A new wolf-focused podcast wants to create a mutual understanding of wildlife and working land issues
A new podcast from Montana State University Extension and the Western Landowners Alliance digs into the controversy of wolves. Co-host Alex Few said “Working Wild University” is for those who are passionate about open spaces and wildlife in the West and the healthy communities that sustain people and wildlife in the West. She told Wyoming Public Radio’s Kamila Kudelska that those values are not understood everywhere.
Alex Few: It's just not something that everyone understands. And it's especially hard to appreciate when you live in a city. So for example, we interviewed tourists in Yellowstone. Most of them were there to see wolves and grizzlies. And when we asked them what they thought about wolves on working lands, a lot of people didn't really even know what we were talking about when we said working lands. We had to spell out that that means farms and ranches. What they knew was like, well, there's some conflicts that happen there. That's where wolves get into trouble. And it's just so much more complex than that. So we really wanted to explore the intersection of working lands and wildlife management. And on the “Working Wild U” podcast, we do that by taking the listener to a place. Whether that's a ranch, Yellowstone Park, or the Montana legislature. We're really telling immersive stories that are at the crossroads of cultural knowledge and science, and really focused on the challenges and successes of sharing and managing working lands with wildlife. And I just want to acknowledge my co-host here [Jared Beaver]. This idea of taking this to long form audio podcast format was his idea. He started his extension role just as COVID was getting started and you can imagine that if it's your mission to do outreach in the middle of COVID, podcasting is a great solution.
Kamila Kudelska: Why did you guys decide to start the first season off with wolves? And if you can, tell us a little bit about their complex history.
AF: Wolves are controversial and complex. And we wanted to kick off our first season around wolves because there is so much nuance to explore. If you think about the history of wolves, 50 years ago, they were essentially dead from most of the lower 48, except for the Great Lake population. And over that period of time, we've seen them come down from Canada, we've seen them be reintroduced. And we've been on this political journey around their listing status. It just keeps going back and forth. And now Colorado's considering or is reintroducing wolves by ballot initiative. The Montana and Idaho legislatures have been in the news a lot with creating new hunting regulations at the legislative level. So there's just so much going on on this topic. And what's been interesting to us is that we've been successful in finding the nuance in these very polarizing issues through a group that we convene at Western Landowners Alliance called The Conflict Reduction Consortium. So this group is composed of about 40 diverse stakeholders and livestock, large carnivore reduction from across the West. And we meet monthly to engage in land steward-led facilitated dialogue with the purpose of collaborative learning, and really gaining mutual understanding. And it's through sharing the struggles and successes of livestock producers living and working alongside wolves that we've been able to come up with some good recommendations and some shared solutions, and really, some shared values. So we wanted to take that idea to scale.
KK: So you are mentioning the word “values” a lot and regarding that urban rural divide and the different values that those people have. Can you delve into that a little bit more and how you guys tried to dig into that in the podcast?
AF: It's interesting if you think about both rural and urban values, I think people assume that there are some huge differences. But when it comes to wildlife conservation, and just working lands, land conservation in general, there are actually very few differences in how much people value that. So Robert Barney, who's now the undersecretary of farm programs and conservation at USDA did a study when he was at Duke University, looking at how attitudes towards conservation varied between rural and urban audiences. And he found that really both people value conservation. It's just how they implement conservation that's thought of differently. So I don't think it'll come as a surprise to many Wyoming listeners that people don't like top down regulation in rural communities. We like things to come bottom up and to reflect our local values and our local culture. And so that's something that we wanted just to share and have people understand by giving a voice for those on working lands. But we also wanted to make sure that our podcast is balanced, and that we can hear how many shared values there are between wildlife advocates and conservationists and working land stewards. So, we'll take you there.
KK: So the first episode opens with a kind of personal story of someone dealing with wolves. Can you explain it a little bit, you know, don’t give away too much, but explain it a little bit and kind of explain why you felt like that was a good place to start this whole season?
AF: I went on a road trip this July to Eastern Oregon and met with Kim Kearns, who raises sheep in Baker County. And she sat down with us and told us a story about the previous summer when her herder had to go home to Peru for a family emergency and it was just left up to her and her sister. I was hearing this story a year later on, you could still hear the passion and the stress in her voice. She and her sister waking up every couple of hours to deal with the ruckus that was happening just outside. And that was when their sheep were penned in an electrified night pen that was supposed to protect them. It was so ongoing, that they had to take shifts, right? They couldn't both be at sheep camp together all the time, because nobody was getting any sleep. Similarly, we talked with Tom Birchmeier and his entire family in Wallowa County, Oregon, and he told us about a similar story. His calves were just getting killed. And he kept trying. And this is a man who prides himself on his animal husbandry and has incredibly low death losses during normal times. So he was devastated to be losing his calves, and he ended up sleeping in his truck. And when you think about what that means for a cattle producer who's just gone through calving, and now he's out there sleeping with his calves in his truck…that takes a toll. That's long term stress. And it's not just stress on the producer, it's actually stress on the entire family. So we wanted to open with these emotional stories to really create an opportunity for empathy, and to help people understand how much producers care about the well being of the animals that they steward. Just as much as wolf advocates care about the well being of the wolves that are sharing the landscape of cattle.
KK: What do you hope listeners will walk away with after listening to your podcast?
AF: Mutual understanding, right? I hope that we can all walk away from this series of 13 episodes with a greater understanding of the science and the culture around wolves in the West. And I hope that listeners, if we don't get to a shared vision of the future, will at least be able to have a little bit more information as they're thinking about what the future should look like on their own.