Updating Roosevelt: Teddy and the Wolves

By Bob Ferris
 
I have frequently observed that some of the folks who wrap themselves most tightly in the American flag are those who take some of the most un-American actions.  I think the same is true about those Teddy-Roosevelt-Was-the-Toughest-Person-Everwho worship Teddy Roosevelt without really understanding historical context, what he actually stood for, and why he was so remarkable (please see) .
 
"The wolf is the arch type of ravin, the beast of waste and desolation. It is still found scattered thinly throughout all the wilder portions of the United States, but has everywhere retreated from the advance of civilization." from "Hunting the Grisly and Other Sketches" by Theodore Roosevelt  originally published in this form in 1902 
 
Don Peay Jeff Foxworthy Ted B. LyonThis applies particularly to trophy hunters who are attracted to Teddy because of his fabled hunts and his less than loving comments about wolves. A perfect example of this phenomenon happened in 2012 when the Western Hunting and Conservation Expo presented Teddy Roosevelt Conservationist of the Year awards to Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife founder Don Peay (left), Texas personal injury lawyer and anti-wolf fabulist Ted B. Lyon (middle), and comedian Jeff Foxworthy (right).  Mr. Peay’s group organized the event so he was basically giving himself an award and the other two’s conservation accomplishments consist mainly of making public and notorious statements about the dangers of wolf recovery.   
 
And there are those in the environmental and conservation arena who have trouble embracing the former President fully for exactly the same reasons.  I wrestle constantly with both sides of this coin and feel that there are reasons that I should not have to justify my respect for Roosevelt to either side.  
 
In my mind, Roosevelt was a catalyst, convener and glue for the early conservation movement in the United States.   We would not even be having an opportunity to have debates about the management of old growth stands in the 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest had Teddy not side-stepped Congress with multiple executive orders.
 
The same is true about discussions and arguments about federal wildlife refuge use and access—without him we probably would not have the refuge system as it now exists.  So I embrace Teddy, but I do so by looking at his conservation accomplishments and then imagining how his character and actions would have been modified by current scientific understanding and contemporary conditions. Through this artificial lens Teddy comes out pretty well, but I wondered how others felt about Roosevelt’s legacy—particularly as it applies to wolves—and how his considerable legacy worked in their own interpretation of his current relevance and value.  So I asked.
 
Here is how a broad list of folks responded to my request:
 
Douglas Brinkley (voice mail)
 
 

DOUGLAS BERINKLEY

In his voicemail Dr. Brinkley referenced his book on Roosevelt (see below) as well as his book on Alaskan conservation called “The Quiet World: Saving Alaska's Wilderness Kingdom, 1879-1960” A photograph of the letter written to Aldo Leopold and the text appears below and he also mentions William Temple Hornaday who was responsible in part for saving the American bison from extinction.   

 

 

 

Leopold letter from Teddy Roosevelt

Text from body of Leopold letter:
 
My dear Mr. Leopold:
 
Through you, I wish to congratulate the Albuquerque Game Protective Association on what it is doing.  I have just read the Pine Cone.  I think that your platform is simply capital, and I earnestly hope that you will get the right type of game warden.  It seems to me that your association in New Mexico is setting an example to the whole country.
 
Sincerely yours,
 
Theodore Roosevelt
 
Douglas Brinkley is a renowned historian and award-winning author who wrote a masterful tome about Teddy Roosevelt called “The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America.” Dr. Brinkley is currently a Professor of History at Rice University and a Fellow at the James Baker III Institute of Public Policy.  While a professor at Hofstra University, Dr. Brinkley took his students on numerous cross-country treks where they visited historic sites and met seminal figures in politics and literature this is documented in Dr. Brinkley's 1994 book, "The Majic Bus: An American Odyssey." 
 
Reed Noss
 
Noss-295x420It is easy to condemn past figures for statements they made that sound highly prejudiced today. Teddy Roosevelt was a smart man, one of the very few presidents of the United States who knew much of anything about science (the primary other one being Thomas Jefferson). Yet Roosevelt clearly displayed the predator prejudice that was virtually universal in his time. I believe that, had he lived a decade or two longer (he died in 1919) he would have joined the many other scientists who changed their views about predators almost completely between the 1910s and the late 1920s and early 1930s. Aldo Leopold, and his story about watching the green fire die in the eyes of a wolf he had shot, is the most famous of the scientists who underwent this powerful transformation.
 
