I recently attended the wolf hearings held by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission in Helena. Proposals were outlined to significantly reduce the state’s wolf population by more aggressive hunting and trapping.
Unfortunately the proposal to reduce wolf numbers will result in a lot of unnecessary killing, based upon faulty assumptions that will produce questionable outcomes.
The major arguments of proponents in favor of wolf reductions were based on two flawed starting assumptions: wolves are a threat to hunting opportunity and the livestock industry.
Consider, for instance, the claim that wolves are destroying hunting opportunity. In 1992 when the state completed its elk management plan, and three years before wolves were reintroduced, there were an estimated 89,000 elk in Montana. A recent communication I had with the Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist responsible for tracking game populations suggests elk numbers have nearly doubled since 1992, with the current state-wide elk population estimated to be over 140,000 animals.
Even as I write this commentary, the headlines in this week’s papers proclaimed “Surveys Show Big Game Populations Bouncing Back.”
Accusations that wolves are a menace to the state’s livestock industry are equally as questionable. Last year according to the Montana Dept of Livestock, more than 140,000 cattle and sheep died from various causes including poisonous plants, disease, and other factors. Out of these 140,000 animals, wolves were responsible for less than a hundred deaths.
That is not to suggest that wolves can’t at times depress game herds or pose a potential economic burden on individual ranchers, but can anyone argue that wolves are a genuine threat to hunting or the livestock industry that justifies indiscriminate state-wide persecution?
However, the worse part about the proposal to intensify the hunting and trapping of wolves is that a growing body of research suggests persecution of predators doesn’t work. It may be counter intuitive, but indiscriminate hunting and trapping appears to increase, rather than decrease, human/predator conflicts.
One can’t manage predators like other wildlife. Predators have social interactions that affect their response to population controls. A failure to consider the social ecology of predators may ultimately exacerbate human/wolf conflicts.
Biologically speaking you can kill a lot of wolves annually, and wolves can respond with higher pup production and survival. However, aggressive predator control may have unintended consequences.
Hunting and trapping tends to skew wolf populations towards younger age classes; Younger animals are less skillful hunters and thus the very animals most likely to turn to livestock for food.
And even where wolves may not seek out livestock, a population of wolves dominated by many young breeding pairs and hungry pups may actually increase the need for more food, thus amplify predation upon game animals.
Many wolves co-exist with livestock, thus indiscriminate and random removal of wolves by hunting and trapping can create a void that may be filled by other predators that may be more inclined to prey on livestock.
And just as communities can adapt to co-exist with the occasional wildfire by installation of metal roofs and creation of defensible space around homes, human/wolf conflicts can more effectively be solved through the adoption of non-lethal animal husbandry practices, combined with the occasional surgical removal of specific animals, rather than by aggressive state-wide predator control.
A good example is found in California. In 2000 Marin County Commissioners voted to try a different path to reduce livestock losses to predators than the traditional lethal predator control. Rather than spend public funds to kill predators, the county helped ranchers purchase predator-proof fences, buy guard animals and make other changes in animal husbandry. In the end there was a reduction in livestock losses, while at the same time the county spent less funds to implement non-lethal measures than it had previously spent on lethal predator control.
A similar effort in Montana’s own Blackfoot Valley helps ranchers remove carcasses that are an attractant to predators, thereby reducing conflict with bears and wolves.
Such changes in policies demonstrate what is possible when people use their brains instead of their guns.
If Montanans use intelligence instead of brawn, we can develop new approaches to predator management that sees wolves as a valued member of the state’s wildlife heritage and an asset to the state, instead of falling back on the same ineffective and failed policies of the past.
-George Wuerthner is a hunter, former Montana hunting guide and with a long-time interest in predator ecology living in Helena, Montana.