By George Wuerthner
The resumption of wolf-hunts in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming illustrates why citizens must continue to oppose such unnecessary and senseless slaughters.
The wolf-hunts are predicated upon morally corrupt and inaccurate assumptions about wolf behavior and impacts that is not supported by recent scientific research. State wildlife agencies pander to the lowest common denominator in the hunting community—men who need to booster their own self-esteem and release misdirected anger by killing.
Wolf-hunts, as Montana Fish and Game Commission Chairman Bob Ream noted at a public hearing, are in part to relieve hunters’ frustrations—frustration based on inaccurate information, flawed assumptions, and just plain old myths and fears about predators and their role in the world.
Maybe relieving hunter frustration is a good enough justification for wolf-hunts to many people. However, in my view permitting hunts to go forwards without even registering opposition is to acquiesce to ignorance, hatred, and the worse in human motivations. Thankfully a few environmental groups, most notably the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians, Alliance for Wild Rockies and Western Watersheds had the courage and gumption to stand up to ignorance and hatred.
All of the usual justifications given for wolf-hunts are spurious at best. For instance, one rationale given for hunting wolves is to reduce their presumed affects on big game populations. Yet in all three states, elk and deer populations are at or exceed population objectives for most hunting units.
For instance in Wyoming, one of the most vehement anti wolf states in the West, the 2010 elk population was 21,200 animals over state-wide objectives, and this did not include data for six herds, suggesting that elk populations are likely higher. Of the state’s elk herds most were at or above objectives and only 6 percent were below objectives. Similar data is found for Idaho and Montana elk herds as well.
However, you would not know that from the “howls” of hunters who characterize the elk populations as suffering from a wolf induced Armageddon. And Fish and Game departments are loath to counter the false accusations from hunters that wolves are somehow “destroying” hunting throughout the Rockies.
Experience in other parts of the country where wolves have been part of the landscape longer suggests that in the long term, wolves while they may reduce prey populations in certain locales generally do not reduce hunting opportunities across a state or region. Despite the fact that there more than double the number of wolves in Minnesota (3000+) as in the entire Rocky Mountain region, Minnesota hunters experienced the highest deer kills ever in recent years, with Minnesota deer hunters killing over 250,000white-tailed deer during each of those hunting seasons – an approximate five-fold increase in hunter deer take since wolves were listed under the ESA in 1978.
Another claim made by wolf-hunt proponents is that hunting will reduce “conflicts” with livestock owners. Again this assertion is taken as a matter of faith without really looking into the veracity of it. Given the hysteria generated by the livestock industry one might think that the entire western livestock operations were in jeopardy from wolf predation. However, the number of livestock killed annually by wolves is pitifully small, especially by comparison to losses from other more mundane sources like poison plants, lightning and even domestic dogs.
For instance, the FWS reported that 75 cattle and 148 sheep were killed in Idaho during 2010. In Montana the same year 84cattle and 64 sheep were verified as killed by wolves. While any loss may represent a significant financial blow to individual ranchers, the livestock industry as a whole is hardly threatened by wolf predation. And it hardly warrants the exaggerated psychotic response by Congress, state legislators and state wildlife agencies.
In light of the fact that most losses are avoidable by implementation of simple measures of that reduce predator opportunity, persecution of predators like wolves is even more morally suspect. Rapid removal of dead carcasses from rangelands, corralling animals at night, electric fencing, and the use of herders, among other measures, are proven to significantly reduce predator losses—up to 90% in some studies. This suggests that ranchers have the capacity (if not the willingness) to basically make wolf losses a non-issue.
However, since ranchers have traditionally been successful in externalizing many of their costs on to the land and taxpayers, including what should be their responsibility to reduce predator conflicts, I do not expect to see these kinds of measures enacted by the livestock industry any time soon, if ever. Ranchers are so used to being coddled; they have no motivation or incentives to change their practices in order to reduce predator losses. Why should they change animal husbandry practices when they can get the big bad government that they like to despise and disparage to come in and kill predators for them for free and even get environmental groups like Defenders of Wildlife to support paying for predator losses that are entirely avoidable?
