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Robert T. Fanning, America's Premier Wolf Doomsayer, Passes On

Former Chicago businessman moved to Montana to hunt big game and enjoyed fame as a hater of lobos

Robert T. Fanning on horseback in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. He circulated this photograph during an unsuccessful bid to become Montana governor.
Robert T. Fanning on horseback in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. He circulated this photograph during an unsuccessful bid to become Montana governor.
Robert T. Fanning died on Christmas Eve 2018 at age 69. He left this world without allowing me to collect on a bet he lost. And while the prospect of him buying me dinner at Chico Hot Springs Resort in Paradise Valley, Montana was satisfying to ponder, I’d gladly give up the opportunity to watch him eat a little crow in exchange for having him around, raising hell, a little while longer.

Fanning himself was a foil in the national debate over wolves. Much of what he said about the animals was complete false. As an eccentric, complicated character, he was the genuine article. More than any single individual in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, dating back to the mid 1990s when gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone, he became infamous for being a lobo doomsayer.

Co-founder of a group called Friends of the Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd, Fanning’s rhetoric was a mix of Little Red Riding Hood, Chicken Little and spiced with a caustic flourish of New Testament Armageddon, as found in the Book of Revelation.  
Wolves, he often asserted, represented the End Times for our first national park. Fanning declared in the late 1990s that bringing them back to Yellowstone would result in “the greatest ecological disaster in the history of wildlife management” and that, within a few years, Yellowstone would be transformed into “a biological desert…a wasteland” devoid of its wild animals.

Not long after Fanning made those outlandish predictions, I proposed a public wager with him in this column, “The New West.” I promised Bob that if his scenarios proved to be true, I would buy him a fancy dinner at the Chico Hot Springs restaurant located near his adopted home of Emigrant, Montana north of Yellowstone. On the other hand, if his prognostication did not play out as he claimed, then the dinner, I proposed, would be on him.

He accepted—in part because he knew he could not back down and had to stand behind the assertions that made him a darling to those who believed original wolf extermination carried out across most of the Lower 48 was a good idea. 

After a decade passed and there were still prey and predators roaming Yellowstone—attracting record numbers of human wildlife watchers—I contacted Bob and asked him when I might make reservations for us at Chico.

He asked for a delay of a few years, saying the wolf devastation would take longer to materialize than he expected but that it was well underway. I told him I could wait. In our last phone conversation half a decade ago, he encouraged me to have dinner but that I would be eating alone. 

° ° °

Fanning is deserving of remembrance. He represented a distinctive world view that needs to be acknowledged, not discounted in this truth-challenged age of Trump. He identified as a patriot, freedom fighter, "populist Constitutional Republican," and was a no-apologist far-right right winger. He took no offense when the media characterized him as a "wolf hater;" he wore it with pride; "anything," as he once told me, "to make the greenies in Bozeman and Jackson Hole squirm."

As a graduate of Notre Dame, he was a former financial planner and bond trader at the Chicago Board of Trade. Moving to Montana and buying property, he was driven by a passion for big game hunting. Outspoken and seeming to crave the attention he generated, he emerged as a prototypical voice for people who are distrustful of government, science, environmentalists and regulations.
As an eccentric, complicated character, Fanning was the genuine article. More than any single individual in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, dating back to the mid 1990s when gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone, he became infamous for being a lobo doomsayer.
Fanning's romantic notion of the West was not expansive or his grasp of natural history impressive. It was rooted in a narrow vision of the past, the best years being between roughly 1880 and 1980 when wildlife predators were targeted for removal because they competed with the economic interests of domestic cattle and sheep producers.

Indeed, the return of wolves to the northern Rockies forced ranchers to adopt more cumbersome and sometimes more expense practices than simply turning livestock out on to the publicly-owned rangeland in early summer and rounding them up again in the fall. Riling Fanning most was the fact that wolves made elk hunting harder, less predictable and it caused wapiti to be warier and more elusive. 

What’s great is that Fanning’s blustery theories about wolves could be time tested and measured like the performance of the stocks and bonds he was so adept at tracking. His passing provides the perfect opportunity to compare what he contended against the sobering truth of reality. 

Some 30 years ago, there were more than 19,000 elk that congregated in the high elevation grasslands, valleys and mountain slopes comprising Yellowstone’s Northern Range. 

