Out of Bounds

The Limits of Science

The new experiment with wolves involves Montana and Idaho killing a lot more

By Rob Breeding

There’s a beautiful world I occasionally visit. In this imaginary place, all wildlife management decisions are made on the basis of sound, irrefutable science. Those decisions, executed flawlessly by wildlife managers and unhindered by unanticipated variables, proceed exactly as planned. All intended outcomes are nailed to a T. 

Afterward, biologists and politicians and advocacy groups get together for a potluck to celebrate the unerring wisdom of science. All pledge to never again return to the days when wildlife decisions were made based on impulse or political expediency or for the crass desire to rally membership for fundraising purposes.

Then I wake to reality.

I’m reminded of this because the now decades-old experiment of managing wildlife following the reintroduction — or in Northwest Montana’s case, reoccupation — of wolves in the northern Rockies is about to change trajectory.

Since reintroduction in 1995, wolf numbers in the region have been on the rise. There’s been some slowing in the rate of growth, but we blew past the minimum floor of 10 packs of wolves numbering at least 100 individuals in each of three northern Rockies states — Montana, Idaho and Wyoming — a long time ago.

Even with fairly aggressive hunts, wolf populations remain robust. There are an estimated 3,000 wolves roaming the northern Rockies these days, and in November Colorado voters approved an initiative to launch a reintroduction program in that state.

There are also wild wolves making a living in eastern Oregon and Washington, Utah and even California, though they barely have a paw hold there.

The new experiment with wolves involves Montana and Idaho killing a lot more. Recent laws passed in both states will make it so.

Predictably, a coalition of environmental groups has now sued. The suit asks the Feds to reimpose Endangered Species Act protections that were eliminated in 2011 following the wolf’s clear and remarkable recovery in the northern Rockies. 

I don’t know how the lawsuit will fare. I’m more certain about these new state laws: they will be their own worst enemy.

Last year about 500 wolves were killed in Idaho, with an estimated population of 1,500. New state law calls for reducing the population to 150. The law also OK’s aggressive tactics such as aerial gunning and night vision equipment to kill wolves. Montana’s law is similar, though it doesn’t go as far as Idaho’s, which also OK’s chasing wolves on ATVs and snow machines and killing wolf pups on private land.

If you want to turn a national spotlight on your state there may be no better way than Idaho’s approach. Once video of wolf pups being dispatched by inconvenienced landowners hits social media, the din that will befall Idaho will be relentless. 

Society, not science, will put a stop to that.

Science is only one of the factors considered in wildlife management, albeit one of the most important. I doubt we’ve reached the scientific carrying capacity of the northern Rockies for wolves, but we’ve probably eclipsed the region’s social carrying capacity, at least for now. But the new laws making it easier to kill wolves look like overreach to me, and overreach inevitably leads to backlash.

I’ll never be a wolf hunter, but I’ve accepted that a certain “take” is part of the bargain struck when reintroduction was approved. Killing animals is a necessary part of wildlife management, and at least so far as wildlife management is concerned, I consider wolf populations, not individuals. 

Biological science tells us this is so. Social science can tell us different things, such as when we’ve gone too far. And none of this will happen in a measured, scientifically verifiable pace.

That’s too much to ask of science, which is why it only works like that in my dreams.

Rob Breeding writes and blogs at www.mthookandbullet.com.

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