When the Defenders of Wildlife began a campaign to reintroduce the wolf into Yellowstone National Park after 70 years, the group expected considerable controversy. Ranchers in Montana not only regard the wolf as a predator whose favorite food is cattle tartare but also have a distinct mistrust of environmentalists. "The only common ground ranchers and environmentalists have," says Hank Fischer, the Defenders' representative in the northern Rockies, "is the dirt they throw at each other."
But rather than fight it out in the courts or in federal regulatory agencies, the Defenders of Wildlife has set up an insurance program to pay cattle ranchers when wolves kill their cattle. Any rancher whose land is in designated areas of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana where Defenders wants the wolf to be reintroduced, and who can prove that wolves killed his livestock, will be reimbursed by the Defenders of Wildlife for his losses. Defenders is also teaching ranchers techniques to reduce the threat wolves may cause, such as using guard dogs to protect cattle herds.
Wolves, Fischer explains, do not in fact kill very many cattle. In two years, Defenders has only had to pay compensation twice. Fischer expects that, over a 30-year period, the group will need $100,000 for its compensation program; so far, members have contributed $50,000 by buying posters and notecards. Singer James Taylor has also performed two benefit concerts for the wolf insurance fund.
Ironically, Fischer hopes to find a government agency to administer the program. Ranchers, he explains, find it easier to take federal checks than to accept reimbursement from Defenders of Wildlife directly. While it is a considerable expense, Fischer believes that in the long run the insurance program will cost less than lobbying for more regulations against ranchers. "It's a lot cheaper to pay for livestock losses than paying for a lobbyist," Fischer says.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Will the Wolf Survive?".