Nov 1 2002

Peter Jennings Cries Wolf

ABC special misled viewers on wildlife controversy

Grey wolves (cc photo: Jeremy Weber)

Grey wolves (cc photo: Jeremy Weber)

The special was called “In Search of America,” but when ABC News and Peter Jennings addressed the issue of the reintroduction of wolves to Idaho (9/3/02), they seemed to have already decided beforehand what they would find.

ABC told a story about the federal government forcing Idahoans to accept wolf reintroduction against their will—with the wolves, ravenous for the flesh of cattle and sheep, now having a ruinous effect upon powerless ranchers. As Jennings suggested to one Idaho source, “This was a case of the federal government telling those of you here in the state that it was going to do what it wanted to do and you didn’t have an awful lot of say in it.”

You’d never guess from ABC’s broadcast that, according to the Rocky Mountain News (2/5/95), 71 percent of Idahoans polled actually said that they supported the reintroduction of wolves. Other polls in Idaho and around the region have shown similar results (e.g., Idaho Falls Post Register, 2/4/98). The decision to bring back the exterminated animal was made over the course of many years, and involved numerous public discussions across the region that resulted in significant changes being made to the project’s rules, largely to give ranchers more rights and protections.

None of this history was presented in the broadcast. “The American public living far from Idaho was in favor of the federal government’s plan to reintroduce the wolf,” was the context Jennings provided, hiding the crucial fact that the American public living in Idaho was also in favor.

Land piranhas, wildlife terrorists

Jennings calls the wolf “one of nature’s most efficient killers,” and a source describes it as “a land piranha and a wildlife terrorist.” And the network went out of its way to suggest financial disaster for hard-working ranching families: “All of the profit that the ranch is generating, the wolves are getting,” one source claimed.

No statistics were provided to back up this assertion; while citing one rancher who claims to have lost 28 calves and another family that reported 26 wolf-killed sheep, Jennings says, “The number of dead livestock is difficult to confirm.” Actually, the Fish & Wildlife Service puts out a report on losses to wolves every year; in 2001, the survey found a total of 138 sheep and 40 cattle killed by wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming combined. By contrast, coyotes that year killed more than 14,000 sheep in Montana alone, where domestic dogs killed another 1,100 (Bozeman Chronicle, 4/2/02). Despite Jennings’ claim that “the wolves have found cattle and sheep to their liking,” elk and other wild animals provide the overwhelming bulk of the wolves’ diet, and predation on livestock has been lower than the government anticipated.

ABC suggested that ranchers are helpless to stop the wolves from attacking their flocks and destroying their livelihoods. “As the wolf population grows, so do the livestock losses and so does the ranchers’ frustration,” Jennings told his audience. “They are not allowed to hunt the wolf.” He pointed out the steep potential penalties for killing a wolf—not mentioning that these are the penalties for illegally killing a wolf. Ranchers have always been allowed to shoot wolves that are attacking their animals, but this rule was not mentioned in the documentary.

ABC also played down the federal government’s routine killing of wolves that prey on sheep and cows—nearly 100 wolves have been legally killed since reintroduction began in 1995—referring to this controversial topic in a single sentence. In a striking omission in a documentary that stressed the economic hardships posed by wolves, the program completely ignored the market-value compensation that the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife pays to ranchers with documented losses: some $60,000 last year alone.

Selective sourcing

ABC was able to get away with this consistently one-sided take on the wolf controversy through a heavily slanted roster of sources, and through selective quoting of the handful of balancing sources that were included. “Almost everywhere we went in Idaho, including the state capital, this was seen as a case of them in Washington vs. us,” Jennings said. But it’s not true that they couldn’t find Idahoans who were glad to have wolves back in the state; for example, environmental activist Lynne Stone and natural resource expert Ralph Maughan were both interviewed at length by ABC, but none of their comments made it into the broadcast.

ABC shot footage at a wolf conference whose participants, largely from Idaho, were overwhelmingly pro-wolf, but only used quotes from wolf critics they found there (Ralph Maughan’s Wildlife Reports, 9/4/02). Stone referred the producers to ranchers who were sympathetic to the wolf’s return and had learned to live with the animals, but ABC didn’t bother to talk to them; instead, they looked up the most prominent and dedicated opponents of the reintroduction project.

Most of the “balance” to the anti-wolf ranchers in the program is provided by Ed Bangs, who leads the federal grey wolf reintroduction program. While a respected wildlife biologist, Bangs has been harshly criticized by wolf advocates for being too ready to kill wolves to protect sheep and cows. Obviously striving to remain neutral between environmentalists and ranchers, Bangs seldom contradicted the ranchers—and ABC’s—portrait of wolves as vicious killers of no benefit to the West.

This lack of positive arguments for wolves is characteristic of the show; the only Idaho environmentalist to speak at length in the program is mostly quoted criticizing ranchers, not defending wolves. A balanced program would allow each side to respond to the other’s claims; for example, a critic of reintroduction says that when wolves were exterminated, “the problem was solved. The ecosystem did not perish.” A wolf advocate might have pointed to the many positive natural effects of the wolves’ return, from the regrowth of overgrazed willow trees to the rebound in scavengers who thrive on wolves’ leftovers. But because the program was structured to promote the anti-wolf argument and included only token defense, no wolf advocate got that chance.

Jennings’ response

In a response to critics of the show, Jennings wrote: “There appears to be strong sentiment that we should have gone into greater detail about wolf reintroduction. With all due respect, that was never our intention. . . . This was a story about the power of government, of how a central discussion to the Founding Fathers has played out in contemporary life. The history of the wolf in the West, from eradication to reintroduction, illustrates the evolving power of the federal government.”

But wolf reintroduction is only a story about the “power of the federal government” if wolves were imposed on Idaho against the will of the people there. Jennings sidesteps that issue in his response: “We were criticized for not stressing that there was support for reintroduction in Idaho. This may be true, but it is also true that the body politic of the state, responding to the wishes of the livestock industry, was nearly unanimous in opposing reintroduction.” That would seem to suggest a story about the power of the livestock industry—but that clearly was not the story ABC was interested in telling.