Wolves: The debate is seldom rational

  • Wendy Beye


The wolf pot continues to boil in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Now, another state has been added to the stew.  In Oregon, environmentalists are protesting the piecemeal removal of wolves from the Endangered Species list, hunters want less competition from wolves, and ranchers complain that wolves are killing their livestock. In eastern Oregon, where there is only one known breeding wolf pack, a federal judge temporarily halted a kill order on two of the pack's members. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife had hoped the targeted kill would "send a message to the pack to not kill livestock and change the pack's behavior."

Meanwhile, in Montana, the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks announced the wolf harvest quota for the 2010 hunting season would rise to 186, up from 75 last year.  The quota does not include the increasing number of wolves shot for bad behavior -- 145 in 2009. Since the estimated number of wolves in Montana is only 525, the state will soon see a reduction in the wolf population if the hunt goes as planned.  When the public was asked to comment on the proposal to increase the total harvest, 1,500 comments flooded in -- a clear sign that wolves remain a hot issue.

Federal District Court Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula, Mont., is feeling that heat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to de-list wolves in Montana, Idaho, Utah, Washington and Oregon before Wyoming adopts an approved wolf management plan has been challenged by Defenders of Wildlife, among other groups.  The stress level in Molloy's courtroom on the day he heard oral arguments was so high that one lawyer fainted, and the proceedings were suspended until she could be revived.  A decision is expected this fall, so the question of hunting quotas may become moot if wolves are re-listed as an endangered species in all states where they live or roam.

Meanwhile, I continue to marvel at our ability to ignore facts about wolves while jumping on one bandwagon or another.  A case in point: It was coyotes and not wolves that killed 23 lambs on a Bitterroot Valley ranch last month.  The news article appeared in only one local newspaper and drew no comment from readers.  Coyotes seem to have no champions on the environmentalist side of the issue, and ranchers take coyote depredation in stride, viewing it simply as a cost of doing business.

But earlier, a report of a wolf pack killing four miniature horses and chewing on an irrigation hose resulted in the pack being summarily executed. Last year, Montana's Livestock Loss Reduction and Mitigation Board paid out $142,000 to ranchers who filed for wolf depredation losses -- headline news! -- while no reparations were made for losses from coyotes, domestic dogs, mountain lions or eagles.  In addition, the 56,000 sheep that died from non-predator causes went mostly unnoticed by the public.

It's obvious that wolves are not the only culprits here. The Associated Press reported that invasive weeds cause $415,000 in livestock production losses, plus undetermined reductions in wild game populations each year on Montana's Rocky Mountain Front alone. That information doesn't seem to bother either ranchers or hunters, nor has it corralled any new money for weed eradication.

Because many hunters remain convinced that wolves hurt hunting success, Montana State University studied elk to discover why populations decline in some areas and increase in others. The findings were perhaps surprising:  Elk were more bothered by human activities -- including hunting and residential activity -- than by wolves.

In any case, vehicles bump off more wild game than predators do. But I haven't heard of any plans to eradicate cars or drivers.

I find that my sympathies are divided. In late winter, I walk daily on a lane that skirts a calving pasture on a local ranch.  I've seen wolves crossing through the herd without even looking at the calves or cows; they're concentrating on pocket gophers and meadow voles for breakfast.  The cows likewise ignore the wolves. The ranch manager worries that one day the wolves will sample a cute little black calf instead of their usual prey. I share his concern, but I also don't want to see another wolf killed.

When I watch wolves in the wild as they go about the tough business of survival, I know that they belong here. They should never again be exterminated, as they were in the 1930s.  No matter how difficult the process, I hope wildlife managers, hunters, ranchers and environmentalists find a balance so that we can continue to live together.

Wendy Beye is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is an airplane pilot in western Montana who has tracked wolves since they first crossed the border between Canada and Montana in the 1980s.

