By Web Master, 4-26-12
The hysteria that surrounds wolf management in the Rockies has clouded rational discussion. Wolves are hardly a threat to either hunting opportunity or the livestock industry. Total number of elk in Montana has increased substantially since wolves were reintroduced. Populations have grown from an estimated 89,000 animals in 1992 prior to wolf recovery to 140,000-150,000 animals in recent years. Sometimes wolves can affect local game populations, however, big game numbers fluctuate quite a bit naturally due to many factors including habitat changes, weather, disease and even overhunting by hunters. But statewide hunting opportunities are seldom affected.
Ranchers are equally irrational. Last year Montana livestock producers lost more than 140,000 animals to all causes. But total livestock losses attributed to wolves was less than a 100 animals. Is any of this reason or justification for the killing of hundreds of wolves? Does it make any rationale sense?
Worse yet, the persecution of predators does not work to reduce conflicts as most proponents of wolf control suggest.
The reason indiscriminate killing does not work is because it ignores the social ecology of predators. Wolves, cougars and other predators are social animals. As such, any attempt to control them that does not consider their “social ecology” is likely to fail. Look at the century old war on coyotes – we kill them by the hundreds of thousands, yet ranchers continue to complain about how these predators are destroying their industry. And the usual response assumes that if we only kill a few more we’ll finally get the coyote population “under control.”
The problem with indiscriminate killing of predators whether coyotes, wolves, cougars or bears is that it causes social chaos. Wolves, in particular, learn how and where to hunt, and what to hunt from their elders. The older pack members help to raise the young. In heavily hunted (or trapped) wolf populations (or other predators), the average age is skewed toward younger age animals. Young wolves are like teenagers – bold, brash, and inexperienced. Wolf populations with a high percentage of young animals are much more likely to attack easy prey – like livestock and/or venture into places that an older, more experience animal might avoid – like the fringes of a town or someone’s backyard.
Furthermore, wolf packs that are continuously fragmented by human-caused mortality are less stable. They are less able to hold on to established territories, which means they are often hunting in unfamiliar haunts and thus less able to find natural prey. Result: they are more likely to kill livestock.
Wolf packs that are hunted also tend to have fewer members. With fewer adults to hunt, and fewer adults to guard a recent kill against other scavengers, a small pack must actually kill more prey than a larger pack. Thus hunting wolves actually contributes to a higher net loss of elk and deer than if packs were left alone and more stable.
Finally hunting is just a lousy way to actually deal with individual problematic animals. Most hunting takes place on the large blocks of public land, not on the fringes of towns and/or on private ranches where the majority of conflicts occur. In fact, hunting often removes the very animals that have learned to avoid human conflicts and pose no threat to livestock producers or human safety. By indiscriminately removing such animals which would otherwise maintain the territory, hunting creates a void that, often as not, may be filled by a pack of younger, inexperienced animals that could and do cause conflicts.
We need a different paradigm for predator management than brute force. As Albert Einstein noted, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Unfortunately insanity has replaced rational thought when it comes to wolf management in Idaho.
George Wuerthner is an ecologist a degree in wildlife biology and is a former Montana hunting guide. He has published 35 books including several on Yellowstone and Montana topics. He lives in Helena.
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