewees agreed upon was that we, as human beings, are obligated to protect and preserve wildlife. Prof. Dizard put it best:

…[We] have tinkered with nature so massively, and across such broad scales, that we have a responsibility to not simply leave it alone – it’s too late for that, though there are patches [of the Earth] where we should certainly leave things alone – but in terms of general policy, to educate the population about the necessity to carefully manage [wildlife] is a really hard sale…

As Prof. Dizard stressed, education is a key element in any environmental movement. There are entire sections of environmental groups that are solely devoted to raising public awareness and disseminating information. Mr. Ruid’s job, in fact, is to do just that:

I present science-based, objective data to numerous user groups that both focus on the positive impacts, such as biodiversity, and the negative impacts, such as predation of domestic animals, and hope that my information will allow others to make an informed decision on wolves and possible wolf management policies.

Clearly, there is something to be said about how crucial education is to the successful advancement of any movement or organization. I think that spreading the word not only helps mobilize people into a concerted effort, but it also lends credibility toward the movement as an authoritative figure itself.

As I previously mentioned, strictly speaking, the majority of the people I interviewed did not identify themselves as environmental activists, but that does not mean that I cannot apply the underlying themes of their work to real environmental movements, such as grassroots organizations that aim to conserve wolf populations. Through my conversations, I have been able to glimpse a few of the intricacies involved in any kind of environmental work. Oftentimes there are no easy solutions, and there are no easy ways to initiate change. However, we can develop policies that support both human and wildlife populations, such as through compensation programs, reducing potential situations of conflict, and even just educating people. Imagine how all of these things will now occupy my thoughts the next time I hear the wolves howl across the lake!