Tom Power Commentary: “Western Hysteria over Wolves”

It is disturbing to observe how economic insecurity can skew the tone and substance of public political dialogue in irrational directions as people and politicians descend into hysterical hunts for the evil forces that appear to be threatening us. The recent ranting and raving in the Northern Rockies over wolves and the “need” to eliminate them, again, from our natural landscapes is a case in point.
South of Missoula in the Bitterroot Valley, the County Commissioners spent countless hours of hearings trying to drum up support for the county government to take on the responsibility for wiping out resident wolves. The Commissioners declared a “wolf emergency,” announcing that the wolves were on the verge of destroying the Bitterroot Valley economy. Only quick and lethal action could save the county.
This conjures up a post-apocalyptic vision of the Bitterroot Valley under siege, with hordes of drooling wolves, their evil yellow eyes glistening in the moon light, massing on the county borders, poised to attack every man, woman, and child unless lethal force is immediately deployed against those wild predators.
But what exactly was the crisis that threatened the residents of the Bitterroot Valley? The hearings focused on two issues: the impact of wolves on cattle raising operations and the impact of wolves on the Bitterroot elk herds.
Across all of Montana, U.S. Fish and Wildlife investigations fingered wolves in the killing of 61 cows and 378 calves in 2010. Montana had about 2.5 million cattle and total losses of livestock to all sources were about 140,000 animals. Clearly wolves were not threatening cattle raising as an economic activity in the Bitterroot Valley or anywhere else in Montana. As interesting, cattle raising was the source of only a tiny sliver of the overall Bitterroot Valley economy. Net farm earnings in the Bitterroot were actually negative in 2009. Cattle raising is not an important engine of the Bitterroot economy.
One might imagine that elk hunting, by drawing hunters to the Bitterroot, was a vital part of the Bitterroot economy. But most of the hunting there involves residents and visitors from adjacent counties like Missoula who drive down and back. There are, of course, outfitters who guide out-of-state hunters and represent an important seasonal component of the local economy. But it is unclear what the impact of wolves is on high quality elk hunting.
Although the “emergency” announced by the County Commissioners was associated with declines in the size of some of the Bitterroot elk herds, wildlife biologists reject the suggestion that all or most of those declines were tied to the presence of wolves or, even, unwelcomed. In general elk herds in Montana have increased dramatically since wolf populations began rebuilding in 1992. In that year there were an estimated 89,000 elk in Montana but the population now is in the 140,000 to 150,000 range. As has always been true, elk herds like all wildlife populations fluctuate over time for natural reasons. Some herds in some areas are always in temporary decline, sometimes due to purposeful reductions in herd size to match habitat capacity, other times due to natural fluctuations.
Wolves certainly can have an impact of the number of elk. But elk and wolves evolved together and a healthy balance can again be established. But what some anti-wolf folks want is anything but a health balance. They recall the good old days when hunters lined up outside of Yellowstone Park and waited to the unnaturally large elk herds to move out of the park to winter range. As the elk moved out from the protection of the park, a firing line of hunters opened up in a bloody slaughter. The same has happened periodically in the Bitterroot Valley when snow drove large herds down out of the mountains. If this is the type of elk hunting that people wish to bring back, raising elk in protected elk farms and then allowing hunters to go in and shoot the cornered elk might be the best way to revitalize hunting. That type of hunting, with none of the elements of fair chase, knowledge of the landscape and wild animals, and none of the physical effort, however, would probably ultimately end all public support for big game hunting.
Before jumping on the band-wagon that killing off the wolves will improve big game herds, it might be important to read the wildlife biology literature that has studied such efforts to eliminate big game predators. A 2010 study by biologists from the Universities of Montana and Idaho, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and the U.S. Wildlife Service looked at the impact of actually eliminating coyotes and mountain lions in relatively large areas of southeastern Idaho on mule deer populations. It found that: “Annual removal of coyotes was not an effective method to increase mule deer populations.” The killing of all of the coyotes did not result in mule deer population growth. The study also tested eliminating mountain lion populations in large areas where mule deer herds were located and was unable to demonstrate significant changes in population trends when the mountain lions were all killed. The conclusion was that “benefits of predator removal appear to be marginal and short term in southeastern Idaho and likely will not appreciably change long-term dynamics of mule deer populations in the intermountain west.”
It is hard to fathom the emotional outbursts calling for quickly eliminating wolves from Montana and the rest of the West. The stories of economies in ruin and wildlife populations decimated are clearly fabrications. Dreams of mechanically slaughtering elk, deer, and antelope from bloody firing lines can do nothing but end the legitimacy of hunting. Something quite irrational is at work here that carries us back to the days of Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood when wildlands, residents of wildlands, and wild predators were seen as the embodiment of evil, an evil that had to wiped from the face of the Earth. Just why these pre-modern fears and hatreds are bubbling forth now is both puzzling and disturbing.


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