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Rhetoric around wolves clouds reality

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Ben Long | Oct 19, 2011 06:00 AM

If you only believed what you read in the papers, blogs or bumper stickers, you might think that hunters in the northern Rockies are revving up for a war on wolves. But when you look at hard numbers, the picture is quite different.

Biologists have taught us that looks can be deceiving and unquestioned prejudices can lead to bonehead mistakes. That’s the premise of science: Don’t just take what “everyone knows” as gospel. Go out and count and measure.

Rifle closeupYet policy makers are too often swayed by “bumper-sticker biology.” That is, they react to public opinion, as perceived through the news media and in public hearings. Trouble is, those are two decidedly unscientific means of assessing public opinion. Both tend to over-represent those who feel the strongest and speak the loudest, often at the expense of those in the middle of the spectrum. It’s a vicious cycle, where the loudest and most obnoxious voices are rewarded for being loud and obnoxious, and the polite and moderate get fed up and stay quiet.

 Take wolves for example. Montana and Idaho are holding wolf seasons this year, for only the second time in the modern era.  Based on the mass media, one might think western big game hunters are dripping with wrath, waiting to kill all the wolves they can lay a crosshair on.

Opening a wolf season has been highly controversial, triggering reams of vitriolic rhetoric. Locally, I see bumper stickers urging hunters to “smoke a pack a day.”

But what say the data? Seems like big game hunters aren’t so rabid after all. In Montana, the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has sold about 12,000 wolf tags, with a quota of about 200 wolves. (Wolf tags cost about the price of a box of rifle shells.)

Twelve thousand sounds like a lot of wolf tags – until you consider there are about 130,000 elk and deer hunters in Montana.  That means 90 percent of the state’s big game hunters did NOT have a burning desire to kill a wolf.

Now most of those are probably happy to see a wolf season and want wolves to be well managed. But it’s a mistake to confuse the hyperbole of the fringes for the opinions of the masses.

Ben Long is a writer,  outdoorsman and conservationist in Kalispell, Mont., where he eagerly awaits Opening Day of big game season. He is also senior program director for Resource Media.

Image of rifle hunting in Montana courtesy Flickr user lancefisher

Wendy Beye
Wendy Beye Subscriber
Oct 20, 2011 11:07 AM
Unfortunately, many hunters plan on shooting a wolf if they see it, tag or no tag. A number of local governing bodies publicly condone that approach.
Jim Cleary
Jim Cleary
Oct 29, 2011 10:04 AM
Here's wishing Montanans and Idahoans the best of success in your efforts to begin returning to environmental balance, not seen since the wolf introductions in the mid 1990's. This Minnesotan too will buy an Idaho wolf hunting license today, simply to post as a badge of honor on my den wall, even though we have already returned from this year's successful elk hunt in Idaho a month ago. We spend a lot of backcountry time in SW MT each summer and fall, and we have seen firsthand just how devastating wolves have been to the local economies of many small towns like Darby and Dillon, Montana, by destroying local hunting-related businesses ---- including outfitters, motels, restaurants, taxidermy and butcher shops, sporting goods and clothing stores, and even antique, western art, craft, and book stores. One Darby store has a wall-full of photos of missing dogs from town alone, due to wolf predation. Wolves have killed cattle, sheep (120 breeder bucks worth $80,000 in a single night), and have even killed a full-grown horse on the edge of town.
In Idaho, a pack of wolves moved in on our elk carcass and fed for two days. It was fun exchanging howls with them, but we weren't able to find even cow elk after that. Better to have come prepared with a wolf license, as well. Here in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota we are nearly overrun with coyotes, and are now beginning to see adult wolves also, especially after having butchered deer in our back yard. If any of these predators ever becomes infected with rabies, they could be a real public health problem. North of the Twin Cities, just two weeks ago, a rural resident shot 2 or the 5 wolves that had surrounded and approached him --- one of those wolves indeed was found to be rabid. States must be given the authority to manage their wolf populations scientifically. In the absence of that, people push back by killing wolves when possible, and plenty of that has been happening here in Minnesota for years.

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