They’re salivating at the prospect of a kill, stalking their prey in the wild, cunning and lethal … and we’re not talking about the wolves, but rather the wolf hunters.
Five states – Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Minnesota and Wisconsin – are back in the business of killing wolves, and ’tis the season for hunters to be jolly.
Few animal issues are more conflicted than our relationship with wolves, the ancestors and genetic first cousins of our pet dogs. In the 19th Century, they were hunted to the edge of extinction. In the mid-20th Century, federal and state laws helped them make a small comeback.
In many parts of the country where they’ve been reintroduced, wolves are credited with rescuing damaged ecosystems. As top predators they play a critical role in maintaining a healthy balance of nature. For example, when wolves went extinct in Yellowstone, moose numbers exploded, eating up the woodlands to the point where many kinds of birds literally had nowhere to nest. And when they were reintroduced, the whole ecosystem began to recover. Mother Jones magazine lists several other reasons why wolves are so valuable to the natural world, including:
- Elk are less likely to hang out near rivers and streams, where they can damage fragile ecosystems. Instead, when wolves are around, they tend to move to higher elevations and spread out more.
- They’re a boon to scavengers, from eagles to magpies, who feed on the remains of a kill.
- They keep the coyote population in check, which protects animal like the pronghorn.
- They prevent deer and elk from gathering in herds that would be too large for their good health – thus preventing, for example, the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease. (Preying on animals who are sick with CWD also helps stop the disease from spreading.)
But wolves, who are accused of invading the homes of humans and the domesticated animals we bring with us, are defenseless against the true invaders animals who are destroying ecosystems far and wide: humans and the farmed animals – cattle, sheep, etc. – they bring with them. Top predators – wolves, lions, sharks, orcas, etc. – have always acted as protectors of the ecosystem. But now there is a new top predator, humans, that does the very opposite, going as far as to try to kill off the true top predator and thus upset the whole balance.
Last Friday, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service lifted protections for most Wyoming wolves, allowing the increased hunting of wolves in Wyoming, where there are about 270 outside Yellowstone National Park. Protections have already been lifted in Montana and Idaho. Last January, the federal government stopped protecting wolves as an endangered species, and this week the hunting season began in earnest in other states, like Wisconsin where hunters are now permitted to lure wolves with bait and to snare them in the infamous steel leg-hold traps that break their bones and hold them until a hunter shows up to finish them off – unless, as sometimes happens, a wolf manages to free herself by chewing off her snared leg.
Native American tribes in Wisconsin are outraged by the hunt, and are invoking a treaty from 1847 to try to stop any taking of wolves in the northern part of the state. According to the Christian Science Monitor:
The wolf enjoys an exalted place in tribes’ cultural and religious traditions, says Chris McGeshick, a member of the Sokaogon Chippewa Community and its representative on an intertribal commission that oversees treaty rights. “Essentially it’s your brother,” he says. “We’re just not going to shoot our brother.”
The state has reserved a third of its quota for native Americans, but the state’s tribes say they will not use it. Mr. McGeshick says members of his community are “outraged” about the hunt. “They can’t believe that there’s nothing we can say or do to get the state to change its mind,” he says.
Humane organizations are trying to stop the hunt in its tracks. The Humane Society of the U.S. has told the Department of the Interior and Fish and Wildlife Service that it will sue if Great Lakes wolves aren’t placed back on the endangered species list within 60 days. And in Minnesota, which is issuing permits for 400 wolves (out of a known population of around 3,000) to be killed, the Center for Biological Diversity and Howling for Wolves filed an emergency request with the state Supreme Court to block that state’s hunt.
Other states have specific quotas for hunting. But those quotas don’t represent the numbers of wolves who are actually killed throughout the year. According to the LaCrosse Tribune:
The number of wolves killed during the hunting season has to be added to all the wolves killed in other ways throughout the year to get an accurate picture of how total human-caused wolf deaths are going to affect the statewide population.
Wisconsin population studies have shown 9 to 19 percent of the state’s wolves are illegally killed each year, 10 percent are killed in depredation control programs, and 3 percent to 4 percent are killed by vehicles, [wolf researcher Adrian] Wydeven said. Add those numbers to the 24 percent harvest quotas, Wydeven said, and total, human-caused mortality is likely to be between 46 percent and 57 percent.
The battle between the animal protection community and the powerful coalition of hunters and ranchers will not end soon. In 2009, Idaho and Montana reopened the hunting season, but the following year conservation groups won a federal case to restore protection for wolves in those states. Then, last year, though, Congress once again voted to reinstate the hunts, leading to a death toll in Idaho and Montana of 545 wolves last year.
Once again, it seems, we are set to drive these iconic animals to the edge of extinction.