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Wolf Restoration

A year ago I wrote a CounterPunch column asking rhetorically if hunters were stupid. In that article I wondered if hunters were aware of the fact that shooting wolves is unpopular with most Americans and if hunting of wolves continued, it might create a backlash against hunting.

To answer my own question I have to say that hunters are not stupid—but most are clueless. Hunters don’t seem to have a inkling about how non-hunters perceive them. Public support for hunting is only luke-warm—the majority of Americans grudgingly accept hunting, but they are not enthusiastic about people killing animals.

Only 10% or so of Americans hunt. Hunters are in the minority and they are largely older white males. In America older white males are in their twilight years. Demographically the country is changing to a more diverse racial, religious and age structure. The majority of Americans who do not hunt only accept hunting if they believe the hunter is killing an animal to eat it. Public support for hunting declines rapidly if hunters kill animals for trophy mounts. When it comes to shooting an animal just to kill it as would be the case for hunters shooting wolves—and/or worse as a matter of vindication as in predator control, public support turns to public opposition.

Both the ESA and wolves are extremely popular with the country as a whole. I suggest that if hunters succeed in this end run around the ESA, and there is the perception of a widespread slaughter of wolves, they are the ones that risk long term public opposition.

This was brought home to me last week. I asked my 13 year old son if he wanted to go hunting with me this fall. He said “Dad, I don’t want to hunt. Hunters are redneck wolf killers. I don’t want to be like them.” Another friend in Montana told me his 14 year old son had the same negative reaction about hunting and hunters and doesn’t want to hunt this year.

Ironically hunters are all worried about their shrinking numbers and how to get kids to become the next generation of hunters. Today’s kids are better informed ecologically than their parents, and most of them have sympathies for animals like wolves. They don’t want to have anything to do with people who kill predators. If hunters want to ensure they won’t have a younger generation following in their footsteps, they could probably not find a better way than advocating wolf killing.

The actions of hunters today and their Congressional allies remind me of the segregationists in the South. I can still see in my mind’s eye the image of George Wallace and the Alabama state police standing on the steps of the University resolutely defying a court order to admit blacks into the University of Alabama. Wallace was immensely popular for his act of defiance against the hated “feds”. Yet Wallace seemed unaware that he was part of the last hurrah of the segregated South. What he did was immensely popular at home, but it was out of step with where America was on race. In the end, thankfully George Wallace and his ilk lost the war—and today we have a black President.

The passion, the anger, and the frustration exhibited by hunters (and ranchers ) is not so much about wolf predation itself. It’s really about control. For decades hunters and ranchers have enjoyed a predator free environment. Hunters have always been the ones who controlled wildlife and state wildlife agencies. The outrage expressed by many hunters and ranchers is a reaction to what is perceived as the audacity of other people in society to assume, much less assert, they should have a voice in wildlife management issues. For decades hunters have considered elk and deer their “property”. You can see this attitude displayed in their angry comments. “We paid for managing wildlife and by gosh, we are the only ones who should have a say in how all wildlife is managed.” The overriding attitude is one of possession. Wolves are killing “our” elk and deer. The deer and elk by all rights exist for us.

The debate over wolf management challenges those assumptions. Just as judges who ordered an end to segregation in the South, shaking up and eventually tumbling a hundred years of racism, hunters (and ranchers) are fearful they are losing their control over wildlife. That’s the context which the wolf debate is framed, and if one doesn’t understand this, the passion, anger, and outrage doesn’t make sense.

Even if with thousands of wolves, the number of cattle and sheep killed by wolves is and would continue to be tiny compared to the number lost to diseases, poison plants, and even domestic dogs. Wolves are not really a threat to the livestock industry. And neither are they a threat to hunting. There will always be plenty of places where hunters can find elk and deer to shoot–hunting isn’t going to disappear because of wolves. So the passions expressed are not based on just the perceived impact of wolves on hunters and ranchers, rather it is the idea that wolves and wolf management challenges the old guard and their position of power. Wolf restoration is more than bringing back a valued predator to the landscape—it is a challenge to the hegemony of the West’s old guard.

Hunters are much like George Wallace standing up in front of the halls of the University. They are standing up to change in the established order of things—and that is scary to anyone. I predict that if hunters succeed in obtaining an exemption to the ESA that permits killing of wolves, it will only swell the ranks of animal rights groups, and anti hunting support around the country. And that, in the end, is a far worse threat to hunting than wolves.

In California after hunters repeatedly countered non-hunters efforts to have a say in cougar hunting, the voters finally outlawed all hunting of cougars. I suspect if hunters push too far, they may well see a similar outcome about wolves. They may be win the first battles, but they are going to lose control of the issue in the end. Not only could this result in a ban on all hunting of predators, but it could well lead to an acceleration of the decline in hunter ranks as more and more moderate and ecologically informed hunters and/or potential young hunters are turned off by hunter attitudes. In the end, hunters have to recognize that there is now a wider public who are demanding a voice in wildlife management.

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George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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