The Politics of the Montana Wolf Hunt


On July 12, 2012, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MDFWP) Commissioners voted 4-0 to increase wolf hunting in the state, expanding the hunting season and permitting the trapping of wolves for the first time as well. The goal is to reduce wolf numbers across the state in hopes that it will calm the hysteria that presently surrounds wolf management.

The commission’s decision to boost wolf hunting and trapping will likely lead to greater conflicts between humans and wolves because MDFWP’s management ignores the social ecology of predators.

Hunting predators tends to skew populations towards younger animals. Younger animals are inexperienced hunters and thus are more likely to attack livestock. Predator hunting disrupts pack cohesion, reduces the “cultural” knowledge of pack members about things like where elk might migrate or where deer spend the winter.

In addition, just as occurs with coyotes, under heavy persecution, wolves respond by producing more pups. More pups means greater mouths to feed, and a need to kill even more game—thus hunting and trapping may actually lead to greater predator kill of game animals like elk and deer.

Thus a vicious self-reinforcing feedback mechanism is set up whereby more predators are killed, leading to greater conflicts, and more demand for even greater predator control.

So why has MDFWP and the commission ignored the social ecology of predators? The answer lies in politics.

Montana’s hunters have been driven to frenzy by various interest groups. Some are just plain ignorant predator ecology and truly believe that the best way to reduce conflicts is to kill more wolves. Less wolves, some believe, means hunter nirvana.  But others have a sinister motive which I believe the MDFWP Commission was in part responding to.

Right-wing conservative groups have seized upon the wolf issue as a way to generate support among ecologically ignorant hunters. They have used the media and hunting advocacy groups (like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation) to sell the idea that wolves were a major threat to big game hunting– despite the fact there are more elk now in Montana than when wolves were first restored.

Others spread stories about wolves carrying off babies and children or spreading infectious disease.

Some of the most conspiracy-minded survivalist types even believe the restoration of wolves is a UN Plot—part of Agenda 21. Agenda 21 is a plan for sustainable living but many conservatives believe is a blue print for a new world order.

And of course against this backdrop we had the livestock industry screaming that wolves were destined to destroy the industry despite an annual loss of less than 100 animals to the predators last year out of a total population of 2.5 million cattle and sheep.

These conservative organizations and individuals successfully made killing wolves a litmus test for politicians and even the MDFWP. If you were not supportive of more wolf persecution, you were, at the very least against rural America and in the minds of some individuals perhaps even against hunters.

At the worse, a decision to lessen the persecution of wolves meant you were sympathetic to animal rights organizations and gun control advocates. What Fish and Game Commissioner wants to be branded as siding with animal rights organizations or the gun control crowd? Of course that is all irrational. But you must remember this issue is not based on rational thought.

It is within this kind of madness that the MDFWP Commissioners were required to make a decision.  If the commission did anything but increase the killing of wolves, it would have certified in many people’s mind, including many hunters that the MDFWP was anti hunter.

The Commission vote demonstrates that Fish and Game agencies are incapable of managing predators based on science or ethics.

One must remember that hunter and angler license sales are the primary funding mechanism for state wildlife agencies. Even if the vast majority of the public were against killing predators, the state agencies are likely to ignore those concerns if there is the perception that the majority of hunters were in favor of more predator control.

The commission, for instance, recently increased the quota for mountain lion in western Montana despite the direct opposition of some its own biologists who argued that such hunting was ineffective and even detrimental to mountain lion populations.

In Montana, as with the rest of the country, I have no doubts that the majority of hunters favor fewer wolves.  And the commissioners have to dance with the one that “brung ya.”

Beyond this political background that the commissioners faced, there was an even larger context.

The right wing conservative organizations, most of them friendly and supportive of Republican candidates for office, were hoping to lay a trap for Democratic politicians. If the Commissioners, who after all, were appointed by a Democratic governor, voted to maintain last year’s hunting quota or god forbid actually reduce or eliminate wolf hunting, it would have been exactly the issue needed to unseat every Democrat in the Montana legislature.

There was a further fear—and a not unwarranted one—that if the MDFWP Commission did not expand wolf hunting and trapping, it could ruin the chances for Democratic candidates for office.  A new Republican governor and Republican dominated legislature it is reasoned, would quickly sweep the MDFWP Commission clear of anyone who didn’t actively promote even more aggressive wolf control.

