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Posted: Nov 25 2006, 11:33 PM
Member No.: 1
Joined: 10-July 06
By Bill Schneider,
I’ve been writing about wildlife and conservation for 34 years, and one thing I’ve learned is that if you want controversy, write about wolves or hunting. Now, I’m wondering what would happen if I wrote about both at the same time.
Hunting is engrained in the culture of the New West, but demographics are gradually changing with new folks moving in every day from urban America where hunting may not be so engrained into their lifestyle. Still, I feel safe in saying that the majority of NewWesties accept hunting as a legitimate form of outdoor recreation instead of viewing it as legalized murdering of innocent animals.
But will the majority accept wolf hunting? It won’t be too long before we have to answer this question.
As you read this, at dusk in our general big game hunting seasons, the option of making the wolf a trophy big game animal is buried in the management plans, formal and informal, written by the Idaho, Montana and Wyoming wildlife agencies.
Wolf hunting is not a frontline issue, yet, because we have a few hurdles to jump first, not the least of which waiting for Wyoming to cave in on its extreme position on managing wolves. The Cowboy State wants the authority to kill wolves anyhow, anywhere outside of the Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. This extreme position is out of touch with biology and political reality and has prevented the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from approving Wyoming’s management plan as the federal agency has in Idaho and Montana.
Wyoming is also holding up progress in delisting the wolf from the Endangered Species Act, which is the last big official hurdle to jump before we get to have a big fight over wolf hunting. Idaho and Montana want the wolf delisted on a state by state basis instead of waiting for Wyoming to recognize reality, but the FWS prefers to address the entire tri-state population at the same time.
All this haggling among agencies means any formal proposal to make the wolf a big game animal is probably at least a year away, if not several years. But there’s no doubt that it’s coming, probably minutes after all three states finally get complete control of wolf management from the federal government. If I worked for a state travel agency, I’d have plans on the shelf for dealing with a national tourism boycott.
To me, the wolf seems like an agent of change. I lost a big bet on the wolf when I underestimated the green power behind the proposal to bring wolves back to central Idaho and Yellowstone. I bet against it because I thought the wolf represented such a powerful cultural change in the West that it couldn’t come back. I was sure wrong about who had the power, the aggies or greens.
The wolf restoration project proved we could go back and correct past mistakes, even when faced with intense political resistance. Bringing the wolf back was like bringing the wild back into the West.
Now, the symbol of change, Canis lupis, is back in full force. Back in January 1995, 14 gray wolves rode in boxes on trailers down from Canada through the Theodore Roosevelt Arch and into fenced pens up in Crystal Creek in the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone Park. Two months later, wildlife officers left the gates open one day and three packs of wolves burst out into the virgin territory of Yellowstone to launch a sea change in western culture.
Over in central Idaho, the same thing happened. Although lost in the fanfare of the Yellowstone wolves, even more Canadian wolves, 35 in total, were released in central Idaho.
Now, a decade later, we have at least 1,000 wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. That means we’re close to the total number of wolves that will ever be allowed to exist in the New West.
If we aren’t quite at the total, we soon will be because wolves aren’t like grizzly bears, which have close to the lowest reproductive rate of any mammal. Wolves, on the other hand, when in good habitat with an adequate prey base, reproduce like rabbits.
With so many wolves, two things are certain. First, wolves will persist in eating a lot of elk and deer and a few cows, sheep and domestic dogs, much to the disdain of ranchers and some big game hunters and outfitters, keeping an age-old conflict alive.
And second, we will have to decide how to control wolf numbers. If we don’t have active control, those 1,000 wolves will become 10,000 wolves in a few years, and we’ll have the Big Dog everywhere -- Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, eastern Colorado, Black Hills, anywhere with adequate prey, wild or domestic.
Allowing the wolf to reclaim its entire native habitat won’t fly with the majority, so we will need control. We will have to kill wolves to save wolves. But how?
Right now, we have limited control through management actions i.e. professional biologists trapping or shooting wolves that have lost their way and acquired a taste for lamb chops. But this option, although perhaps most palatable to wolf lovers, is expensive and only targets the bad actors while ignoring the most of the population out there eating natural prey and making lots of baby wolves.
I suspect all other options will be less palatable. We could hire professionals to shoot, trap or poison wolves, a quasi-resurgence of the old ways, maybe even bring back the crusty “wolfers” of western lore. They could bring back the wire “loop” used to drag wolf puppies out of dens so their heads could be bashed in and piled up for bounty payments.
Or we could see the wolf in the same light as bighorn sheep or mountain goat, a trophy animal, and sell a limited number of permits each year to control the population. Think about it.
There you go. You heard it here first, and it will be interested to see what we decide.