Anonymous says:
Jul 29, 2010 08:19 AM
A great article invokes emotional response, and Wendy's story on the irrational eradication of the wolves grabbed my heart. I appreciate her sharing some of the little-known facts. Thank you.
Anonymous says:
Jul 29, 2010 12:42 PM
Thanks, Jill. I believe there may be different solutions to wolf/livestock/big game problems depending on the situation. There is definitely no "one size fits all" plan.
Anonymous says:
Jul 30, 2010 12:29 AM
This brings to mind the sheep I have seen that have been hit by cars or trucks while crossing (or lounging in)the road.

Should we summarily execute drivers who kill sheep? Or maybe just do away with one of their children or perhaps a wife or two (if they are that kind of Mormon) to send them a message?

It does makes me nervous when I see cars speeding down the back roads through herds of sheep and cows, especially when I realize that at any time, the driver of one of those cars or trucks could stop passing by the cows, calves, sheep and lambs, and run over one or more of them instead.
Anonymous says:
Aug 02, 2010 08:17 AM
Thank you. Your article is positive and informative. I live in North Carolina where red wolves are being reintroduced at the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge. It is good to see these native predators returning to eastern North Carolina, and always interesting to learn more about the beneficial effects that these predators can have on the health of our ecosystems.
Anonymous says:
Aug 02, 2010 02:33 PM
You seem to imply that hunters are wrong in their beliefs that wolves hurt hunting. As an outdoorsman in western Wyoming I can positively tell you that wolves harm hunting. I've seen it with my own eyes, you can ask any outfitter in the area the same thing and you will get the same response. Our observations are not fueled by irrational beliefs, they are based on everyday observations in outdoors. We might not have a masters degree in wildlife biology, but we know a change when we see it.

From the view point of many people in Wyoming, it is irrational to believe as you suggested that wolves will ever be exterminated like they were in the 1930's. We accept that wolves are here to stay and are not interested in the wolves staying on the Endangered Species List any longer than necessary. Unfortunately, there are many environmental groups milking the system on this hot button issue in the courts with our tax dollars when wolf populations have already eclipsed the USFWS recovery objectives.

Irrationality goes both ways, but I fear it is tipping much farther on the scale towards radical environmentalists intent on keeping the gray wolf on the ESL at every cost, instead of spending their time and money on other species that really need our help.

Ryan Ragain
Anonymous says:
Aug 04, 2010 06:02 AM

It concerns me when a hunter can read a story like this and still jump so defensively on the one point that involves his recreation.

There are wildlife biologists and scientists that HAVE clearly pointed out what "hurts hunting". In fact, our corrupted management system's damage is well documented, but ignored. Read the paper "Human predators outpace other agents of trait change in the wild". Trait change is serious, especially at 300%. (pollution damage is at 50% - which is bad enough)

Hunting is no longer hunting at all. It isn't population control when seasons are manipulated to INCREASE game animals, regardless of dangers to humans. It has evolved to a recreation that is not anything near sound management. The staggaring statistics are ignored while hunters wildly defend their 'heritage and rights'. And true conservationists/sportsmen? would pay serious attention to this.

Those opposed to another species being wiped out DO have rights as well. And when the non-sporting population is over 90%, THEY have every right to have a problem with special interests dominating dire situations.

Hunters speak of "ethics". Well, if you expect those getting fed up with the negative results of your management to believe there are any ethics left, then we need to start seeing some real "ethics" in the plans and actions - and in your voices.

Respect is earned. And it is Not bought. Do not reply with "we hunters pay millions...". You get 100% of our gun tax, when 60% of gun owners don't hunt. You also get lotto $. States compete for millions of federal funds based on how many hunting licenses are sold - which fuels a nasty recipe for mis-management.
Besides, no matter what you spend? You can not buy our natural resource; you can't own it any more than anyone else does.

Hunting isn't going to go away, so calm down. But if it were done right? hunters would simply have to recreate more like hunters should. You will have to look longer for game, track better, and you might go home empty handed, just like those in our "heritage" did.
Anonymous says:
Aug 04, 2010 02:16 PM
Very nice, K McGill.
Anonymous says:
Aug 04, 2010 08:03 PM
Thank you, Adam

(and great article, Ms Beye)

Please join the grassroots coalition for wildlife management reform. It has started on Facebook -


and will be live soon at www.USwildlife.us

It is time for the "Institution" to stop declaring their need to reform in the 21st Century and start acting on it.