I remember when a professor from the College of Agriculture at Montana State University took a tour of Yellowstone. He concluded that park managers, because of wapiti overabundance, were guilty of gross negligence due to hungry animals browsing aspen saplings and willow down to the bare nubbins as well as hammering grasslands. Gadfly author Alston Chase of Livingston, Montana also took notice and vilified park officials in his book, Playing God in Yellowstone
Robert Fanning peddled a simplistic, incendiary narrative about wolves and elk in Yellowstone.  While he predicted lobos would bring biological disaster to elk and other animals in the park, it never happened. In fact, elk numbers are rising again and wolf numbers have stabilized at less than half of their population on the Northern Range in the years after their reintroduction.  Top, a lone wolf hunts in Yellowstone (photo courtesy NPS/Jacob W. Frank)). Below that photo, elk return to the Lamar Valley, part of the Northern Range complex, in early summer.  (Photo courtesy NPS/Neil Herbert)
Robert Fanning peddled a simplistic, incendiary narrative about wolves and elk in Yellowstone. While he predicted lobos would bring biological disaster to elk and other animals in the park, it never happened. In fact, elk numbers are rising again and wolf numbers have stabilized at less than half of their population on the Northern Range in the years after their reintroduction. Top, a lone wolf hunts in Yellowstone (photo courtesy NPS/Jacob W. Frank)). Below that photo, elk return to the Lamar Valley, part of the Northern Range complex, in early summer. (Photo courtesy NPS/Neil Herbert)
Yellowstone had a plan to correct that in mind—giving a keystone species a second chance. In the years after wolves were brought back, the elk population on the Northern Range dropped by half then was halved again. From 19,000, it fell to 9,000 and then 4,500 counted in aerial overflights. Fanning seized his moment and through his megaphone with Friends of the Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd predicted wholesale elk annihilation. Along with his eyebrow-raising claims that most four-legged animals would disappear into the bellies of canids, others started saying that parents of school kids, waiting to catch the bus into Gardiner, should worry about marauding lobos taking their offspring.

Fanning had no use for science that contradicted his positions. In his best-known screed titled "Yellowstone Is Dying," he laid out a series of convoluted, rambling and frankly whacky conspiracy theories. 

While wolves were singularly blamed by Friends of the Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd and others for the plunge in wapiti numbers, biologists and range ecologists contributed it to a more complex trifecta of causes: predation by wolves, cougars and bears was certainly one. 

But it was coupled with consecutive years of drought which affected forage abundance, and less forage/nutrition affected elk reproduction and cow/calf ratios. A third contributing factor, acknowledged in conversations I’ve had with managers from the Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Department, was the ripping impacts of late-season elk hunts just beyond Yellowstone’s northern border in the late 1980s and early 1990s. By design, they were sanctioned by the state to aggressively reduce elk numbers on the Northern Range. They included late-season hunts which involved the taking of cow elk, many of which were pregnant with calves.
Speaking against wolves in Grangeville, Idaho in 2003, Fanning said the introduction of Canadian wolves into the Northwest was a criminal conspiracy by a bunch of "pot-smoking, winesucking, vegetarian lawyers" designed to end ranching on public lands.
Fanning insisted that wolf numbers would swell ad infinitum (choosing to ignore the basic truth that their population levels are a function of available food).  Initially, wolf numbers in Yellowstone rose rapidly to around 200, as they filled a predator niche that had been vacant for more than 60 years.

However, after that burst, they dropped dramatically and in recent years they’ve hovered between 90 and 110 individuals park wide—within the margins of a new dynamic equilibrium correlated to their prey base. In other words, there wouldn’t be wolves if there weren’t elk; in fact, elk numbers in recent years have been rising.

As for the Northern Range, where Fanning envisioned doomsday, there were once 100 wolves and now the annual average is between 35 and 40.  

Interesting is that after the huge initial wolf decline, elk numbers have been fairly stable for the last 10 years and last year wapiti numbers, according to aerial surveys, went up to more than 7,500 in 2018, a 42 percent increase over the year before when 5,300 were counted by state and federal biologists.  [Note: aerial surveys underestimate the actual number of elk by between 10 and 50 percent).  

° ° °

Natural systems are dynamic, not black and white as Fanning loved to characterize them; changes play out over many decades, centuries sometimes, not months or years or even the span of a person’s life. Fanning was reluctant to accept this reality. He needed clear villains and victims to pit against one another. 

Once upon a time, Ed Bangs, the former wolf recovery coordinator for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, said that “working with wolves guarantees that you’ll be either famous or notorious.” An associate of Fanning’s said in the wake of his death that, “Bob wanted to be famous. He wanted to win the favor of ranchers, fellow big game hunters and outfitters and he hooked the cart of his celebrity to wolves.”

Fanning made other people look reasonable. With delight, it seemed, he relished assuming the mantle of rabble rouser, making false claims about wolves that some ranchers may have believed but refrained by their good social graces from spouting aloud at public meetings.  Wolf advocates saw Fanning as a bully with an intimidating unpredictable temperament and an anti-lobo demagogue.