But beyond those figures, wolf-hunting ignores a growing body of research that suggests that indiscriminate killing—which hunting is—actually exacerbates livestock/predator conflicts. The mantra of pro wolf-hunting community is that wolves should be “managed” like “other” wildlife. This ignores the findings that suggest that predators are not like other wildlife. They are behaviorally different from say elk and deer. Random killing of predators including bears, mountain lions and wolves creates social chaos that destabilizes predator social structure. Hunting of wolves can skew wolf populations towards younger animals. Younger animals are less skillful hunters. As a consequence, they will be more inclined to kill livestock. Destabilized and small wolf packs also have more difficulty in holding territories and even defending their kills from scavengers and other predators which in end means they are more likely to kill new prey animal.
As a result of these behavioral consequences, persecution of predators through hunting has a self fulfilling feedback mechanism whereby hunters kill more predators, which in turn leads to greater social chaos, and more livestock kills, and results in more demands for hunting as the presumed solution.
Today predator management by so called “professional” wildlife agencies is much more like the old time medical profession where sick people were bled. If they didn’t get better immediately, more blood was let. Finally if the patience died, it was because not enough blood was released from the body. The same illogical reasoning dominates predator management across the country. If killing predators doesn’t cause livestock losses to go down and/or game herds to rise, it must be because we haven’t killed enough predators yet.
Furthermore, most hunting occurs on larger blocks of public lands and most wolves as well as other predators killed by hunters have no relationship to the animals that may be killing livestock on private ranches or taking someone’s pet poodle from the back yard. A number of studies of various predators from cougars to bears show no relationship between hunter kills and a significant reduction in the actual animals considered to be problematic.
Again I hasten to add that most “problematic predators” are created a result of problem behavior by humans—for instance leaving animal carcasses out on the range or failure to keep garbage from bears, etc. and humans are supposed to be the more intelligent species—though if one were to observe predator management across the country it would be easy to doubt such presumptions.
Finally, wolf-hunting ignores yet another recent and growing body of scientific evidence that suggests that top predators have many top down ecological influences upon the landscape and other wildlife. The presence of wolves, for instance, can reduce deer and elk numbers in some places for some time period. But rather than viewing this as a negative as most hunters presume, reduction of prey species like elk can have many positive ecological influences. A reduction of elk herbivory on riparian vegetation can produce more song bird habitat. Wolves can reduce coyote predation on snowshoe hare thus competition for food by lynx, perhaps increasing survival for this endangered species. Wolves have been shown to increase the presence of voles and mice near their dens—a boon for some birds of prey like hawks. These and many other positive effects on the environment are ignored by wolf-hunt proponents and unfortunately by state wildlife management agencies as well who continue to advocate and/or at least not effectively counter old fallacies about predators.
Most state agencies operate under the assumption that production of elk and deer for hunters to shoot should have priority in wildlife management decisions. All state wildlife agencies are by law supposed to manage wildlife as a public trust for all citizens. Yet few challenge the common assumption that elk and deer exist merely for the pleasure of hunters to shoot.
I have no doubt that for many pro wolf-hunt supporters’ predators represent all that is wrong with the world. Declining job prospects, declining economic vitality of their rural communities, changes in social structures and challenges to long-held beliefs are exemplified by the wolf. Killing wolves is symbolic of destroying all those other things that are in bad in the world for which they have no control. They vent this misdirected anger on wolves– that gives them the illusion that they can control something.
Nevertheless, making wolves and other predators scapegoats for the personal failures of individuals or the collective failures of society is not fair to wolves or individuals either. The entire premises upon which western wolf-hunts are based either are the result of inaccurate assumptions about wolf impacts or morally corrupt justifications like relieving hunter anger and frustrations over how their worlds are falling apart.
I applaud the few environmental groups that had the courage to stand up for wolves, and to challenge the old guard that currently controls our collective wildlife heritage. More of us need to stand up against persecution of wildlife to appease the frustrations of disenfranchised rural residents. It is time to have wildlife management based on science, and ecological integrity, not based upon relieving hunter frustrations over the disintegration state of their world.
George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology.