Hunting season may be over but wolves are hardly in the clear

 

Yesterday marked the close of the first official hunting season for wolves ever to take place in America’s lower 48 states. More than 250 wolves were killed as a result of Montana and Idaho’s hunting seasons and more than twice that number have been killed overall since wolves lost federal protections in May of 2009.

And while assessing the true biological impact of the delisting decision and subsequent hunting season on the regional population will need further observation and time, one thing is clear: The optimistic talks of an official hunting season leading to a greater tolerance for wolves in the region were seemingly based on wishful thinking.

As the hunt draws to a close, tensions over wolf management remain high. Last year there were more illegal killings of wolves in the Northern Rockies than there were in 2008. Unscientific anti-wolf rhetoric in the West has become so commonplace and unchallenged in regional media articles that it’s in danger of becoming accepted as ‘fact.’

Recent headlines from across the region showcase the escalating persecution wolves face from many sides: from the usual vocal anti-wolf interest groups to political candidates and state legislative officials looking not to inform but to incite fear by whipping their constituents into an irrational wolf-hating frenzy.

Though unsubstantiated claims of non-native “Canadian” wolves destroying elk herds, spreading disease and posing a severe threat to human life continue to make headlines, the facts remain the same as they were before the hunt and the delisting of wolves:

The wolves currently in the Northern Rockies are a native species. Many of them descended from wolves that walked across the Canadian border on their own in the 1970s and 1980s to recolonize their historic stomping grounds. All of the region’s wolves are from the same species that lived in the area before humans killed them; Canis lupis.

Elk and deer (wolves' primary prey) are doing well in the region. With over 350,000 elk and a million deer (compared to about 1,600 wolves) there is enough game for everyone, including the predators.  While there can sometimes be local impacts by predators on prey populations, predator numbers are primarily driven by prey numbers, which in turn are controlled by the availability of food and the uncertainty of the weather. These many factors ensure that elk, deer and other ungulates are not ‘wiped out’ by the animals that eat them, demonstrating nature’s inherent method for balance.

Wolves also pose minimal health and safety risks to people. For example, the tapeworm parasite, which has spurred anti-wolf legislative proposals and articles, is present in more common species like coyotes, foxes, sheep and domestic dogs, and doesn’t pose a health threat to people unless they handle the feces of an infected animal. In fact, the reintroduced wolves were screened and treated for this parasite before being released. And the country’s wolf biologists, who have handled hundreds of wolves, have not contracted this contagious parasite.

There have been reports that wolves may be responsible for the death of two people in the last 100 years in North America. These attacks are extremely unfortunate, and our thoughts are with the families and friends of the victims. But we must also remember that these cases are exceedingly rare and that more people die from road accidents with elk, deer and cattle than from all predator attacks combined. These two cases do not justify the extreme antipathy toward wolves from some in the Northern Rockies.

Wolves are an easy scapegoat for all manner of ills, which is unfortunate given the strong evidence showing how beneficial they have been to restoring biodiversity and balance to the ecosystem, attracting ecotourism to the region and inspiring millions of young Americans to learn more about our country’s natural history. Outside the Northern Rockies, wolves sometimes face a more sympathetic audience. In the Great Lakes region, for example, there is less potential wolf habitat and more than twice the number of wolves than in the Northern Rockies, yet residents, farmers and hunters there coexist with wolves on a daily basis and public support for wolf recovery remains strong.

We simply cannot allow the deep-seated yet irrational fears of a minority of people to dictate biological decisions with national implications such as the management of a keystone predator species like the wolf. Wolves make headlines and play a prominent role in fairy tales but they’re far from the most significant threat to livestock, ungulates or people. In order to ameliorate tensions and build support for wolves in the region, we must highlight the many ways in which humans and wolves can coexist.

And Defenders of Wildlife plans to do just that.  The wolf hunting season is over, and calving and lambing season is upon us. Soon young livestock will be heading out to their spring and summer grazing pastures, on both private and public ground, where a variety of wildlife lives – including wolves. We are working with ranchers and sheep producers throughout the Northern Rockies and the Pacific Northwest to reduce livestock losses to wolves, and increase tolerance for this iconic animal that we are lucky to have restored to the West.

Erin McCallum is a communications specialist for Defenders of Wildlife.