Last week the wolf was delisted under the Endangered Species Act and state wildlife agencies were permitted to take over wolf management. Most state wildlife agencies profess a desire to minimize human-wolf conflicts. Yet their management plans are, without exception, guaranteed to create greater conflicts.
All state wildlife agencies are guilty of conveniently ignoring the socio-biological relationship of predators like the wolf which makes any indiscriminate killing of animals counter productive. Just as a hundred years of coyote persecution has failed to reduce rancher/coyote conflicts, so called wolf “management” by the states will have the same effect.
Indiscriminate killing of predators–and hunting by sportsmen and/or predator control by wildlife services is indiscriminate–disrupts wolf social relationships within packs, relations with other packs, as well as relations with other predators. Even if hunting/predator control worked–which it doesn’t–it is a blunt tool at best for resolving wolf-human conflicts.
First a hunted/persecuted population tends to have more fragmented smaller packs–usually consisting of two adults plus pups. Collectively 2-3 packs of this social organization may occupy the same territory as one pack with intact social organization that may have 3-6 adults. So instead of one wolf pack occupying X amount of territory, you get three with the same number of adults, but many more pups to feed. Just the odds that any pack will attack livestock goes up tremendously when you have more packs, so two or three different packs are far more likely to attack livestock than one pack.
Furthermore, when the wolf population becomes skewed towards younger animals, they breed earlier, and produce more pups. Young rapidly growing pups, just like my own teenagers, eat a lot of food. If you have a pack that consists of two adults with 5-8 pups, they need more food per capita than a pack with 4-5 adults and 2-5 pups (which is what you are more likely to get with wolves living at near capacity and not suffering continual persecution). Consequently even if the “total” number of wolves is the same, the predation effect is greater. Packs composed primarily of young animals are more likely to require more elk and deer–even if they resist the temptation to kill livestock. Raising a young family requires more food for sustaining a pack than a more socially stable pack with older pack members–not too much different than from us humans.
Finally hunting and persecution of wolves can often lead to higher numbers of other predators like bears and lions. For instance, in Yellowstone, bears take more elk calves than wolves. In other places, lions may benefit from persecution of wolves with increased numbers, and of course higher predation on elk and deer.
The unfortunate fact is that all three states are managing wolves using 19th Century attitudes and science, and ignoring 21st Century socio-ecological insights. Hunting of predators–other than the surgical removal of an occasional offending animal–is a process for conflict.
It is a self full-filling process where by wolf-killing begets a demand for even more wolf-killing in a never ending cycle that ultimately satisfies no one. In the end everyone loses. Ranchers lose by suffering more predator losses than necessary. Hunters lose in two ways–bad press for hunters by killing an animal that a majority of people do not want shot, and secondarily by increasing the predation on elk and deer over and above what would otherwise occur. Finally, wolves lose by garnering a bad reputation they don’t deserve.
George Wuerthner is an ecologist, writer and photographer with 34 published books, including Wild Fire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy and Montana, Magnificent Wilderness and, most recently, Thrillcraft: the Environmental Consequences of Motorized Recreation.