Issues

Moles, wolves, and wildlife management

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For about a year, we’ve had a mole in our yard. At first, it stayed in the back, pushing up dirt mounds along the edge of the lawn and in the garden beds. I was apathetic. I didn’t love the unsightly mounds of dirt, but it wasn’t bad enough to take action. Then, earlier this summer, it found the front yard. Dirt mounds next to the flagstone walkway. Dirt mounds in the lawn. Dirt mounds in the beds. The aesthetic affront got to me. Our next-door neighbors mentioned the mole was in their yard, too, and they didn’t like it either. I called a mole guy. My neighbors approved.

The mole guy — a state Fish & Wildlife Department certified wildlife control operator — told me that we had one mole. Moles are territorial, so even though it looked like a mole clan had moved in, it was just one. “Probably a small one,” he said, “judging by the size of these mounds.” He poked around, looking for the most recent mound. Placing a trap in newly excavated tunnels increased the chances of catching the mole, I learned.

As he was setting the trap, he glanced at me and said, “I really don’t like killing moles, you know.”

Huh? “Why?” I asked.

“Because they don’t do any harm,” he replied. “They aerate your lawn and that’s a good thing.”

“What about pipes and garden walls?” I asked. “Can they undermine those?”

“Not really,” he said, carefully covering the trap. “They’re neat creatures, actually. People just don’t like the mounds in their lawns. I’ll be back in a week to check the trap.”

He drove off, leaving me with the niggling feeling that I should have done more research before I made this decision. I asked a wildlife biologist friend, who agreed that while mole mounds aren’t pretty, the animals themselves are pretty neat. “Have you ever felt a mole?” she asked. “Their fur is so plush. And they are such efficient diggers.”

Hmmm.

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Part of a vole tunnel network along the Palisades Lakes trail, Mount Rainier National Park

That weekend, Mr. Adventure and I went hiking on Mount Rainier. In the meadows along the trail, we noticed lots of tunnel systems made by one of the five varieties of vole that live on the mountain. Voles live in their tunnel homes during Rainier’s long winter; different “rooms” are used for different purposes such as food storage or toilet. A few days earlier, I’d been charmed when a small gray vole scuttled across the trail in front of me. Now, viewing the elaborate mazes, we took a picture, impressed by the voles’ adaptation to their habitat. It wasn’t lost on either of us that we lauded the voles’ ingenuity in the park while disparaging that of the mole in our front lawn.

At about the same time, a controversy exploded in Washington state over wolf management. Wolves had killed some cattle in the northeastern corner of the state, where 15 of the 19 known packs live. The Seattle Times ran a story in which a Washington State University researcher claimed the rancher had purposely turned out his cattle on the wolves’ den, essentially setting up a free beef buffet for the wolves and virtually guaranteeing the state Department of Fish & Wildlife would engage in “lethal removal” of the wolves from the area to reduce “livestock depredation.” I saw the article and, like many others, was incensed. “This is outrageous,” I fumed to Mr. Adventure. “The grazing policy on public lands has got to change so this doesn’t happen.”

Turns out, though, that the story was wrong. So wrong that the newspaper has since printed at least two pieces trying to clarify it. The rancher had turned out his cattle five miles away from the den, fully two weeks before the first kill. Cattle disperse on grazing land — that’s the point — and some wandered into the wolves’ territory. This wasn’t the first time this rancher had lost cattle, either. And he was cooperating with the state wolf management program. WSU called the researcher’s claims “inappropriate and inaccurate,” and is conducting an internal investigation. In the meantime, protesters rallied in front of the Fish & Wildlife building and the rancher and the DFW received death threats, a signal of just how high passions run when it comes to wolves.

When I learned the facts about the wolf story, it made me think about our mole problem. Is it really so different? The mole needs a place to live. The wolves need a place to live. The mole has to eat. The wolves have to eat. In simply living their lives, though, both mole and wolves cause problems for us humans. In contrast, the voles who’ve fortuitously made their home on Mount Rainier are protected by dint of being in a national park, where wildlife management has come a long way since the days of feeding bears and shooting predators.

Many animals, including some of the most beloved symbols of our national heritage (bison, grizzlies, bald eagles, bighorn sheep) survive only because we have deemed they should. Human interference brings animals back from the brink of extinction, and we judge whether a given animal should stay or go. We’ve killed sea lions that decimate wild salmon populations, and we’ve introduced mountain goats into Olympic National Park, where they quickly adapted to the alpine environment. Like it or not, we are wildlife managers, and to think that animals thrive without our good grace is naive.

That’s not to say that natural processes depend entirely on us, but our policies determine the fates of many animals. We see this with the proposal to restore grizzlies in the North Cascades of Washington state. These beloved, fearsome animals will roam Washington’s mountains again only if we decide to manage them so they have a chance of repopulating.

Wildlife management decisions constitute a difficult, complex responsibility, one I feel ill-prepared to accept. I like wolves and I like the fact they have so successfully colonized Washington. I’d love to see a wolf someday. But when 85 percent of the wolf packs live in four remote counties of the state (out of 39, if you’re wondering), a disproportionately small number of people feel the brunt of wolf impact. In fact, just 1.5% of Washington’s 7 million people live in the four counties where most of the wolves have set up shop. Two of those counties have the highest unemployment levels in the state. The average annual salary of those counties is one-third lower than the statewide average of $55,000. And in each of the four counties, most of the land is public, managed by the federal or state government. Which means that most people there rely directly or indirectly on public lands for their day-to-day existence: ranching, logging, mining, watershed management. In contrast, I rely on public lands for recreation, which I am privileged to be able to afford to pursue.

Sitting at my comfortable desk on the wet west side of the state, it’s easy to question a policy that manages wolves by killing them. I believe there must be a better way. But I wonder how I would feel if my livelihood were ranching — a livelihood that is fading from the mythic West — and depended on my cattle being able to graze before going to market. I also can’t help but wonder if the spendy grass-fed beef I enjoy might be ranched on those selfsame public lands where cattle and wolves conflict. On the other hand, as a citizen I too have an ownership stake in those public lands, and want them managed sustainably and for the greatest public good.

I don’t have answers. But I did think about the wolves, the voles, and the mole, and how they are all, in some sense, managed species. I told Mr. Adventure, “I’m calling the mole guy and telling him to take out the traps. I don’t think we should kill the mole. It’s just trying to exist. We should live with it.” If I was so quick to decide our mole should be killed simply because its habits made our lawn look less than suburban-perfect, how can I square that with the wonder I felt looking at the quirky beauty of the vole tunnels on Mount Rainier, or the sadness I feel at the decision to kill wolves?

Moley from the original Wind in the Willows (online exhibit of E. H. Shepard's drawings, bodleian.ox.ac.uk)
Moley, from an online exhibit of E. H. Shepard’s drawings for The Wind in the Willows (bodleian.ox.ac.uk)

Now I shovel the dirt off the mole mounds (tamping down the dirt just forces the mole to reopen these entrances to its underground domain) and call our mole Moley, after the character from The Wind in the Willows. Anthropomorphizing wild creatures isn’t a great idea, I know, but I feel a lot better about the choice to live and let Moley live, even I’m uncomfortable with the knowledge that my decisions determine Moley’s — and other animals’ — fate. I hope others feel the same discomfort, because that’s what will produce the most carefully considered decisions about the wild creatures with which we share the planet.

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About Lauren Danner

When I’m not out hiking on our public lands, I’m either buried in a book or writing about Pacific Northwest and environmental history, outdoor recreation, and public lands policy from my home near Puget Sound.

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