18 February 2013


A few years ago, gray wolves were delisted from protection under the federal Endangered Species Act in their ranges in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana.  Management of wolf populations was left up to the respective state wildlife management agencies.  Immediately, licensed wolf hunts were established in Montana and Idaho, and a year later in Wyoming.

The rationale for wolf hunts is that they prey on populations of big game (elk, deer, bison), and also that they prey upon domestic livestock.  The reality is that when wolves were eradicated from these regions in the early 20th century, wild prey populations exploded.  Human hunters were delighted, since having more targets meant an easier kill.

But human hunters have not regulated prey species as well as wolves do.  Historically, wolves take down the easiest animals ~ the old, the sick, the very young.  The result is a dynamic equilibrium in which the health of prey species improves over time.  As elk increase in numbers, so do wolves.  As elk decline in numbers, wolves produce fewer and smaller litters of pups to compensate.  This balance worked for thousands of years before European settlers invaded the Americas.  (Humans, on the other hand, tend to target elk in their prime, for trophy heads and for meat.  Genetically, this leaves weaker individuals to breed and perpetuate the species.)

Without their natural predators, prey species numbers blossom beyond the ability of sport and trophy hunters to keep up.  One result is overbrowsing and overgrazing, degrading the habitat for all wild species which live there.  But hunters have grown used to that, and accept it as the norm.  In their eyes, reintroduced wolves are intruders which decimate prey populations (when actually the wolves are only harvesting prey down to a naturally sustainable number, without the need for human intervention).

Since their reintroduction in protected areas like Yellowstone National Park, wolves have thrived.  Their presence not only winnows out the overpopulated elk, it also forces elk to stay on the move, allowing native plant species to reestablish themselves in overgrazed areas.  The return of biodiversity has meant a healthier ecosystem within Yellowstone.  It would mean the same for the entire West, if wolves were protected.

Yellowstone is surrounded by wilderness and ranchland.  Since wolves don't recognize human borders, occasionally an individual or small pack will wander outside Yellowstone, where there are fewer elk and bison, but more cattle.  Being opportunistic hunters, inevitably there have been livestock kills.  Countermeasures designed to discourage wolf predation exist, but most ranchers would rather take the easy way and shoot the wolves.  Or trap them.  Or poison them.

Recently several wolves which were wearing tracking collars as part of ongoing scientific research within the park, were killed outside its boundaries.  An outcry arose among biologists and conservation groups.  In response, Montana wildlife officials proposed a hunting-free zone covering about 60 square miles along the northern edge of the park (see pink area in map below, click to enlarge), but retaining the wolf hunt in the rest of the state (which has an area of 147,000 square miles).  Hunters and ranchers howled, and a judge issued an injunction against the proposal, wildlife officials abandoned their plan, and the hunt goes on.  Statewide, slightly over 650 individual wolves live.  The present goal of wildlife officials is to reduce that number to 450 wolves.  (This, in a state large enough to support several thousand.)

The issue is polarizing and volatile.  A few days ago a blogger called for a boycott of Montana beef as a means of pressuring state officials (and ranchers) to moderate the violence being visited upon wolves.  The statement reads in part ~ "[humans] are waging a war of extermination on wolves, bison and other native species, unparalleled since the ecologically reckless 1800s .... Don't fall prey to the feel-good lure of 'sustainable' grass-fed Montana beef.  In order to sustain cattle, the livestock industry demands that wildlife be controlled by any and every lethal means imaginable.  It's time to hit where it hurts.  For the sake of wolves and bison and biodiversity, boycott Montana beef!"

Those are fighting words to ranchers, who maintain that they not only provide food for the nation, but also that they are preserving a way of life which goes back generations.  That's true as far as it goes, but it ignores the fact that a majority of beef cattle raised in the U.S. come not from the arid West, but from feed lots in the Midwest.  Further, the small-ranch "way of life" is hanging on by its teeth, with many small ranchers having sold out to corporate interests not based within Montana.  Further still, only a part of the larger ranches in the West is deeded land (land owned outright).  A greater portion of the land under their control is leased from federal agencies like the BLM, at a massive discount of pennies on the dollar compared to the leasing of private land.  In short, they're running cattle and making a profit on public land.  Our land.

Emotionally, because I support wildlife over human interference, I'm empathize with the cry for a boycott.  Rationally, I know that inflaming passions will not help the wolves in the long run.  Only reasoned, respectful debate backed by evidence will establish a compromise most of us can live with ~ small ranchers, conservationists, and ecotourists.  With regard to sport and trophy hunters, and especially trappers, I have no sympathy.

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