Rocky Barker

Return of the Wolves:The Next Chapter

Rocky Barker Interviewer
Wolves2/KUED
 
Interviewer
How many stories have you written about wolves and why is this story so controversial?
 
Rocky Barker
Well I started covering this in 1985. It was not that controversial at that time because hunters really didn't care, but ranchers remembered that their granddaddies had killed off all of the wolves for a good reason, and they didn't like the idea of bringing them back. They were worried that it was going to dig into their profits, and it took… they were able to successfully, politically keep wolves out of here until I think it was 1994, '95, when they were brought back. And so I really got to watch, and I've written literally hundreds of stories about both before and since they were reintroduced.
 
Interviewer
And why is it so controversial?
 
Rocky Barker
It's deeper than any social, political, or value issue. Wolves have a hold on our psyche like no other animal, and that… people love them and they hate them. They have very strong feelings. There is very little middle ground.
 
Interviewer
How is wolf reintroduction viewed in Idaho?
 
Rocky Barker
You know when wolves were first brought in; there was pretty much a… there were more people who were supportive of wolves than against. That's not case today. I think today if you went out and you polled people, the majority would say if they could turn it around they wouldn't have any wolves, but I wouldn't say it's an overwhelming majority. There's a lot of people… there's more people in the middle about the issue of having wolves around than there is about the specifics of the vary issues like hunting and like the impact on ranching and things like that, but a lot of people in Idaho are glad we've got some wolves, but they want to have them managed. I would say that's the middle ground of wolf, if there is a middle ground on the issue.
 
Interviewer
Describe the governor's position. He stated he would be among the first to buy a hunting permit.
 
Rocky Barker
Governor Otter is, you know he's a country boy and he's a hunter, and he has grown up around ranchers this whole time, very much sees them as one of his primary constituencies, so he's never been… He thinks the reintroduction was a mistake. He has always been against it, but when he became governor he recognized that we had… they're already here and we've got to do something, so he became kind of a leader of that middle position from the rhetoric of you know, "We don't want these wolves, but if we got them, we've got to manage them." And so he has been that way, defending the state's rights to control wolves as hard as he could, and to a certain degree he has done a pretty good job on it actually, I think. He could have taken a much more rhetorical stand that was not leading us to a long-range position, and instead he went along with people he trusted at Fish and Game and we have a pretty good management system now, controversial as it is.
 
Interviewer
How is the federal government viewed on the issue of wolf management?
 
Rocky Barker**
Well one of the problems with reintroducing wolves the way that we did was that it wasn't OUR wolves. It was THEIR wolves. We could blame the whole wolf issue on somebody else, and the people they usually blame is the federal government, and nameless, faceless--a very popular straw man in Idaho for everything, and so I think most people have not been happy with it, but I think when you start talking to the ranchers who have actually had to deal with wolves, they will tell you that the federal government did a pretty good job for them.
 
Interviewer
How is delisting of wolves and the ensuing hunting season viewed by the people you report on?
 
Rocky Barker
The majority of the people are glad we've delisted wolves. They see it, frankly, as a success story on the one side, or you know a horror story on the other, but at least we've got control back, and so that has kind of, again, been this middle ground in an issue that has no middle ground. There are a lot of people though, particularly around Ketchum and some here in Boise, who just think that we should keep them under federal management and that we need more wolves, that we don't have enough. They believe that the current system where we're killing wolves, especially the number of wolves that were killed last year and we're even increasing that perhaps this year, really bothers a small but very vocal minority of Idahoans.
 
Interviewer
How many wolves were killed last year?
 
Rocky Barker
I knew you'd ask me a fact. I couldn't tell you the exact number, I'm sorry.
 
Interviewer
Tell me the story of the lost wolf pup brought to the Boise Zoo. What was the reaction to this pup? What happened to him?
 
Rocky Barker
This was a pup that was found by campers just outside of Ketchum, I mean right oh several miles west of some of the nicest most expensive homes in Idaho, on this road where it had been covered in snow, and so the wolves felt pretty comfortable walking on this road right after they'd had their pups, and as the snow melted and the road opened up, these people came across this young wolf, and they thought it was abandoned by it's parents. They weren't even sure… maybe it was a dog. So they took it back to Ketchum and Fish and Game working with the Nature Conservancy and I think it was the Defenders of Wildlife you know helped nurse it to health and took it and tried to determine if they could find the pack and take it home, but they couldn't, so then they brought it to Boise to the zoo. And it was really a popular… I mean this little guy really captured the hearts of a lot of people, not just here, but nationwide, and he was a cute little wild wolf and… So that got a lot of attention, and I think it also helped remind some people who were caught up in the politics of this that, you know wolves are animals and of course they look like dogs, and everybody likes dogs. So it was quite an interesting reaction in Idaho.
 
Interviewer
What happened to him?
 
