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New podcast explores 'radical center' of debate over wolves in the West

A lone member of the Phantom Springs wolf pack stands tall in Grand Teton National Park.

Wolves seem to exist on either ends of a spectrum spanning love and hate. No matter who you talk to, a conversation about wolves tends to be a conversation charged with emotion, and oftentimes controversy. But a new podcast dives headfirst into what the hosts are calling the radical center.

In the inaugural season of Working Wild U, hosts Alex Few and Jared Beaver tell the history of wolves in the west and showcase the stories of the people who live and work alongside these carnivores. Alex is the Working Wild Challenge Coordinator for Western Landowners Alliance, and Jared is an Assistant Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist at Montana State in Bozeman. Yellowstone Public Radio’s Ellis Juhlin sat down with them both to discuss their work and the new podcast.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ellis: Can one or both of you kind of tell me what the impetus was for this podcast? How did you come up with this idea? And how did you decide on the structure that you're following for this first season?

Jared Beaver: My whole goal and mission within Extension are one of those really human related needs around wildlife. And that lended itself really well to Western landowners and led me to Alex, and we started a conversation that led to my participation in some of her programming.

Alex Few: And we've had really great success bringing people together, sharing stories that come from the land. And so we really thought the podcast format is a way to take that collaborative learning to scale.

Wolves are a thorny topic of conversation. I'm curious why you decided that season one straight out of the gates to go with something as controversial as wolves.

Few: In my work at Western landowners Alliance, we were hearing from more and more ranchers, and it just was rising to the top of a lot of conversations.

Beaver: By most metrics, you know, we should consider wolves a success story in the U.S. But when you stop and think about it, it doesn't seem like anybody's happy about wolves. Whatever stakeholder group you are, there's either too few or too many. If we can tackle this and do a good job, then I think we can tackle a lot of things and do a really good job as well.

In the podcast, you both talk a lot about value systems. Can you kind of go into what the term value system means, how you're applying it in this context? And the different value systems that might exist in the conversations that we have surrounding wolves?

Beaver: One of the things I'd like to be clear on is, you know, I come from a wildlife biology background and perspective. So the social issues are still a little new to me. And I hate to put people in buckets, because this is a really complex and nuanced thing. So that's one of the things that I think were the biggest surprise to the season is we visited so many different perspectives. And oftentimes, there was a lot of overlap. But generally speaking, what we're talking about is this difference to kind of associate wildlife and humans more on a similar level, versus something to be managed and as a resource for humans.

Are there any common misconceptions that you run into time and time again, in the conversations that you're having on the podcast, or even the reactions that you're receiving about wolves and our relationship to them and their relationship to the land?

Beaver: That's just a really interesting question. And it's somebody very difficult to answer because I can go to one website, and they'll tell me that, like, wolves don't eat livestock, and they're endangered. And you can go to another website. And it'll say that wolves aren't endangered and they kill livestock. And so this is where that emotional aspect comes into play a little bit. And so it's just kind of funny because you'll have that kind of extreme and misrepresentation on both ends there.

Few: You know, if you take any one moment, anyone soundbite in the podcast, you might hear me sounding like a let's kill them all kind of perspective. And then if you take a different sound bite, you might hear me sounding like, let's say them all perspective. And really, it's complicated. The fact of the matter is wolves eat meat. And whether they happen to find native prey, or they happen to find someone's livestock, there's death involved in keeping wolves alive.

Beaver: And management doesn't occur at the individual level, you'll never sustain populations at the individual level, it has to happen at a population level. The other aspect is that management really doesn't happen at like the 10- to 20-acre scale, and there's no singular national park or protected area in the U.S. that can sustain these large mammal populations that are reliant on landscape permeability, and that includes working land.

Few: I think, to sum up what Jared just said so very well, is that what's missing in a lot of perspectives is that these working lands, farms and ranches are habitat.

So let's say season one wraps and your listener gets through the whole season, and walks away with a really solid understanding of one key concept. In a perfect world, if you could pinpoint what that would be, what would you want someone to walk away from season one really understanding?

Beaver: We can have all the conversations we want about predator management strategies, should we use lethal control? What are the appropriate harvest strategies? Grazing tactics, public versus private, but when you put it into perspective, that working landscapes are critical to sustaining people and wildlife. That means when they're lost or subdivided, then we all lose.

Few: If we help ranchers stay on this land, they are able to take care of the land. And that takes care of all of us whether we live on it or not. What's next, we said that season one touches on all of these topics that are bigger touches on the Endangered Species Act. It touches on the role of the North American model for wildlife conservation and, and hunting is rolling that model. And then we'll go to really fun storytelling around what happens when a wolf comes to town.

Beaver: What's really important to working while you is being at the crossroads of culture and science and being as unbiased as possible. We have done what we hope is that is a really good job of providing viewpoints around this radical center. You know, we also acknowledge that there's probably a lot of stories left untold.