Culling of endangered wolves increases poaching, contrary to arguments otherwise

CC BY 2.0 Eric Kilby/flickr

New research challenges the argument that legalized hunting helps prevent poaching.

Navigating the delicate balance between what’s good for man and what’s good for wildlife is a negotiation fraught with wildly varying opinions. In this regard, wolves and their protection have been a hot topic of controversy in the United States. After being all but wiped out in the Lower 48, conservation efforts have slowly brought their numbers back – but rulings on their protective status have flip-flopped all over the place as various groups’ interests have prevailed. Wolves are part of this country’s wildlife heritage and future, but wolves also kill livestock. Whatever side of the fence one stands on, however, it’s important to at least know the impact that government decisions have on the situation.

Large carnivores like wolves and bears are often victims of poaching; a common line of thinking when determining policy is that legalized hunting can curb the illegal hunting. It is often argued that such is the case; it is commonly cited as the reason to justify substantial culling of recovering and still fragile populations. With this in mind, two researchers decided to look at whether or not removing protection from wolves – which opens the way for controlled hunting – decreases illegal hunting.

Their conclusion? Using data from Michigan and Wisconsin, they found that allowing wolf culling was more likely to increase poaching than reduce it.

“The claim that legalizing culling or hunting will reduce poaching has become a fundamental issue for the conservation and management of large carnivores in human-dominated landscapes,” write authors Dr. Guillaume Chapron from Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Dr. Adrian Treves from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The authors describe culling as "government implementation of wolf killing, specifically by live-trapping wolves and then shooting them."

In their new paper, published in Proceedings B Royal Society, the team shows that allowing wolf culling was significantly more likely to increase poaching than reduce it.

“In light of our results, we find this recommendation has no support. Indeed, liberalizing killing appears to be a conservation strategy that may achieve the opposite outcome than that intended.”

The team focused on Wisconsin and Michigan because the two states have had changes in wolf policies that made them valuable for studying wolf population dynamics, which the researchers looked at for the years from 1995 to 2012.

Wolves were completely hunted in both states by the 1950s, as in, none left. With conservation efforts they recolonized Wisconsin by 1978 and Michigan by 1989. From 1979 to April 2003, Wisconsin wolves were classified as federally endangered 
but the classification changed in the following years. The Wisconsin population grew from 0 to at least 815 by 2012 and the Michigan population grew from 0 to 587 by 2011.

The paper concludes that when a government allows the killing of a protected species, the perceived value of the species is tainted. “Liberalizing wolf culling may have sent a negative message about the value of wolves or that poaching prohibitions would not be enforced,” the authors note. Which makes sense – if the government says it’s OK to kill wolves, the nuances of "why" can be lost.

"The historical trend has been steady relaxation of protection for endangered wolves reversed periodically by federal court decisions," say the researchers. "In the first federal court case relating to permits to kill endangered wolves, the US government argued one should allow culling to prevent rampant poaching. The first federal judge rejected the idea and drew an analogy that the government wanted to allow shoplifting to avoid looting. We have now shown that allowing shoplifting promoted looting."

You can watch this video made by the scientists that helps to explain the research:

Culling of endangered wolves increases poaching, contrary to arguments otherwise
New research challenges the argument that legalized hunting helps prevent poaching.

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