K. McGill
Urban Wildlife
Anonymous says:
Aug 04, 2010 10:30 PM
K McGill,

I think you are overreacting a bit to my comments. You can read what I said, so I am not sure what point you are trying to make. I simply said that wolves affect hunting, plain and simple. There are those out there, I'm not sure if you are one of them or not K McGill, that believe wolves don't affect hunting and I was relaying my personal experiences. I personally am a proponent of having wolves in our forests, I'm just opposed to narrow minded leftists that think wolves do no harm and environmental groups spending our tax dollars keeping an animal on the ESL like the wolf that has no business being there.

By all means people have a right to speak up when a species is going to be wiped out. The problem is, nobody (meaning state management in MT, ID, and WY) has proposed such a thing. If you have a problem with hunting seasons being adjusted to increase game populations, then you shouldn't have any issue with MT and ID responsibly reducing the number of wolves. It is not in any of the states interests for the wolf to be back on the ESL. The federal government meddling in our affairs any longer than they need to be is not looked upon favorably by most citizens. I've seen plenty of irrationality from both sides of the debate, but what these environmental groups are trying to do in the courts right now is "crying wolf."

I will have to disagree with you when you say what I do out in the field is not hunting. Everything I kill is done in the spirit of fair chase and often times I do come home empty handed. I feel that where I live in Wyoming, the Wyoming Fish and Game does an excellent job of game management given the circumstances. I don't know where you are from, but a lot of jobs in my area are dependent upon tourism. A good portion of the tourist dollars that flow through my area come from hunting and fishing. If the wildlife is not here, there goes our jobs, our homes and our way of life.

I get the feeling that you don't hunt. That's too bad because you learn much more about the natural world when you are involved in it. You ought to come down here to Wyoming to hunt with me, but I doubt you would be able to keep up with me, let alone pack out a bull elk if I got lucky. Either way, I invite you to Wyoming to experience with me what you wouldn't call a hunt.

