Peter Pringle's America: Wolf howls from the Hill

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The Independent Online
CRY 'Wolf]' in this forest wilderness near the Canadian border and you could get a bullet in your back.

Efforts by wildlife activists to bring back the timber wolf to the Adirondack Mountains of New York State, after an absence of nearly a century, have brought death threats from hunters, who refuse to share their white-tailed deer with any other predator, least of all the big bad wolf.

The other evening, the organiser of the wolf campaign, Scott Thiele, a friendly soul who wouldn't harm an ant, found this message on his telephone answering machine: 'I'll kill all the wolves, then I'll kill you. I mean every word of it, you bastard.'

Before the wolf makes it comeback, many government hurdles, and one non-government problem, must be overcome. People think that wolves eat people. Mr Thiele's Adirondack Wolf Project at this stage is mostly a public education programme, in preparation for the possible reintroduction of a few hundred wolves in some 6 million acres - the largest state park in the Union.

His pitch is that the mythic creature is not as evil as the old stories say, or parents with small children fear. Wolves don't eat grandmothers, he says, and there is no recorded case of a healthy wolf attacking a healthy human in all of North America. Ranchers are worried about their livestock, but Mr Thiele says it is rare for wolves to attack healthy sheep and calves, unless the wolves are very hungry. And with so few wolves proposed, they would have plenty of deer, moose and beaver to eat without bothering domestic herds.

Such talk makes the hunters mad and trigger-happy. They attend Mr Thiele's meetings to shout him down. Bringing back the wolves, they say, would be like bringing back smallpox. Children, as well as animals, would die. They vow to eliminate any new wolk packs, just as their forebears killed off the old ones.

As always, however, the record is more interesting than the rhetoric. It shows that the timber wolf disappeared from the north-eastern states not because of hunters on a killing spree, or, out West, by ranchers protecting their livestock, but because of a concerted effort by the government to exterminate the animal on the grounds that it was a potential pest and of no economic value.

In 1907, the government ran a nationwide campaign to kill wolves, offering bounties for their pelts and placing special emphasis on killing cubs in their dens. Government officers killed more than 1,800 wolves and 23,000 coyotes in 39 national forests throughout the Union. The last pelt brought in for bounty money in the Adirondacks was in 1899.

In the face of much opposition from ranchers, the government has already begun to reintroduce the wolf. Last month the Clinton administration approved a plan to let loose 30 grey wolves in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho, but there is a hitch: the wolves will not be considered endangered species, as they have been until now, and can therefore be hunted.

Meanwhile, the hunter's friends in the Congress and the gun lobby led by the National Rifle Association have been seeking other ways to curb the animal activists' activities. They are trying to sneak a bill through Congress that would make it illegal for Mr Thiele and others to demonstrate, shout slogans or even make 'harassing' speeches against the hunting of wolves or any other wild creature.

The so-called Recreational Hunting, Safety and Preservation Bill has a grand title and some outrageously broad powers. If passed by Congress, the act would make it unlawful knowingly to 'obstruct, impede or otherwise interfere with' hunting on federal or private property.

The proposed law is so intrusive that if hunters heard that an environmental or animal rights group was planning a protest, they could apply for a court order to stop the demonstration. Animal rights lawyers have complained that this prior-restraint clause interferes with a person's freedom of speech and violates the First Amendment.

Even so, the bill sailed through the Senate, courtesy of a group of hunter-politicians called the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus, which includes 33 of the 100 senators. Showing no respect for the Constitution, these representatives of the people did not raise a murmur, let alone a howl, over the bill, which is currently stuck in committee.

The story illustrates the continuing power of hunters and their pals on Capitol Hill. It also shows that when brave people such as Scott Thiele dare to interfere with America's 'hunting paradise' - which in the Adirondacks can mean sitting on the porch and picking off a grazing buck at 50 paces - those lobbies wheel out the big guns.

Arguments about ecological heritage, wolves symbolising the 'call of the wild' and the mystique of the West come down to the facts of pot-bellied men with a beer in one hand and a rifle in the other, who like to kill animals that cannot defend themselves.

In the vastness of the Adirondack state park, with its 9,375 square miles of pine, spruce, birch and maple, a 30-strong wolf pack would seem to present no bother to anyone except the occasional ageing deer or beaver. But then, they shoot wolves, don't they?