Tom Power Commentary: “Wolf Hysteria, Politics, and Wildlife Management”

In a presidential election year, it would be naïve to expect the hysterical tone that has increasingly characterized our public policy dialogue to shift back towards an informed discussion of how to cooperatively solve important common problems. Yet the ongoing descent into “nutsville” is still depressing as we continue to verbally paint ourselves into conceptual corners from which there are no exits.
Women and men who engage in family planning are publicly declared to be promiscuous sluts on national radio. Public efforts to make sure that we are spending our health care dollars in an effective way are labeled “death panels.” The elected leaders of some Montana counties have declared that wolves are threatening the very survival of their citizens, requiring the systematic slaughter of those wolves.
Public policies on which many of us thought there was a broad consensus that was allowing us to successfully improve the quality of our lives and our environment are now under emotional attack as evil: birth control, health care cost containment, Social Security and Medicare, and the maintenance of healthy populations of top wildlife predators.
But no, some parts of our population always seem to need a witch hunt of one sort or another to energize themselves. It is not enough to see a problem and a solution and pursue it. It is important to see evil, moral corruption and enemies and launch a crusade to crush the heretics, meaning those with whom you do not agree.
Wolf management is just one of the latest casualties of this syndrome. Having celebrated success in bringing back a viable population of wolves to the Northern Rockies over a decade ago, after they had been wiped out almost a century earlier, a slowly building hysterical reaction has made it almost impossible to maintain a wolf population sufficient to play its biological role in keeping our other wildlife populations and their habitats healthy.
We are told that the wolves are on the verge of wiping out elk and deer populations despite the fact that most of our big game herds are healthy and larger than they were when the wolf was reintroduced. We are told that the wolves are making cattle raising nearly impossible in Montana despite the fact that out of our millions of cattle and sheep, the documented losses to wolves are at worst a couple of hundred. Many, many more cattle and sheep are lost to other natural forces than to wolves. The discussion even wanders into the world of Grimm Fairy Tales with wolves threatening to carry off young children and stalking our young women.
The Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Commission whose job it is to manage wildlife populations is caught in the middle this political season as the wolf is used as a symbol of the evil federal government that is trying to drive Westerners off the land where it will then confiscate their guns.
So instead of studying the interaction among wolves, mountain lions, grizzly bears, elk, and deer and their common habitats and trying to establish a healthy balance in which large predators can play their natural role, the Fish and Game Commission is struggling against political pressure to simply keep enough wolves alive so that they can be “delisted” under the Endangered Species Act and continue to be managed by the states. That, of course, is not wildlife management. It is token management where you demonstrate that you have kept just enough wolves alive to be “legal,” but the wolf population never becomes a full, active part of the ecology of this great state.
The debate here is not about whether the wolves should continue to be huntable wildlife, although it is probably worth studying what the impact of that hunting actually is on wolf behavior so that we at least know what we are doing. The question is whether we in Montana are going to follow Wyoming and Idaho in a conscious attempt to have as few wolves as possible. What both of those states are intent on doing is returning to the days when wolves were not managed wildlife at all but vermin who could be shot on sight at any time and in any numbers. It was that policy along with bounties and federal predator control agents that wiped out the wolf to begin with. Those other states and Montana’s own wolf opponents have exactly that in mind, if they could legally get away with it. A little radical surgery on the Endangered Species Act by Congress could solve that legal problem for them.
It is in that heated political environment in which the Montana Fish and Game Commission is trying to walk a fine line, keeping a viable, if not functional, wolf population alive, so that the courts will not turn wolf management back over to the federal government, while, at the same time, giving ground to the anti-wolf hysteria that is being pumped up for partisan political purposes. The Commission’s authorization of the trapping of wolves, a barbaric practice that has nothing to do with hunting or sportsmanship, is an indication of how strong that hysterical political wind is blowing.
It may be a long time before anything resembling rational dialogue on any important public policy issue will be possible again in this state or our nation. It will be interesting to see how democracy and community fare in that nasty political setting. It may be that “we the people” will simply stop talking to one another and leave the field open for the newly court-created corporate “persons” to shout shrilly at us from all of our politically saturated electronic devices. It is hard to believe that in that costly corporate financed din anything resembling creative or constructive public policy will survive.

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