For certain, as a master of stirring up hysteria, he became locked into a perspective on wolves that he refused to waver on. This sentiment was expressed even in his obituary penned by Neil Steinberg and published in The Livingston Enterprise as well as other newspapers. Verbatim, this is how it eulogized him: 

“Fanning’s lifelong animosity toward wolves came from a desire to protect elk, as founder of Friends of the Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd. In one of those epic battles that roil the great expanse of the West, between federal power and state authority, between environmentalists and ranchers, you knew exactly where Bob Fanning stood. ‘Lock and load and saddle up while there is still snow on the ground,’ Fanning declared, after the governor of Montana encouraged local ranchers to shoot troublesome wolves on their property in 2011, the year Fanning ran for Montana governor, part of a pack of Republican hopefuls, though he did not win.’”

Fanning always had colorful, sometimes unprintable words for his perceived human adversaries in government, conservation organizations and the media. Again, consider this passage from his obit: “Speaking against wolves in Grangeville, Idaho in 2003, Fanning said the introduction of Canadian wolves into the Northwest was a criminal conspiracy by a bunch of ‘pot-smoking, winesucking, vegetarian lawyers’ designed to end ranching on public lands.”
When he took off his cowboy duds, he could evince the look of a corporate executive. Bob Fanning, in his business attire, giving a speech after he briefly entered the Republican primary hoping to win a U.S. Senate seat to represent Montana. He withdrew from the race. Photo appeared on Facebook.
When he took off his cowboy duds, he could evince the look of a corporate executive. Bob Fanning, in his business attire, giving a speech after he briefly entered the Republican primary hoping to win a U.S. Senate seat to represent Montana. He withdrew from the race. Photo appeared on Facebook.
During a local radio show debate with a federal wolf biologist, Fanning, who wasn’t dumb, said things he must have known were not true, yet he used the airwaves to opportunistically pillory the federal government. Afterward, as he and the biologist were leaving the station, Fanning turned to him and said, “I’m sorry. Sometimes I can be a bombastic, insufferable pr--k.”

Facts were of little concern to Fanning. In Wyoming, the elk population in autumn 2018 was estimated to number 104,800 strong, or 31 percent above state objectives.  In fact, among the 35 different elk herds in Wyoming, 80 percent are considered at or above biological objective. Even though the state has authorized liberal hunting seasons to knock wapiti numbers down, Wyoming simultaneously aggressively targets wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and it has an open season on wolves in 85 percent of the rest of the state. 

Montana wildlife officials say that the number of elk spilling out from Yellowstone into Montana is now “over objective” and wapiti, which carry brucellosis, are coming in conflict with Montana cattle ranchers who, again, ironically, continue to carry on ancient disdain for a potential ally—wolves. 

The ecological disaster Fanning saw coming with wolves didn’t and hasn’t occurred. Neither have they been a significant drain on a changing economy.  The wolf watching phenomenon in Yellowstone generates $35 million a year for the local gateway communities.  Combined, non-consumptive nature-based tourism in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks yield more than $1 billion in economic activity, with wildlife watching being a marquee attraction and the opportunity to see grizzlies and wolves ranking at the top of many visitor lists.

I kidded Fanning about something else: when he moved to sell a piece of property he owned in Paradise Valley, one advertisement he crafted touted  “an abundance of wildlife”, including elk, that, of course, were supposed to have been wiped out by wolves.  

Initially, Fanning and Friends of the Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd had a captive audience but over time, as facts became known, the power of their jeremiads waned and ever increasingly are treated by the public as fringe. 

Fanning invites reflection on his positions even in death. According to words printed in his own obituary, “Bob Fanning not only ran with the wolves, he liked to kill them.” His friend from Chicago, Frank Murnane Jr, owner of the Murnane Companies, was quoted as saying, “He was a man’s man, a bear hunter, a horseback rider, there was no one like Bob. They broke the mold with Bob Fanning; one of a kind, in all respects.”

Fanning believed his animas toward wolves would translate into a successful campaign for higher political office, as a governor or U.S. senator. It didn’t happen. 

As I said, Fanning and I spoke on the phone a couple of times relating to our bet. The banter was brief but cordial, jesting and teasing. Once the conversation moved past wolves, discussions about the meaning of wildness and whether science could be trusted, we both discovered how much we pulled for underdog Chicago sports teams. He talked about working as a stock trader and I about being a violent crime reporter in the Windy City. What we shared was a deep affection for the West.

I will miss him because he's a reminder of the past and how far we've come, and would've preferred telling him over dinner at Chico, after an afternoon spent watching wolves in Yellowstone.

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Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. For more on his career, click below. (Photo by David J Swift).
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