Man versus wolf. It is a fight that has been waged throughout history, but like most everything, the dynamic changed radically over the course of the last 150 to 200 years.
After nearly being hunted to extinction, wolf populations in the United States are just recovering enough now that the US Fish and Wildlife Service would like to have gray wolves removed from the Endangered Species List, on which they've been listed since 1974.
But as that debate is waged in Washington (though, temporarily stalled due to the shutdown), right now hunters in Michigan, Montana, Wisconsin and Idaho are planning to do their part to kill off a number of the rebounding animals, while conservationists are raising concerns that we're moving too quickly from recovery efforts back to eradication.
On Monday, both supporters and opponents to the plan to delist wolves as endangered gave testimony at the Department of Interior, which plans to make a decision within a year.
LiveScience's Megan Gannon reports:
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to lift federal protections for all gray wolves in the continental United States, except for a struggling population of a subspecies, Mexican wolves, found in the Southwest. The agency argues the threat of extinction has been eliminated; wolves' numbers have bounced back to healthy levels and have even surged beyond recovery goals.
But critics, including several biologists, say the move is premature. They are concerned that the proposal would result in more aggressive management tactics and hunting policies, and could hurt the species' chances of recolonizing other parts of their historic range. Some scientists wonder if the battle raging over wolves stems from greater confusion about how to define recovery and deal with threatened wildlife in the United States — especially species as storied and controversial as the wolf.
Despite being classified as an endangered species, ranchers and farmers are allowed to kill wolves that they deem are a threat to livestock and wolf hunts have restarted.
Justin King at Digital Journal reports that this year, wildlife officials in Montana have taken several significant steps to kill more wolves:
This year, the fee for a license to kill a wolf in the state of Montana was dropped to only $19. Each hunter is allowed to kill up to five wolves, and the period in which they are hunted has been extended.
At the beginning of this year, there were only 625 wolves in Montana, a slight drop from the year before. If only 2.1% of hunters issued a permit this year reach their bag limit, the wolf will disappear from Montana altogether. As wolves are pack animals, a single hunter will likely be able to kill several wolves in a single trip.
In the 1990s, wolves in Montana were hunted to the point that Canadian wolves had to be brought in to supplement the numbers. State officials have decided to drive down the number of wolves in the state, though have not set a clear plan on the number where they would like the population’s numbers.
Judging by the number of permits issued for the number of wolves around, it appears as if Montana wants the number of wolves to be zero.
In Michigan, despite an effort by citizens to bring wolf hunting up for a state-wide vote, the hunt is moving forward, but in a more controlled manner. 1,200 permits are being issued to hunters, but only 43 wolves can be killed legally.
This video from Detroit Free Press explains how this hunt is managed:
Conservation groups opposed to hunting are still working to raise awareness about the hunts. The Center for Biological Diversity released this video to raise awareness of Montana’s increasing efforts at hunting wolves.
I don't personally support the approach Earth First! is taking, but I think before you make a judgement about whether we should be killing or protecting wolves, it is useful to understand what they do for us.
In July, Jaymi Heimbuch asked if wolves should be removed from the endangered species list and referenced Ted Williams' overview of the debate at Yale Environment 360 Williams, himself a hunter and conservationist, explained why wolves as apex predators were so important to ecosystem balance:
As wolves spread through Yellowstone and beyond ranchers noticed that sheep losses were down. That’s because coyotes are naturally more numerous than wolves, and wolves are the only form of coyote control that ever worked. In the park’s Lamar Valley, coyotes had consumed 85 percent of the mice; but by killing or evicting most of the coyotes the wolves returned that food base to an enormous array of other predators including foxes, weasels, badgers, owls, and hawks. As wolves ran overabundant elk out of riparian areas, aspen, cottonwood, and willow regenerated and with them leaf-eating insects that had been the base of a food chain sustaining everything from bats to swallows to trout to otters to ospreys to pelicans.
As the NPR piece and the Yale E360 essay both show, somewhere between these extremes of hunter and aggressive conservationists there exists a middle ground where we can figure out what it means to live sustainably with wolves. But at the core of this debate is the issue of conflict between man, nature, and what our society values.
I've covered how we are killing wild horses in the US because they eat food used for grazing beef cattle. And just this week, I wrote about NBC canceling a trophy hunting show after an NRA lobbyist shot an elephant. Hunters like that claim they are trying to feed hungry Africans and help farmers who see their crops damaged by elephants. And the most common argument we hear for killing wolves is that they threaten livestock.
In all of these cases, we must ask who is doing the real interfering?
John Vucetich, a Michigan Technological University biologist who studies wolves, summed up this point-of-view well in an interview with LiveScience.
Deciding where wolves belong today after the animals were nearly exterminated becomes a matter of ethics, not science.
"I don't think we have any clue as a society what counts as an endangered species," Vucetich told LiveScience last week.
"The big-picture problem is probably the hardest one, and every citizen has a stake in that: Why do we have such a hard time getting along with wolves?" Vucetich said. "When we talk about these things, it's really about our relationship with nature: Why do we have such a hard time getting along with nature?"
We all know that there's always going to be a certain level of destruction of nature that comes from our very existence and it's mentally helpful to just come to terms with that, obviously. But at the same time, we shouldn't simply kill or cut down or pave over anything that is a nuisance or threat, especially when we've shown ourselves to be so adept at going too far and pushing entire species to extinction. Wherever conflict with nature exists, be it rebuilding in fire or flood zones or determining territory with wildlife, I think we need to do a better job of stepping back to wonder if it is an area in which we need to stand our ground or concede to a better way. In other words, we've got to do a better job of finding the sustainable sweet spot.
Image: The Wolf Hunt, Alexandre-François Desportes (1661–1743)