Gray wolves (Canis lupus) were once one of the most widespread species of land mammal, but by the 1930s had been virtually exterminated from the American West following a lengthy campaign of shooting, trapping, and poisoning in the interest of colonial settlement. Mid-century scientific and cultural re-valuation of these predators, however, resulted in several decades of federal investment in their conservation and return: wolves were one of the first species listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and Central Idaho in 1995 and 1996. Since then, wolves have made a remarkable recovery, returning to and transforming landscapes from which they have been absent for decades. Yet as they have increased in number and range, socio-political conflict with rural residents has reignited, particularly around predation as a threat to the survival of livestock production in the region.
I first came to the wolf question through a policy review on the reintroduction conducted during my Master’s studies. I quickly became aware of the polarization around this issue, and the fervent opposition that far exceeded the material impacts of wolves themselves. And while wolves are perhaps the most written-on wildlife species, no one seemed to have a good handle on the socio-political aspects of the conflict.
My academic training has focused on environmental conflicts from a broad-based, theoretically eclectic, interdisciplinary approach — joining together social and natural sciences toward the better comprehension of these complex and durable “wicked problems.” My Bachelor’s thesis explored the history and political economy of a tribal water rights settlement in Arizona, while my Master’s dissertation was concerned with the shifting practices of bioprospecting, seed banking, and plant germplasm governance. Looking at wolves allowed me to weave back into my work a long-standing interest in megafauna and conservation, dating back to my days reading ZooBooks and visiting the California Academy of Sciences as a child.
The more I investigated, the more things expanded beyond the animal itself. While the wolf question is the most historically deep-rooted and emblematic case of human-wildlife conflict — an increasingly prominent concern for managers and conservationists around the world — they also serve as a battleground for questions of urban-rural political divides and regional economic transition. In the “New West,” in which ranching and extractive industries have declined in dominance vis-à-vis competing land uses (exurban development, recreation), calls for the return of native predators and the “needs of nature” are often read as outsider threats to “traditional” livelihoods.
Although Idaho was one of two wolf reintroduction sites in the mid-1990s, its story has been almost entirely ignored by scholarship, even as it presents a starker case of coexistence in working landscapes — much more akin than Yellowstone National Park to those places like California and Colorado to which wolf populations continue to expand. When I learned of the Wood River Wolf Project (WRWP) — a collaboration between sheep producers, environmental organizations, and government agency representatives in Blaine County, Idaho, that has pursued wolf-livestock coexistence through deployment of nonlethal deterrents for over a decade — I knew I had my research case.
Between 2015 and 2017, I conducted ethnographic and archival research in Blaine County and the surrounding region, focusing on the geographical context and historical conjuncture from which the WRWP emerged, as well as the practices and discourses of stakeholders, who rendered and contested wolves as objects of concern. Research involved participant observation with sheep producers (including helping herd sheep across roads and into trucks), over 30 semi-structured interviews with actors from environmental organizations, state agencies, and industry; and historical investigations in collaboration with the Regional History Department of the Community Library in Ketchum, Idaho.
As a critical human geographer, I try to be attentive to the specificities of place, the importance of history, and to my own positionality as a researcher. I present as a white cisgender man, and I am well-aware of the problematic history of extractive research, with people who look like me speaking for those who don’t. In choosing my dissertation topic, I hoped to find a project that took advantage of my background while reducing these fraught dynamics.
I grew up traveling around rural California and the West, and have worked with both environmental activists and government agencies. I was thus able to usefully relate to people on all sides of this issue, even when we disagreed. Still, Idaho is a very different place from California, and while my fieldsite was less than a 12-hour drive from my home in Oakland, there is something about the process of fieldwork that produces a feeling of isolation and alienation. Research often felt like exile — heightened, no doubt, by living for a time in a yurt with no internet or phone access. I felt like an outsider, even as the people I met spoke the same language I did and had connections to places I knew. Worst, the themes of my research brought out emotional responses in my subjects, and while I was rarely on the receiving end of such passions, I was subject to the splashback of their ire.
Anti-wolf hostility is about about more than just an agricultural pest. As wolves expand their range beyond the Intermountain West — and as animals infringe upon formerly “human spaces,” whether due to sprawling development or migration in response to climate change — understanding the Idaho experience might help us mitigate human-wildlife conflict in multiple-use working landscapes, and pursue lived coexistence amid opposition.
The wolf question has always been about belonging. Today, it is a question of regional futures: which species, social groups, and relations with the environment will continue, and who decides? In the context of once-again newsworthy conflicts over public lands, and the continuing significance of cultural and economic anxieties across rural counties, I hope my research will inform larger political concerns over how progressives, environmentalists, and policymakers understand and relate to those who bear the costs and consequences of economic transition and conservation.
Jeff Martin is a PhD candidate in Geography whose research focuses on human-environment relations, particularly questions of wildlife, land, and political economy. Other interests include complexity and scientific method, artwork and speculative fiction, cooking and bartending, and radical politics and strategy.