By around 1930, Leopold, Victor Shelford (the first president of the Ecological Society of America), George Melendez Wright, and Ben Thompson (the latter two with the National Park Service), among others, were strongly advocating protection and restoration of populations of large predators across North America, at a time when most sportsmen, politicians, and the general public still hated these animals. Given Roosevelt’s intelligence and predilections, I have to believe he would have joined these visionary men. Still, one must wonder why the realization that predators are ecologically important took so long to manifest itself – it seems to obvious today.
 
This problem is not unique to predators. Wildfire, for example, is still feared and hated by most foresters, land managers, and the general public. Yet, in the beginning of the 20th century there were prominent botanists and ecologists, especially those working in the southeastern Coastal Plain, who recognized the valuable role of fire in keeping ecosystems healthy and diverse.  Why do we have to wait so long for everyone else to catch up?
 
Reed Noss, PhD, is professor of Biology at the University of Central Florida. His latest book is “Forgotten Grasslands of the South: Natural History and Conservation.”
 
Cristina Eisenberg
 
In the 1880s when he was a North Dakota rancher, while giving a speech about wolf depredation as an impediment to the Western Cristina Eisenbergcourse of empire, Theodore Roosevelt placed his hand on the Bible and called the wolf “a beast of waste and desolation.” The ensuing fusillade of government-sponsored predator control wiped out wolves in the contiguous United States, with the exception of northern Minnesota. Yet in the 1880s, Roosevelt, an avid hunter, also founded the Boone and Crockett Club, an organization that implemented widespread environmental reforms. Concerned about the onslaught of species extinction our nation was experiencing, Boone and Crockett Club members, many of whom were members of Congress or influential businessmen, created the first environmental laws. The Lacey Act of 1900 and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 effectively stopped market hunting and prevented extinction of many species. And in 1903 Club members also established the National Wildlife Refuge System, a program that set aside lands for protection to restore fish, wildlife, and their habitat. 
 
A progressive Republican known for radical reforms, Roosevelt served as US president from 1901-1909. During his tenure, our nation experienced astonishing progress on all fronts, from economics to social justice to environmental stewardship. While nobody will ever know what Roosevelt would do about wolves if he were alive today, it is likely that best science would guide his decisions. 
 
Best science clearly demonstrates that wolves benefit whole ecosystems. This science shows that wolves do not wipe out elk populations, and indeed benefit their prey by culling weak and sickly individuals. Best science indicates that wolves create healthier, more biodiverse and resilient lands via their keystone role in ecosystems. A landscape that contains wolves present in healthy numbers will contain better habitat for many species than one without wolves. With wolves present, elk must stay on the move, thereby reducing their impacts on plants. This improves habitat for many other species, such as songbirds. Wolves even improve fish habitat, by enabling streamside vegetation to grow taller, shading streams, and keeping the water cooler so that endangered species of native trout can thrive. Ecologists call such food web relationships trophic cascades.
 
Were he alive today and serving as our president, a progressive leader such as Roosevelt would incorporate scientific knowledge about the wolf’s keystone role and trophic cascade effects into decisions about wolf management. Given his track record as a natural resources pragmatist who embraced the sustained yield principles espoused by his colleague and friend, Gifford Pinchot, Roosevelt would likely support wolf delisting in distinct population segments such as the Northern Rocky Mountains, with management by the states that included wolf hunting. However, it is unlikely that he would support the intensive management program being carried out in the West, where states are attempting to reduce wolf numbers as much as possible, or that he would support delisting wolves throughout the contiguous United States, as has been proposed.
 
Dr. Cristina Eisenberg is a Boone and Crockett Club professional member, and a Smithsonian Research Associate. She teaches at Oregon State University and is the author of two books: The Wolf’s Tooth: Keystone Predators, Trophic Cascades and Biodiversity, and The Carnivore Way: Coexisting with and Conserving America’s Predators, both published by Island Press.
 