Ryan Ragain

Anonymous says:
Aug 06, 2010 05:12 PM
Ryan, I used to successfully hunt elk, deer, antelope, and upland game birds in Montana. I prefer to hunt with a camera now. My father was a wildlife biologist, and I have spent my life in the outdoors, observing animal and human behavior. While piloting a game biologist conducting trend counts in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, I observed wolves hunting elk, and the resulting behavior of the herd. On other flights, I have observed humans hunting elk, and the herd's behavior is similar in some ways, different in others. It is certainly true that both human and wolf predation alters the behavior of game animals. You may be surprised to know that I am not opposed to adding wolves to the list of legal game in Montana, though I think Montana's FWP went overboard in setting a wolf "harvest" quota that is too high. Since Judge Molloy ruled that wolves must remain on the Endangered Species List until Wyoming comes up with a reasonable wolf management plan, the wolf hunting debate will probably remain on hold this fall. (and yes, I most likely could keep up with you on an elk hunt, and I would use my mules to pack out the meat!)
Anonymous says:
Aug 08, 2010 01:50 PM
Great essay, Wendy. The lack of rationality in this debate is truly disheartening. I am curious about one point you make, however. You say you are not opposed to wolf hunting. I am, and am opposed to all hunting, trapping, and poisoning of carnivores, including coyotes. You are no doubt aware that carnivores are always far fewer in number than their prey. Long-term studies of wolf-prey interactions show a rough balance over time. There is no biological reason to hunt wolves, and as you point out, there are far greater threats to deer and elk than wolves. Another key determinant of ungulate population is the amount and quality of their habitat. In fact, we may be able to surmise that the loss of so many trees to infestation and fire in the Rocky Mountains in recent years may create more browse in the future, and more deer and elk, just as we now have large elk populations in the Mt. St. Helens area (Washington) due to the volcanic eruption and destruction of thousands of acres of forest 30 years ago (forests have now re-grown and are crowding out the elk). The only wolf management that may be needed is when wolves take too much interest in properly managed and protected livestock, but "wolf hunting" is an unnecessary activity authorized to acquiesce to the demands of hunters (and to serve the interests of fish and game departments), who are not hunting to put food on the table, but to satisfy their bloodlust or ego (examples provide upon request). This action is then dressed up as biologically necessary to provide more elk for hunters, who are apparently incapable of competing with wolves for prey. It's time, as a matter of policy, to respect the dynamics of predator-prey relationships and the ecological health that results. Animals are not on this earth to provide target practice, but to live out their lives as their millions of years of evolution and co-evolution have prepared them for. Native Americans understood this. Too bad more hunters who think they know so much about the great outdoors don't.
Anonymous says:
Aug 10, 2010 09:57 AM
Carole - I agree with your comments, and I no longer hunt. I could never shoot a wolf. The reason I am not absolutely opposed to allowing a state-sponsored wolf hunt is that I believe wolves will become much more wary of humans, and may be more likely to leave livestock alone if they learn that humans are dangerous. In our part of the state, the political pressure is immense on Montana's FWP to reduce the wolf population. I think the department went way overboard in setting wolf hunt quotas for this fall, but it will become more and more difficult for hunters to find wolves as time goes by. I noticed after the first wolf hunting season last fall that wolves in my area were much more reclusive -- I saw tracks, but seldom spotted the pack out in the open. When wolves attack livestock, the state uses every possible method to kill the offending pack, including tracking radio collars and using automatic weapons from a helicopter platform. That really bothers me, and if wolves can be convinced that their survival depends upon avoiding humans and livestock, they may actually have a better chance of successfully occupying their territory. Eventually a balance between prey and predator numbers will be reached.
Anonymous says:
Aug 07, 2010 12:12 PM
I have heard the old story about how hunters help wildlife by killing it, but what hunters will never do is tell us why they get pleasure from unnecessarily ending the life of another animal. You are not frontiersmen, it is the 21st Century. You are living a lie.
Anonymous says:
Aug 02, 2010 02:39 PM

Could you please tell me where I could obtain the MSU study you mentioned in your article?

Ryan Ragain
Anonymous says:
Aug 03, 2010 08:02 PM
Google jane_1581.edu
Anonymous says:
Aug 04, 2010 03:26 PM
She may be referring to this study from the Journal of Wildlife Management:
Anonymous says:
Aug 06, 2010 04:59 PM
This is the one. There are many other studies on wolves, game, human activities such as snowmobiling and hunting on the MSU website.
Anonymous says:
Aug 03, 2010 11:37 PM
After having written way too much - I have shortened my comment to this: Wolves are not the problem - people are the problem.
Anonymous says:
Aug 06, 2010 03:56 PM
Yesterday, Judge Donald Molloy issued his ruling on the FWP decision to de-list wolves. He ruled in favor of the Plaintiffs, saying that the gray wolf populations in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington cannot be split when it comes to the Endangered Species Act. If anyone following the controversy doesn't believe the debate is truly irrational, go to www.missoulian.com, click on the Molloy ruling story, and read the 125 and counting comments that accumulated on the first day of publication. There is definitely no meeting of the minds on this issue. One can only hope for more civility in the future.
Anonymous says:
Sep 29, 2010 01:01 PM
I'm a zoology and pre vet major, which often makes me more inclined to immeadiately and unconciously side with the animals in cases like this, when there are rumors of a drastic decline in the wild wolf population or the possibility of wolves being gassed to lower an unhealthy inscrease in population.

But I know there are clear advantages to hunting, and while I do not object to deer hunting I find it hypocritcal to not object to the hunting of wolves. But it is so hard to find documented scientific research for or against the hunting of wolves. For the commericial seal hunt in Canada there is tons of scientific data backing up the claims of these environmental groups, which makes me feel more self assured in the stance I take against the commercial seal hunt. I cannot find the same for wolves. I hate the idea of wolves being hunted, and wolves being killed. But I'm not justified in this hate, not if I cannot find information to back up my concerns.