Of Wolves and the Ethical Hunter

In light of the recent successful delisting of the wolf by Congress, I have been thinking a lot about why I so strenuously object to killing wolves. I can accept hunting that I feel is legitimate—such as the hunting for food done by those who pursue elk, deer, ducks, and so forth under legal seasons, bag limits and other modern wildlife management authority. Just because killing wolves will now be legal in states like Idaho and Montana does not make it legitimate to me.

I should interject here that I don’t believe the state’s goals are to extirpate wolves again. I’m not worried that wolves will disappear from Idaho or Montana. But I do not think we should take the killing of wolves or any other animal lightly. Unnecessary killing is not something that should be condoned.

This is not a blind opposition to all hunting. I believe that hunting can be a legitimate activity. The hunter is legitimate in my view when hunting is done with humility and respect for the animals. When the animal’s death is not taken for granted or trivialized. And the hunter must practice the up-most ethical behavior when pursuing animals. And sometimes I can condone hunting (or more properly perhaps I should call it shooting) when it is the best way to perform what I might call some ecological necessity–say shooting feral animals on some island that is raising havoc with native wildlife.

I also believe hunters, perhaps, more than other sub-groups have a moral and ethical responsibly to watch dog, monitor and police their own ranks. Hunters, by the right that society gives them permission to kill things, should be the ones that take killing seriously. And they have an obligation to really think about the killing they are doing, and whether that killing is warranted, and necessary.

Personally, I don’t use the word “harvest” when talking about killing wildlife. That kind of terminology in my mind minimizes what is being done–the killing of another creature–and I think words like “harvest” desensitizes one to what is happening.

When does hunting start to border on illegitimate? That is a hazy area, of course. In my view blasting “gophers” and “prairie dogs” for fun, coyote hunts, and that like are clearly illegitimate activities. I don’t think shooting “gophers” so you can see the “red spray” is ethical. It demonstrates no respect for the animals. It does not represent humility by the hunter. It trivializes the death of a creature.

What makes something legitimate gets back, in part, to why we do things. Shooting animals out of season is what we call poaching. And especially if someone were killing say elk to sell the meat and antlers, most of us feel is wrong, even though the person is just killing the elk, the exact same thing a hunter might do during hunting season. On the other hand, if someone shoots a deer out of season to feed their starving family most of us would at least be willing to forgive someone for such an offense, even if it were still illegal. But I would want to know that all other avenues for feeding their family were exhausted–i.e. you could not get food from welfare and/or donations from a church, etc. Nevertheless, you get the point. Depending on the circumstances, the same basic action can be ethical or unethical.

I can support the killing of an elk during hunting seasons, for instance, for many reasons. A person is going to eat something for food and killing an elk and/or say keeping a trout (or whatever animal is consumed) generally is in the category of a “necessity”. Not that there aren’t other alternatives to hunting and fishing–obviously one can buy meat or fish at the grocery store, grow veggies in their garden and so on. Still getting meat from a grocery results in the killing of an animal as well, and I can make a very strong case that agriculturally raised meat whether in a factory farm and/or range cattle out on public lands has a tremendous amount of negative impacts to the land and other wildlife, not to mention even serious ethical questions about how the domestic animals are treated themselves. Thus I don’t have a problem with someone killing an elk or deer to consume if they feel eating some meat is something they want in their diet. (Putting aside the legitimate question of whether one needs to eat meat in the first place for the moment, if one has decided that consuming meat is acceptable, than hunting is a legitimate means of obtaining food in my view).

I also place value on the pursuit of wildlife. Hunting, because it is serious business when done correctly, puts a person in more direct contact with the entire web of life. This is a difficult thing to explain, but it is real. And I think many hunters experience this when afield. Thus hunting has value to both individuals and society as a consequence. I would liken it to growing a garden. Most of us can get our vegetables from the grocery store, but as any gardener will tell you, there is value to growing one’s own food that goes beyond just satisfying a need for food.

But I don’t necessary support the killing of all animals just because someone is going to eat it. There are also other considerations in how I view and determine whether the hunting is ethical. I need to know that the hunter takes death of an animal seriously and does everything they can to avoid unnecessary suffering of the creature they are killing. Killing needs to be done quickly and as humanely as possible.

I also need to know that the animal being killed is relatively common so that killing it does not jeopardize its overall population. Obviously that is not an issue in most of the common species we hunt today like deer, elk, and so forth. For species that are rarer, I start to question whether hunting is legitimate even if one could argue you are eating the meat. For instance, I question hunting grizzlies for that reason. Grizzlies are not really common anywhere, even when they are not hunted as in some of the big parks in Alaska.

I then ask if hunting and taking a lot of these animals from the landscape going to have serious impacts on other wildlife (i.e. is the killing of that particular species in that particular part of the country taking food out of the mouth of other wildlife and/or seriously interrupting with some major ecological function–nutrient cycling, etc.) Nutrient cycling is a good example of why at least as far as catching salmon for sport doesn’t bother me, but I have some serious reservations about the degree of salmon removal by commercial fishermen in terms of nutrient return to headwater streams.