Roger Di Silvestro 
 
Roger Di SilvestroTheodore Roosevelt's comment about wolves as beasts of waste and desolation has a nice, lyric ring to it, but no accuracy in modern scientific terms, something that Roosevelt would have rued mightily–he was nothing if not determined to be accurate in his texts about wildlife. But Roosevelt lived in a time when knowledge about wildlife was rudimentary, leading him to engage in some inexplicable behavior under today's value system. While working actively to save bison in Yellowstone National Park, where the last truly wild bison south of the border with Canada survived in a population of three or four dozen individuals, Roosevelt still hunted bison immediately outside park boundaries and killed a bull, with great pleasure for himself. Around his ranches in what is now North Dakota, he more than once shot an elk that he thought was the last of its kind in the area, and shot a bear with the same thought in mind–in his era, even people who wanted to protect wildlife competed to kill the last of a species, wanting to get their specimens before the animals were all gone. The Smithsonian Museum sent out a party of scientists and hunters in the late 1800s to bag 20 some bison, including cows, bulls, and calves, for their collection before the animals were all gone. Roosevelt as late as the early 1900s held out hope that someone would find woolly mammoths in Alaska so he could rush up there and hunt them. When he visited Yellowstone in his presidential years, he wanted to hunt mountain lions there, but changed his mind when told that the image of a president hunting in a national park would be unseemly. A very different time, and a very different way of thinking. 
 
But Roosevelt sought facts about wildlife, and if he had the database about wolves that we have today, he could not possibly have seen the wolf as a beast of waste and desolation. What would he say today? Who knows? He had a tendency to shoot from the hip, to express what was in his mind at the moment with, apparently, little concern for consistency in what in said and did. But if he shared the knowledge that biologists enjoy today, would he differ from the consensus among biologists that wolves are a critical part of their native ecosystem and important to ecological balances within those systems? It would scarcely seem possible that he could disagree. He was far too smart and reasonable. Were he alive now, he probably would believe that wolves, like all top predators, have a role to play in the natural world and should be allowed to fulfill that role, and any comments he made about wolves or other predators would reflect that knowledge and that belief.
 
Roger Di Silvestro is an author, journalist and conservationist who has written extensively on Roosevelt including "Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands: A Young Politician's Quest for Recovery in the American West." For more information about his works please visit:  www.theodorerooseveltinthebadlands.com
 
Jim Posewitz
 
I am sure Theodore Roosevelt would cut the wolf a little space in today’s period of significant wildlife abundance. In fact, as early as 1918 he and Grinnell exchanged letters relative to the over-Jim Posewitzabundance of elk in Yellowstone Park because of the “… protection afforded them.”  And adding at the time that “… their numbers must be kept down by disease or starvation, or else by shooting.” 
 
It is important to remember that before he was a hunter, TR was a naturalist with both a passion for adventure and an insatiable curiosity that produced an appreciation for nature. That appreciation attracted him to the outdoors and remained with him his entire life.  The last letter he wrote was on the taxonomy of pheasants.  Of an estimated 150,000 letters his first and his last were about birds.  If you can find Paul Russell Cutright’s book “Theodore Roosevelt the Naturalist” I think it will reveal someone who would very likely, in today’s world, cut the wolf a little space.  
 
It would be good to remember that TR’s first year in the West coincided with the last years of the buffalo slaughter and he literally hunted through the rotting carcasses of that carnage – carcasses littering the landscape missing only their hide and occasionally their tongues.  It was a wildlife ecosystem in collapse and the wolves were both temporarily sustained by it and then victims of it. 
 
Jim Posewitz is a hunter and wildlife biologist who worked for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks for more than 30 years.  He is also a leader in the hunting and conservation communities as well as a renowned author of such works as “Inherit the Hunt: A Journey into the Heart of American Hunting” and “Beyond Fair Chase: The Ethic and Tradition of Hunting
 

 

 

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There is a funny kind of relief that I feel when I listen to and read all these responses.  That relief comes primarily from a consistent validation of my assumptions about a Theodore Roosevelt projected roosevelt readinginto the future.   But it also comes from knowing more about the connections and strength of message carried from Teddy Roosevelt to Aldo Leopold and beyond.  That feeling was also reenforced recently when the Union of Concerned Scientists named Mr. Roosevelt the most science-friendly president ever.
 
That relief compliments similar feelings that I had when the gray wolf delisting proposal peer-review team findings were released on February 7th.  Science spoke in a clear voice that echoed the sentiments of more than a million who commented on this indefensible, premature and illogical delisting proposal.  My sense is that it was heard too in some manner by Roosevelt, Leopold, Hornaday and other visionaries who fully embraced science, conservation and an abiding love of wildness.  
 
Please keep them in mind when you comment again and ask the US Fish and Wildlife Service to remember that science not political expedience must drive wolf recovery.  Click below to send this message to the Service and Secretary Jewell before March 27th at midnight.

 

 

 

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