It’s nothing more than “people on the Front Range—a bunch of city dudes” trying to “cram it down our throats.” That’s how one Colorado rancher described a ballot initiative that mandated the state’s impending reintroduction of the gray wolf, after its nearly century-long absence from the state. In 2020, Colorado voters approved a measure to reintroduce wolves by a margin of 50.9% to 49.1%. The vote could hardly have split along a starker urban-rural divide: City dwellers in Denver, Colorado Springs and other population centers and ski towns voted in favor of reintroduction, and virtually every rural county voted against it. Essentially, the people who would bear none of the costs of managing wolves, which are protected by the federal government as an endangered species, wanted them to return. Yet most of the people who would bear the costs, in the form of killed livestock and other disruptions from the predators, didn’t want anything to do with them.
If you’re looking for a modern symbol of today’s hyperpolarized culture wars, you could do worse than Canis lupus. Predator politics in the West are not only emblematic of environmental conflicts, but they also mirror broader trends in contemporary politics. Polarization has deepened divisions and eroded trust in society, turning many environmental issues into culture war battlegrounds often amplified by rural-urban divisions. Whether it’s the water wars of the Southwest, the timber wars of the Pacific Northwest or the wolf wars of the Northern Rockies, environmental debates often devolve into bitter fights between competing groups. Battle lines fall along familiar divides—farmers vs. urbanites, developers vs. wildlife advocates, ranchers vs. environmentalists—with seemingly little or no room for dialogue or cooperation.
But this supposedly intractable problem can be ameliorated—and the answer can be found in innovative market approaches that connect competing groups to resolve environmental challenges through cooperation instead of conflict.