Rutherford on Wise, 'Producing Predators: Wolves, Work, and Conquest in the Northern Rockies'

Michael D. Wise
Stephanie Rutherford

Michael D. Wise. Producing Predators: Wolves, Work, and Conquest in the Northern Rockies. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. 210 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8032-4981-3.

Reviewed by Stephanie Rutherford (Trent University)
Published on H-Environment (February, 2017)
Commissioned by David T. Benac

In the North American context, how humans have encountered wolves through time has been a matter of interest for at least the last hundred years, rooted first in the popular animal stories of authors like Jack London, Ernest Thompson Seton, and, more recently, Farley Mowat. Scholarly attention came later but with equal vigor, drawing such luminaries as Aldo Leopold and Barry Lopez to the defense of the long-maligned lupine. Since then, a fair amount of historical ink has been spilled about wolves, humans, and the land we share, albeit unequally, from Brett L. Walker’s wonderful Lost Wolves of Japan (2005) to Jon T. Coleman’s absolute treasure Vicious: Wolves and Men in America (2004). Indeed, Karen Jones’s Wolf Mountains: A History of Wolves along the Great Divide (2003) explores very similar geographical and historical terrain as the book under review here. For example, Jones considers human-wolf relationships—both indigenous and settler—in four national parks along the Rocky Mountains in both the United States and Canada. The attention paid to the question of the wolf has rendered its narratives well known, such that the grooves of its story, aligned as it is with colonial subjugation and nation-building, feel very well worn indeed. 

As a result, Producing Predators: Wolves, Work, and Conquest in the Northern Rockies by Michael D. Wise necessarily invites comparison in a relatively crowded and accomplished field. This can feel like a dangerous place to be, especially for a first-time author and now assistant professor at the University of North Texas, who is publishing a revised dissertation. However, Wise's book takes fascinating theoretical and analytical risks that set his text apart from those that have come before. The most central difference is that Wise frames the book on the boundary making, arguing that the way we encounter wolves (and bison and their relationship to colonialism) must be thought through the dichotomy of predation versus production. What Wise contends is that wolves became a cipher for the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate labor, where subsistence hunting, which was the precolonial practice of the Blackfoot peoples, was categorized as predation, whereas ranching, practiced by white settlers, was defined as productive. A central part of the process of colonization, therefore, was the remaking of particular kinds of work, which served as an ideological underpinning to policies of dispossession and forced assimilation. Wolves were important to this boundary making because they appeared as the quintessential predator: a violator of boundaries, a thief of productive property, and an exemplar of nonproductivity. As a result, Producing Predators suggests that wolf annihilation “served its primary purpose not as an economic fix for industrial agriculture but as part of a broader set of environmental and cultural practices that established new social boundaries between predators and producers” (p. xvi). 

In order to support this assertion, Wise fixes his analytical lens on the Northern Rockies between the 1860s and 1930s. His account is the product of ten years of archival research in both Montana and Alberta (as well as collections in Chicago, New York, Cody, and Denver), which lays the groundwork for a nuanced and situated place-based exploration of colonial capitalism and its implication for humans and nonhumans alike. In some ways, I was reminded of William Cronon’s oeuvre as I read Producing Predators, both for the depth of its research and the way it inverts typical stories around colonization as well as human-nonhuman relations. For example, chapter 1, “Wolves and Whiskey,” centers on both as historical agents. Wise provides a complex socio-ecology of the whiskey trade, which serves to demystify the role of alcohol in colonization. Rather than alcohol driving indigenous subjugation, Wise suggests that the Blackfoot included whiskey in their panoply of ceremonial practices. Instead, the whiskey trade fueled the massive bison slaughter that took place in the Northern Rockies, the real trigger for the  decimation of indigenous nations. Restrictions on liquor were “part of a larger prerogative to constrain indigenous practices that sought to transcend the sober divisions and dissociations of the colonial state … liquor posed a threat to the unraveling of indigenous nonhuman kingship alliances” (p. 13). Boundary making yet again. And wolves fit within this socio-ecology by feeding on the bison carcasses left by this ecological upheaval, which, in turn, gave rise to wolfing as a profession.

This theme of the consequences of establishing boundaries between predators and producers flows throughout the book. For example, Wise provides the reader yet another fascinating exploration of the practice of colonial boundary making in chapter 3. Here he charts how the US Office of Indian Affairs sought to regulate access to meat through the establishment of two slaughterhouses on Blackfoot land. The aim was to shift Blackfoot practice from subsistence hunting to ranching—from predation to production. The slaughterhouse became a tool of colonialism and technology of regulation and assimilation. Even conservation finds its way into this boundary making. Wise contends that conservationists saw themselves as “producers of wildlife” (p. 101) who “protect[ed] the herd from predatory agents to secure its increase” (p. 107). However, Wise suggests that efforts at conservation were intertwined with colonial efforts redefining productivity for indigenous peoples; more precisely, the establishment of conservation areas could only happen through the privatization of reservation land: “Without Indian allotment, the National Bison Range would not exist” (p. 106).  

However, there were elements of this book that required more elaboration. For example, it would have been interesting to spend a bit more time on the Canadian context. I was appreciative that Wise sought to disrupt the national borders in his study. But Canada often gets short shrift in his analysis. This was not the case in chapter 2, which provides a thoughtful juxtaposition of the political economies of Montana and Alberta. But chapters 3, 4, and 5—by which I mean the bulk of the book—are much more focused on Montana than Alberta. Nations may be imagined communities, but they are ideological constructs with teeth and their differences matter, not least for those who are subject to their most brutal exercise of power. More attention to the subtleties in American and Canadian political structures and colonial policies would have been welcome.

In the end, this book will be of great interest to environmental historians, historical geographers, and scholars who examine human-animal relations through time. Wise’s book is hard to categorize. Much more than simply another book on wolves, Wise offers an analysis which is part environmental history and part account of the specificities of colonialism in the Rockies. As such, Producing Predators is a kind of regional political ecology and economic history of human-animal relations in the North American West. And in this effort, he is largely successful, producing an intellectually engaging text.

Printable Version:

Citation: Stephanie Rutherford. Review of Wise, Michael D., Producing Predators: Wolves, Work, and Conquest in the Northern Rockies. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. February, 2017.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.