One summer, over a decade ago, biologists discovered that gray wolves — once driven to near-extinction in the continental United States — were breeding again in Washington state. The sound of howling wolf pups was welcome news for conservationists, but not for the state's current $700 million cattle industry. Not long after, when some wolves began to prey on livestock, age-old tensions were resurrected. Some members of that first pack were poached — despite federal protections. Ranchers whose forefathers believed a good wolf was a dead one now had to contend with government officials and conservationists who had other opinions.
Fortunately, there was someone to call for help: Francine Madden and her D.C.-based nonprofit, the Center for Conservation Peacebuilding. In a city full of fascinating but oddly narrow areas of intellectual expertise, Madden’s is particularly niche: Her job is to make peace between humans who are fighting over wildlife.
On a warm early October morning, I meet Madden at the National Zoo. The 48-year-old — today wearing cowboy boots a shade lighter than her brown hair — grows animated when she talks about her job, slapping my arm often to drive home a point. A curse or two slips out, though not when a pack of fourth-graders bounds down a path toward a hillside enclosure beside us.
“Is that a fox?” one boy asks.
“No, it’s a wolf,” another shouts.
The kids all howl at the wolf, then sprint off. Madden cracks a smile. “Honestly, I’m surprised when someone doesn’t have an opinion on wolves,” she says, hands waving excitedly. “When I see a wolf, my mental image of them is an animal that’s wearing this social, cultural and historical baggage, like a baggage cart at the airport we’ve loaded up. Think about it: ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ ‘Peter and the Wolf,’ the Bible, the wolf in sheep’s clothing. The wolf’s had a lot of human emotion poured into it.”
Indeed, wolves have been trapped, shot and poisoned en masse for centuries, “pursued with more passion and determination,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service notes, “than any other animal in U.S. history.” By the mid-1970s, gray wolves were among the first animals to make the endangered species list.
Then, in the 1990s, the U.S. government embarked on a controversial plan to boost the American wolf population with Canadian wolves. And as the wolf population of eastern Washington state grew, ranchers and environmentalists began baring fangs. By 2015, things had gotten so bad that Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife hired Madden as a “third-party neutral,” charged with deflating hostilities among factions within the state’s Wolf Advisory Group. “When I took this case, I wanted it,” Madden says, “because wolves are the Middle East of wildlife conflict.”
What qualified Madden for this job? In addition to graduate degrees in science and policy from Indiana University, she had spent time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda. There, conservation efforts had helped increase the population of mountain gorillas — who occasionally terrorized villagers, who, in turn, resorted to poaching. Madden helped conservationists and villagers agree on a solution: create teams that could respond quickly to gorilla attacks. In the years since, she has gone on to mediate invasive-species conflicts in the Galapagos and around the globe.
In Washington state, Madden spent 350 hours interviewing 80 people about wolves before she led advisory group meetings. She found anomalies in the us-vs.-them narrative: a hunter who described seeing a wolf as a “religious experience”; environmentalists who supported, or at least were neutral about, the idea of a wolf hunt. Wolves, she found, were a proxy for other fears, such as fading traditions and a loss of control to Seattle progressives. “Sometimes,” she says, “a dispute has surface-level issues, and that can be taxes or climate change or, in this case, wolves. But it’s all about identity.”
Madden asked combatants to steer their hybrids and pickup trucks to local bars. Grab a beer, she asked them, or a veggie burger. And don’t talk about wolves. At least not right away. “The first time I saw her, to be honest with you, I felt like this is a lot of kumbaya, no way a cowboy is going to sit through this,” rancher Molly Linville told me by phone from her 6,000-acre spread in Douglas County. “I still don’t know how it worked. It all still feels like magic to me.”
In the end, Madden spent 200 days in Washington state and 7,000 hours on the phone. (For 3½ years of work, the state paid her nonprofit, with a staff of two, more than $1.2 million.) Conservationists eventually agreed that wolves could be culled if they preyed on livestock. For their part, ranchers agreed to try nonlethal methods, too. Like young apprentices, they learned Madden’s ways, and when problems arise they can go back to the “tool kit” she left for them. “Things would be far worse had she not come out here,” says Paula Swedeen, policy director of the Seattle-based Conservation Northwest. “I’ve built relationships with people. I’m definitely a western Washington, progressive Democrat, but I’ve figured out how to make friends in eastern Washington.”
Madden is protective of her neutrality. She “likes” nothing on Facebook. She won’t say if there’s a religion behind her peaceful ways, and if she thinks any zoo animals are adorable, she keeps it to herself. She also declined to comment on a recent effort in Congress to remove gray wolves in the continental United States from federal threatened and endangered lists. “Part of the nature of my work is that it’s not about me. It’s really about the people who are in that conflict, that destructive conflict, who are hurting, who have needs that are not being met, and so who I am is irrelevant,” she explains.
She believes her method of transforming conflicts could help with something as difficult as gun policy or even America’s divided political landscape. Again, it’s all about identity. We’re not far from the Capitol, I joke, but she makes clear that she isn’t interested in personally applying her insights to national politics. “Uh, no,” she says in the zoo’s parking lot. “I like what I do.”
Jason Nark is a reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer.