Rhetoric around wolves clouds reality


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.

Yet 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

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