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Idaho’s Wolf Bounty: a Return to the Dark Ages of Wildlife Management

Timber Wolf. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair

I sometimes feel like I am going back in time when I visit Idaho. The attitudes of Idaho lawmakers and some citizens seems like a time warp. A step backward to the “good old days” is represented by the Idaho Fish and Game Commission who voted to spend $23,069 to help fund a $1000 wolf bounty.

The funds will be given to the Foundation for Wildlife Management, a non-profit group which has been paying trappers and hunters a bonus of $1000 for killing wolves. The foundation also receives funding from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation as well as other donors.

Apparently, the fact that a hunter/trapper in Idaho can legally kill up to 20 wolves a year is not enough incentive for the state’s goal of reducing wolves. It is now reverting to the use of bounties.

Wolf bounties have a long and sordid history in this country, often aligned with discriminatory attitudes towards minorities.

In 1630 one of the first legislative actions of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was to put a bounty on both wolves and Indians.

This attitude of discrimination towards wolves and humans was carried westward. The very first tax that Oregon settlers imposed on themselves were enacted in 1843 to fund a wolf bounty. At about the same time, Oregon residents passed a law that prohibited blacks from settling in in the territory. Any black settler in Oregon could be whipped with “not less than twenty nor more than thirty-nine stripes” for every six months they remained (at that time what is now Idaho was part of Oregon Territory). In 1859 Oregon even rewrote its constitution to prohibit Chinese from owning property.

The same attitudes were carried over into the state Idaho after it separated from Oregon Territory.  Idaho enacted a predator bounty that included wolves in 1907 and passed an “alien” law in 1923 to prohibit Asians from owning property in the state.

Fortunately, these archaic and discriminatory laws towards people have been eliminated, and attitudes towards minorities are more enlightened (but still a long ways to go to end racist policies), but when it comes to predator management, Idaho is going in reverse.

Ironically the Idaho Fish and Game asserts on its web site that “We believe that scientifically developed knowledge and information are the foundation of fish and wildlife management and that we are obligated to develop, use and share such knowledge and information.” Yet numerous studies have found that indiscriminate killing of predators is not based on any “science” and is counter to our current knowledge of the vital role that predators play in ecosystem function.

Wolves help to strengthen prey animals by removing the weak and injured. For instance, there is some evidence that wolves selectively kill elk and deer with Chronic Wasting Disease.

Even if your goal is to decrease livestock losses due to predators, new insights show that indiscriminate killing of wolves disrupts the social ecology of the pack and skews the population towards younger animals who are less experienced hunters. Packs that lose important members are less able to hold a territory likely to be displaced into marginal habitat. This sometimes leads to a higher likelihood that predators will kill livestock.

The Idaho Fish and Game also asserts it is following the North American Model of Wildlife Management, which, among its tenets requires that wildlife not be “wasted.” Most trappers and hunters who target wolves are not eating the animals. And indeed, there are ethical questions about whether the barbaric practice of trapping is humane.

Idaho Fish and Game claim that “All wildlife in Idaho belongs to the citizens of this state. It is held in trust by the state of Idaho for the benefit of its people.”  It would seem the IDFG is ignoring its Public Trust responsibility to manage predators for Idaho citizens, most of whom do not support the persecution of wolves.

Idaho needs to modernize its attitudes towards predators and support the critical role they play in ecosystems. The use of bounties is counter to sound wildlife management, as well as ethics.

More articles by:

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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