In late February, 13 years since reintroduction into the northern Rockies, the federal government says the Big Dog, the wolf, is no longer an endangered species, which means the state wildlife agencies take over management of the ultra-controversial canine. And state agencies are already in the starting blocks to give us something we’ve never, ever had here in the New West: regulated sport hunting for wolves.
Regardless of the agency readiness, though, wolf managers expect delays as conservation groups drag delisting through the court system. But regardless when seasons open, will sport hunting accomplish the goal of reducing wolf numbers to target levels?
The lawsuits will say politics, not science, has dictated wolf delisting, and I’d hate to be the guy who had to convince us that politics wasn’t a driving force behind it. New West politicians all want the wolf quickly delisted, if not eradicated again, but there’s another, and powerful, political dynamic out there. For conservationists everywhere, the cover story is scientific integrity and biodiversity, but let’s be honest. Many, many people simply can’t stomach the idea of hunters shooting majestic dog-like creatures.
But alas, there is one point of agreement among wolf lovers and wolf haters. At some point, the wolf population will need control. The recovery plan established a minimum of 300 wolves in 30 breeding pairs in the three-state region. Pro-wolf groups believe the 300-wolf minimum is too low; anti-wolf groups think it’s too high. So, eventually, after months or years in the courts and re-drafting of plans, we’ll have a number, and then, we’ll need control.
When we get to that point, even those who hate the thought of a single wolf being killed probably will sign on to sport hunting as the preferred method. Look at the alternatives – trapping, poisoning, aerial gunning, smoking pups out of dens and clubbing them to death, or more of the status quo – expensive “management actions,” which usually involve shooting wolves from helicopters or trapping and euthanizing “problem wolves.”
Under state management plans, wolves will be “trophy animals,” which means hunters aren’t required to eat the meat but are required to take the trophy, in this case, the pelt. But here’s the rub. Most hunters don’t want to hunt things they don’t eat, especially things that look like the neighbor’s best friend. Ask yourself how many avid hunters you know who don’t own a dog.
To help answer this question, I called up my friend Ed Bangs, who has been coordinating wolf recovery for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service since his agency let the Big Dogs out of their boxes down in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. He agrees that the majority of hunters won’t be interested in wolf hunting, but he has confidence that enough will to accomplish state management goals.
“I think hunting will be very effective here in the northern Rockies,” Bangs believes. “In areas that are accessible and in open country, wolves are very vulnerable.”
In fact, he predicts, hunters could kill them all if that’s want we wanted.
Bangs reminds us that we’re already “harvesting” wolves. Illegal shooting, management actions, road kills and other mortality already take out 26 percent of the northern Rockies wolf population every year. This means we already have a lot of control on wolf numbers in contrast to the common belief among wolf haters that the population is growing exponentially.
But will hunters want to hunt wolves? I did my little survey at the coffee shop and saloon, and none of my hunting friends have any interest in wolf hunting.
Bangs concedes that not many hunters will go out specifically after wolves. “Wolf hunting is almost always associated with hunting something else, like elk. Very few hunters go out just for wolves.”
And will it be hunting or killing? Right or wrong, there’s a lot of anger among the hunting community over wolves. Some hunters will want to kill one just to have one fewer wolf left on earth – and probably consider it a public service instead of sport hunting.
“Some will just want to kill wolves,” Bangs concedes, “but some will want the hunting experience. I sure hope hunters will want to hunt wolves because it’s a challenging hunting experience.”
I hope so, too, but because I’m not sure what I’ll think about Plan B if regulated sport hunting doesn’t work.