The Unintended Consequences of Wolf Hunting
In my younger days I worked for the BLM in Boise, Idaho. A new range conservationists, named Daryl, came to the district. On Friday after work, we invited Daryl to a party so he could meet some of the local folks. I was talking to a couple of women when Daryl ambled up to us with a beer in his hand and big smile on his face. I introduced him and he started talking to the ladies
I think on the whole he was making a good impression. Dressed in his cowboy boots and jeans, Daryl made a striking figure. After making some small talk for a while, Daryl made his move. He asked them if they wanted to go gopher shooting on Saturday. “Gopher shooting” they asked incredulously? “Yeah, he said, “gopher hunting—you know blowing away gophers.” They looked stunned and remained silent. So Daryl tried to recover and said, “The fun part is seeing the red mist rise in the air when you hit one. It’s an incredible rush,” he said with obvious enthusiasm.
Those women just looked at each other like they couldn’t believe what they were hearing. He might as well ask them if they wanted to go the park and molest children. The women fled. Daryl was left baffled and standing alone. He just couldn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to go blow away gophers, especially when he offered to bring a spare rifle so they could join in the fun.
Poor Daryl had grown up on a farm in North Dakota, and more recently had worked in Burns Oregon. In his world, shooting gophers was considered a legitimate recreational pastime. But what passes for fun in rural America seems like senseless killing to most urban dwellers.
Sometimes I think most hunters in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming are as clueless as Daryl. They can’t seem to comprehend how killing wolves baffles, if not outright infuriates, a lot of people. Wolf killing gives fodder to those who want to stop all hunting. Sometimes when I see these rural rubes, with their often ample bellies hanging over their equally ample belt buckles, strutting around celebrating the initiation of a wolf hunting season and talking about how it’s an "adrenaline rush" to shoot one, I have to wonder if they are brain dead or just incredibly naïve and ignorant about the rest of mainstream society’s values? They apparently cannot imagine how much some forms of hunting, including the shooting of an icon like the wolf, turns off the rest of society to hunting.
Most people don’t hunt, so the perception of hunting and hunters is key to how society will tolerate and support hunting as a legitimate activity. Yet most hunters seem to take the knee jerk attitude that anyone who objects to any form of hunting or kind of hunting, no matter how barbaric, is either a member of PETA, or just doesn’t “understand” Nature. The truth is that many of those objecting to wolf hunting are neither ignorant of ecology nor members of PETA or any other animal rights organization. Americans are willing to accept some forms of hunting, typically if the animal is used for food and/or if there is a legitimate safety issue—say animals carry rabies. But they don’t support outright slaughter of animals for no reason other than someone thinks killing is fun or a challenge. I and many of my friends hunt—but we all eat the animals we kill, and we don’t kill animals unnecessarily or with malice against them.
Furthermore, many Americans, including myself, consider spotting a wolf in the wild as a cherished event. Despite the claims by some hunters that there are “too many” wolves in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, the chance of seeing one of these animals in the wild is extremely rare. There are less than 2000 wolves spread over three of the largest western states. Imagine if there were only 2000 deer spread over all three states—would hunters think there were “too many?”
Plus, for many Americans, wolves are symbolic of a largely lost heritage of the wild, unfettered nature. And for some, such as myself, wolf restoration represents the best of American values—acknowledging the great ecological wrong we imposed upon the land when we extirpated wolves, and an attempt to heal the ecological wounds we created. So the idea that any state would implement a policy to restrict or reduce wolves is something to strongly oppose.
As the ecologist Aldo Leopold noted years ago, wolves also play an important biological role as a top down predator that has many ecological ramifications across the landscape. Unfortunately most hunters have not yet developed the ability to “think like a mountain” as Leopold admonished.
We do know that wolves select different animals in the herd from hunters. Wolves, while opportunistic, still tend to kill the young, old, and injured. They can keep herd animals free from disease and can sometimes have significant influence upon other animals and plants. For example, it’s theorized that hey alter habitat use by ungulates, for instance, moving elk out of riparian areas. Even when wolves severely reduce prey numbers, they are performing an important ecological function by providing plant communities respite from heavy browsing pressure.
Hunters by contrast, tend to kill the productive age healthy animals, and have less ecological influence upon prey species and habitat use than native predators.
Of course, some hunters rationalize killing wolves because they suggest the animals “need” to be managed. I hear that all the time, as if somehow the natural world had gone to hell in a hand-basket before Euro Americans arrived just in the nick of time to rescue Nature from imminent collapse. Of course, the “need” to manage wolves is both a self-created and self-justifying excuse to kill animals that most hunters wish would just go away or at least believe should be kept at much lower numbers.
All this talk about the so called “need” to manage wolves is disingenuous at best. Any good ecologist will tell you that wolves and other predators do not need to be “managed” since they are more or less self-regulating by prey availability and social interactions. The only reason one has to “manage” wolves is because state wildlife agencies want to sell more hunting licenses. (There may be rare instances where lethal action is necessary where an animal may have become habituated to people and poses a safety concern, but that is entirely different than “sport hunting”.)
I doubt most agencies care about predator social interactions. They treat wolves and other predators like cogs in a wheel—interchangeable parts. Shoot some wolves. Not to worry, more will be born. But the interactions between wolves, prey, and humans are not so simple. Animals have real social lives that influence many aspects of their behavior.
Indiscriminate hunting, by disrupting these social relationships, can exacerbate the conflicts between wolves and humans. Killing a large percentage of wolves in any area creates many of the so called “problems” that hunting is supposed to reduce. Indiscriminate hunting and reduction of wolves (as opposed to the surgical elimination of a particular animal or group) skews the local population towards younger animals which are less skilled hunters, thus more likely to attack easy prey like livestock.
Also with more young animals breeding, that produce more pups, you actually increase the total biomass requirements of packs so that even if they don’t prey on livestock, wolves are likely to need more prey—i.e. those elk, deer, and moose that hunters covet. Nothing will do more to create animosity and conflict towards predators than hunting. But you won’t hear this from any state wildlife agency since it’s not in their interest to worry about social interactions of animals.
Yet if you read hunting magazines and/or listen to hunters discussing the future of their favorite activity, you find a common theme is that predators are destroying game herds, and the “antis” are out to take away their guns. The “antis” are, of course, anyone else who doesn’t hunt. Most hunters spend more time complaining about the “antis” than doing anything meaningful to protect the habitat that is central to all hunting.
The real threat to hunting doesn’t come from PETA or any other animal rights group, but from the habitat loss resulting from oil drilling, logging, livestock grazing, ATVs, sprawl, and all the rest of the development and degradation of natural landscapes that continues unabated daily. Some hunters and some pro hunting organizations like the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, among others recognize this, and certainly most agency biologists are well aware of this threat, but the average hunter seems less interested in protesting against oil wells, expanding ATV use, and/or sprawl than complaining about the antis.
If hunters want to help realize their worst fears—that is fuel opposition to hunting by society–they could find no better way to do this than continue blowing away wolves. But if Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho want to signal to the world that they have entered the 21^st Century and no longer hold archaic and outdated ideas about predators, they can begin to value wolves as essential for ecological diversity, as well as their role in the American imagination as symbols of what we are doing right to heal the ecological wounds we created. The way to do this is to stop the hunting of all predators starting with wolves.
GEORGE WUERTHNER is a wildlife biologist and a former Montana hunting guide. His latest book is Plundering Appalachia.