Rocky Barker
He went to Virginia to a sanctuary where actually they had just taken in some more wolf cubs, wolf pups, so we had playmates, people to grow up with, and he's fine I hear.
 
Interviewer
How did you report, and what was the reaction to the wolf legally trapped by the U.S. Forest Service employee and was allegedly shot and wounded while still in the trap?
 
Rocky Barker
Well see that was exactly the opposite reaction. People were outraged, and it didn't matter whether you were a hunter or an animal lover. Seeing the picture of that live wolf with this smiling trapper behind him and blood all over the place in the snow really elicited a negative reaction, and I heard from many people, trappers included, who thought they just couldn't believe that somebody would take a picture like that.
 
Interviewer
How did you report on the rancher's point of view?
 
Rocky Barker
I didn't have any problem. You know I walk in both camps, that's the interesting thing. In 1995 I was the only reporter who was at both releases at the one here in Idaho at Corn Creek, and in Yellowstone a couple of months later when they let them out of the cages, the enclosures there, so I've spent a lot of time around the wolves, and the ranchers were at Corn Creek. There were a lot of ranchers who were actually there when they were doing the release, and they are and were just as fascinated as anybody else about this, you know this animal. I spent time staying overnight at ranches where they had had wolf attacks. I did a whole lot of following individual wolves, the lives, and the people that they often connected with were ranchers, both good and bad.
 
Interviewer
Is there any common ground between wolf defenders and those who oppose wolves?
 
Rocky Barker
Yes. I think as time goes on there's a lot of people who can agree that it's great to have some wolves again, that they do have some positive impacts in certain places on the ecosystem, and that we need to manage them. And I think there's a large growing… as time goes on and we get away from the fights over reintroduction, I think (and it's probably generational) I think you'll find people will find common ground around things like nonlethal control. You know there are a lot of ways… I know some old ranchers were are very convinced that nonlethal control is better than just going out and killing them because they have more control over the situation, and I think over time you'll see that. And I think it will be like zoning. We'll have places where we say that's ok for wolves to be, and places where they wont. It's going to be a continuing fight and a continuing… It's not going to be an easy thing, but time will cure that I think.
 
Interviewer
What do you see for the future of reporting on wolves and what do you think will happen in the future?
 
Rocky Barker
Well I think the first thing is the story is going to move from Idaho, already has, and I think it's actually moving west into Oregon and Washington and now into California, and so what will happen will be a whole new generation of reporters in other places will tell the same kind of a story. You know I started covering wolves back in Wisconsin in the 1970's when I lived back there, and you know that story has grown and changed, and they just delisted there. So I think you're going to see it as a continuing story of America. It's a story all over the world frankly, dealing with predators, and so reporters are going to gravitate in part because again, wolves have this hold on us as humans, and I think that it will always attract reporting interests.
 
Interviewer
Why are people fascinated with wolves and why do they love them?
 
Rocky Barker
Well I think they love wolves in part because it reminds them of man's best friend. I think a large number of people see these wild wolves running and they can't help but think about their pet, but I also think people love the… I mean wolves become a surrogate for all kinds of feelings among people. They're wild, and one of the kind of things that I really enjoyed as a reporter over the last 20 years is going out with people who manage wolves, biologists, and those people, you know they aren't looking at them in the same mythic way. They look at them pretty straightforwardly, but they just are admired. They admire the wild character of these animals. They are very interesting.
 
Interviewer
Why do people hate wolves?
 
Rocky Barker
Well they hate wolves because they take things they want. They're a competition. For hunters they're killing elk that hunters want to shoot themselves, and so they don't like that. It's pretty simple. And same with the ranchers. They don't like it because they are killing cattle that they make money on, and they can't get that money back for all the wolves they think are killing their cattle. It's not as hard to figure that out I don't think.
 
Interviewer
So after having reported on wolves all these years, what is your personal opinion on reintroduction?
 
Rocky Barker
Well I love wolves and I make no bones about it to my readers, but I think that we need to manage them. We reintroduced… nobody ever dreamed we would have the amount of wolves that we have today when they were reintroduced in 1995, and so I think we have to come to terms with the fact that if we're going to live with wolves, we're going to have to kill them. It is tied together to have wolves and humans in the same ecosystems and the same landscapes that we're going to have conflicts, and I can live with that. I grew up on a farm. I'm used to… you know death is a part of life, but it's very hard for a lot of people to accept that, and so I think that will always be a conflict in and of itself.
 
Interviewer
And why do you favor reintroduction? Why do you think it was a good thing?
 
Rocky Barker
Well I think it was a good thing because I don't think the wolves would have come back on their own except over a long period of time. I think it would have taken too long, and I wanted to have wolves in my life, so that's why I personally favor them, but I think that there was enough what we call, "shoot, shovel, and shut up" that was keeping the wolf population from growing, and so reintroduction was the only way we were going to do it, and I think it was success, but just because it's a success doesn't mean it's easy.

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