After that I look at how the animals are pursued. Running down a deer on a snowmobile and then shooting it would fall into the illegitimate category even if that person were going to eat the meat. This is all about what is commonly called “fair chase”. Fair chase is one of those changing values–what was “fair” in the past, isn’t necessarily fair today and technology has skewed the boundaries quite a bit. Is using GPS on hounds to chase down a cougar, then when the “treed signal” is heard, you get out of your pick-up truck and amble up to the tree and shoot the cat out of it fair chase? I don’t think so.

So these are some of the things that I consider to develop my current position about wolf management (which is just a euphemism for killing them). One of the reasons I am skeptical of state management of wolves is due to history. Can a species that has been so viciously maligned for so long be successfully “managed” by the same state agencies that depend upon license sales to hunt wolf prey like elk and deer to fund their bureaucracies? I recognize that there are many fine biologists working for these agencies who appreciate the important biological value of having wolf predation, but even they “must dance with the ones that brung ya”—and the majority of hunters want fewer wolves.

Because of this legacy of historic persecution, wolf “management” as it’s called by states like Idaho and Montana is, to my mind, is done for all the wrong reasons. Despite what some may say about how they just want to hunt wolves like they hunt deer, elk, etc. the bottom line for most hunters, and the reason for the ‘management’ is not any of the above legitimate reasons for hunting. We are persecuting wolves because they are thought to be competition for elk and deer and/or a threat to livestock producers.

I would not support wolf control and management even if I thought that wolves were a serious threat to elk and deer populations. However, the truth is that these justifications are more imaginary than real.

Even if I believed wolves did have a significant impact on state-wide elk and deer numbers, I would still argue that hunters have to accept that they are sharing the world with other creatures, and wolves have a greater “right” to the elk and deer than the average human hunter–in part because we do have alternatives. We are not going to starve if we don’t shoot a deer or elk.

The same can be said for livestock producers. There are many proven techniques to reduce predator losses that livestock producers can implement. While there may be the occasional need to surgically remove an individual animal or even a pack of wolves, if most livestock producers practiced better animal husbandry, much of the conflict would cease to exist–and I believe ranchers have an ethical responsibility to implement these measures so that both their animals and the predators do not have to suffer.

However, what particularly bothersome to me about this persecution of predators is that there is a growing body of scientific evidence that suggests that “managing” wolves may actually be counterproductive for even the stated goals of wolf control proponents. Hunting predators can increase conflicts with livestock producers, and could under some circumstances, even hasten the decline of big game herds because of the social chaos and population structural changes that occurs with indiscriminate hunting.

Hunting can skew the wolf populations to younger animals, breaking up larger packs into smaller packs, which can lead to more conflicts. For instance, young animals are less skillful hunters, they do not know the territory as well as older animals—things like where the elk migrate or calve. Packs that are continuously suffering mortality from persecution have a more difficult time holding on to territory. Smaller packs cannot defend kills against other scavengers readily. A big intact pack can kill an elk and guard the carcass from bears, coyotes, ravens and other animals while consuming it entirely, reducing the need to kill another deer or elk. Thus wolves that suffer from wolf “management” are more likely to attack livestock and sometimes even consume more prey than unmanaged packs.

In addition, there is more and more evidence about the ecological role of predators in functioning ecosystems or what has been termed “trophic cascade”. This research suggests, among many ecological benefits associated with predators, that predator induced reductions in elk and deer numbers in some places, at some times, is “good” for ecosystem function. And since wolves have been doing this for eons eliminating these ecological influences is done at our peril. Just as we now understand that damming rivers and changing the flow has serious consequences for many fish, plants, and birds, we must recognize that predators have an important ecological function and eliminating that function across wide swaths of the land is probably not a good idea.

So when hunters say they are not opposed to having a few wolves around, but we need to control them so they don’t diminish the number of elk and deer, I believe it’s essential that thinking hunters respond by saying we shouldn’t be so quick to eliminate something that was so important to ecosystem health and function for so many centuries. We actually “need” to have wolves and other predators to reduce prey populations. Trying to “smooth” out these kinds of natural population fluctuations of prey species as is the accepted “goal” of wildlife management may not be a good idea for healthy ecosystems.

No only does predator “management” result in unnecessary killing, but it jeopardizes ecological function and doesn’t even achieve the stated goals of reducing conflicts with livestock producers and could even hasten decline in prey populations for hunters. Hunters as much as any group should be advocating healthy ecosystems—since in the end the long term value of habitat is dependent on healthy ecological function.

That’s why I believe that of all sub-groups of people who might be opposing wolf “management” it ought to be hunters who should be most strongly opposing this proposal. Yet, not surprisingly, what I hear is strident calls for killing wolves by most hunters, and even the ethically inclined hunters are generally silent, silenced because they are afraid to be called “anti hunting” or even worse, an “animal rights advocate”. But of all groups of people, I think hunters should be among the most outspoken advocates of predators.

I do not think wolf killing rises to that level of ethical hunting, ecological necessity, and/or food necessity.

GEORGE WUERTHNER is an ecologist and former Montana hunting guide.



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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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