There is also some who were willing to bet, and probably were correct, that all Democratic candidates would be hurt if the Commission did not expand wolf hunting, including Senator Jon Tester, who is seeking re election to the US Senate.

So it was within this context that the Commissioners had to make their decision.

I do know the MDFWP Commissioners are well educated, thoughtful, and very conscientious men. In my view the MDFWP commissioners are men of the highest integrity.  Although I was not privy to any of their thoughts, I am certain they did not reach their decision, easily nor with any joy.  For some, I am almost certain it was an agonizing and painful splitting of the baby. I would not have wanted to be in their shoes.

I suspect that if you asked them why they decided to expand wolf killing, they would tell you that they know that wolves won’t be eliminated from Montana—and that is a step forward compared to the situation of a few decades ago when there were few or no wolves in the state.

And some might even suggest that once the rhetoric and hysteria dies down, they could envision a more sensible and less vindictive approach to wolf management in the future. There might even be wolf management based on science, including the social ecology of predators, instead of politics.

I am also certain if you could speak to the Commissioners in private when they thought no one would hear, they might admit the wolf had to take the fall for a “greater good.”  As they would suggest, and quite correctly I’m afraid, a Republican Governor in Montana would be even more likely to enact aggressive wolf hunting policies, and appoint Commissioners far less sympathetic to wolf supporters.

It may be difficult to believe that MDFWP Commissioners are sympathetic to wolf supporters given their votes, but I know after attending one of the hearings  that the Commissioners are not personally hostile to wolves.

But I am sure that Commissioners were thinking even beyond Montana state politics when they voted to expand wolf persecution. If somehow right wing conservatives were able to paint Senator Tester as one of the “wolf loving” Democrats, it might hurt his re election bid. After all Tester only won in the last election by a mere 3000 votes.

Whether a correct assumption or not, many Democrats fear if Tester loses his re election, the US Senate could tip to the Republicans. In their worst nightmares, some Democrats  see a situation whereby Republican Mitt Romney wins the Whitehouse, the rabid tea party activists manage to hold on to their stranglehold on the House, and the Senate is controlled by Republicans.

With all legislative bodies held by Republicans and a Supreme Court that sees Corporations as persons, and is generally sympathetic to tea party anti-government rhetoric and big business interests, there is no end to the bad outcomes that one could imagine might befall the country.

Within this political context, a few more dead wolves seems like a small, if not regrettable sacrifice necessary to prevent a far worse calamity for the country. The unfortunate thing for me is that it appears that despite all the scientific research, and “enlighten” environmental concern, predators are still being treated as unwanted and under-valued members of our wildlife heritage.

I might even go so far as to suggest pro wolf sympathizers made some strategic mistakes. They failed to hammer over and over again that predator control is unnecessary, ethically suspect, and only leads to greater conflict.  By not taking the high moral ground, they lost the political debate.

Many were unwilling to argue against wolf hunting in general—afraid that such a position would be unacceptable to most hunters and ranchers.  By passively and in some cases, even agreeing that wolf control was needed, it legitimized the idea that wolf control was necessary. At that point the discussion just degenerates to a debate about how many wolves should be killed, not whether wolves should be killed in the first place.

Environmentalists should stated categorically there is no legitimate reason to kill wolves or any other predators for that matter, except perhaps for the most unusual and special circumstances such as the surgical removal of an aggressive animal.

Instead of arguing that wolves are part of the Nation’s wildlife patrimony that deserve to be treated with respect, appreciation, and enlightened policies, pro wolf activists lost the rhetorical argument by allowing anti wolf forces to define the limits of discussion and successfully frame the issue.

In my view, many conservation organizations lost the debate with their weak and tepid stance.  As many have suggested, boldness is rewarded—and in the case of wolves—boldness by those set on using wolves as a surrogate for conservative values won the political debate.

If environmentalists had made a more cogent argument, marshaled the latent and widespread support for predators, wolves in particular, they might have provided the political cover for the MDFWP commissioners to make a more wolf-friendly decision.

George Wuerthner is an ecologist with among others, a degree in wildlife biology, and is a former Montana hunting guide. He has published 35 books. 

November 26, 2015
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