Out of Bounds

Misfiring on Wildlife Management

The Legislature passed a number of bills that I suspect the majority of Montanans don’t support

By Rob Breeding

It’s a truth that some don’t want to hear, but wildlife management is mostly about killing wildlife. I’m repeating myself, but it’s a subject that bears repeating.

There are also habitat issues — restoring, improving, protecting — but you manage wildlife with the habitat you have, not the habitat you might want or wish to have at a later time, to paraphrase an especially tin-eared former defense secretary.

Depending on habitat conditions, you either kill more animals, or fewer, guided by evidence on the ground. In a perfect world, that would be the extent of it. If habitat can support more animals we can tweak management to make it so, or vice versa.

You’ve probably noticed, however, the world we have is far from perfect.

So biologists also take into account things such as social conditions, political conditions and the sometimes crazed lunacy of elected officials. You’d think we wouldn’t elect lunatics, especially lunatics working in opposition to the interests and desires of the folks doing the voting, but we do. 

Sometimes this is because political positions come in groups, much like inherited genetic traits. By now you’ve probably heard about the Russian silver fox experiment, in which researchers bred animals specifically for tameness. 

In six generations the program produced foxes that licked the hands of researchers, enjoyed being picked up and petted, whined when humans left and wagged their tails when humans returned, all behaviors I see every day in my two-dog pack of English setters.

But researchers got more than just foxes that acted like dogs; they also developed foxes that looked more like dogs. The foxes came with floppy ears, curly tails, puppy-like facial features, and mottled fur. All are characteristics of domestication syndrome. 

You breed for one trait, tameness, and a host of physical traits come along for the ride.

And so it went for Montana elected officials in 2020. I suspect many Montana voters — voters across the country, actually — pulled levers for candidates based on said candidate’s affinity, or lack thereof, for the man running for reelection as president. 

For instance, I doubt voters were thinking about Montana’s stream access law when they voted for a gubernatorial candidate with a blemished record on stream access. 

That’s how it is when we decide who deserves our vote. We pick a candidate based on a few key issues, or increasingly these days based on whether a D or an R comes after their name, and end up with pols backing a whole suite of ideas we neither support nor realized we were voting to enact.

The Montana Legislature passed a number of bills, including some slipped through on the last day of the session, that I suspect the majority of Montanans don’t support. The Legislature made it easier for out-of-state hunters to secure big game tags and guaranteed tags for outfitters. Both are steps in the direction of commercializing wildlife, a resource that is supposed to be managed by the state in trust for all, not just those with the biggest bank accounts.

More importantly, out-of-state and outfitter tags remove leverage on landowners to allow access, either to their own ground or landlocked tracts beyond their fence lines, for resident hunters.

Also approved as part of a slate of measures intended to reduce predator numbers is the use of snares to capture and kill wolves. The increase in wolf take is a response to social and political, rather than habitat-based, concerns. That’s the world we live in, but snares are an indiscriminate method, killing wolves, lynx and English setters alike.

Much of what’s to come won’t be about wildlife management, but instead, the sometimes unintended consequences of elections.

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

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.