On the ground

No, I’m not attempting to provide pre-debate punditry on the likely outcome of the Palin-Biden VP-wanna be match-up on October 2nd. What I am doing, though, is observing an interesting strain in the Palin coverage: recognition by the mainstream media and advocates that Palin’s support for aerial hunting of wolves in Alaska is a salient (pollster and policy-speak) issue with voters. Palin has not only supported the air-shooting as a way of increasing the numbers of moose and caribou available to hunters (including her). She’s also been said to have participated in the shooting herself. We know she hunts moose and caribou: we’ve seen the photos (and the bloody snow).

The latter point may or may not be accurate, but the details of the hunt are: wolves are tracked from small airplanes, chased until they tire and then the plane hovers low to the ground or even lands and the exhausted wolves are shot at close range. This has outraged animal rights advocates and environmentalists for years, and has been rejected repeatedly by Alaska voters. I have heard Palin defend the aerial hunts, with some rather vague phrasing, lampooning the concerns of Easterners for the wolves in one setting and in another saying of the hunt, with a hint of a smile, “You’ve got to do what you have to do.”

And Palin’s also supported a $150 “bounty” on Alaska’s wolves, paid when a wolf foreleg is presented. But consider this: the issue of extreme cruelty to animals has become a campaign issue. Palin’s support for the sharpshooter-staffed wolf drones has been used as a way of defining her character, her values and her priorities. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem includes it as a building block in her case for why Palin’s the “wrong woman” for the job she seeks. Defenders of Wildlife, a generally mainstream environmental group, has created “Brutal”, an ad focused solely on Palin’s support for the aerial wolf hunts as a reason she shouldn’t be the U.S.’ veep. On some measures, it’s one of the most successful ads of the campaign to date. That’s fascinating. The ad buy for “Brutal” is expanding into key battleground states. That’s something, too. Could animal rights be the new wedge issue?

Wolves do seem to get people’s attention. A few years back I wrote a series of boiler-plate emails to legislators in Wyoming about that state’s weak plan to protect wolves once federal protections ended (a development recently put on hold by a federal judge). I’d seen wolves — fascinating, beautiful, extraordinary — in Yellowstone National Park and wanted to speak up for them. One of the legislators forwarded my email to one of his most anti wolf constituents and as a result, I received a series of email flames: pictures of “prey” animals supposedly ravaged by wolves; a loopy email comparing what wolves do to the environment to the dangers to a woman like me from a rapist lurking in Central Park; and a charge that I wasn’t a real American (talk about sterotyping Eastcoasters). Even when I said “enough” he persisted. This zeal even made the news in Wyoming (I was interviewed), and I got a letter of apology from the Governor’s Chief of Staff.

And now we have wolves and Palin becoming a theme, perhaps even a voting issue, in a national election. That is progress, although ending the aerial hunts for all time would be, too. Whether or not Palin can see Russia (and the wolves who live there) from Alaska.