As brushes with wolves rise, wildlife experts weigh whether the best way to preserve wolves could include hunting them.
By Erik Ness
The wolf’s shifting status as an endangered species provides a window into that conflict. In March 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service moved to de-list the wolf in areas that it deemed the wolf population sufficiently recovered, causing a coalition of animal-welfare groups-including the Humane Society, Help Our Wolves Live, Born Free USA and Friends of Animals and Their Environment-to sue to prevent a potential hunt. In September 2008, those groups won, and the wolf was re-listed in the Great Lakes region. In January of this year, the outgoing Bush administration announced intent to again de-list wolves in the western Great Lakes and northern Rockies, but the action was stalled by the Obama administration. Few expect that this action will be the last in the wolf’s on-again, off-again saga.
Even pro-wolf groups appear divided. Several science-based environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and Defenders of Wildlife, did not join the Wisconsin suit, but instead joined a suit over the de-listing of Rocky Mountain wolves. Treves says the rift reflects a philosophical difference: Animal-welfare groups focus on protecting every individual animal, while the more-traditional environmental groups are interested in the overall health of the population.
That divide makes the DNR’s policy choice difficult. If the wolf is removed from the endangered species list, the agency will have to weigh hunting as one of the state’s potential wolf-management strategies-a decision that is bound to be controversial no matter which way it goes. “Extremes tend to get featured in the media, and if you go to any kind of public meeting about wolf management, you’ll often get representatives of interest groups on either extreme who will say things that don’t quite match even their constituencies,” says Treves. “And that creates a polarized atmosphere.”
That’s where the now-silent majority will have its power. How will they interpret the expanding wolf population and the proposals to deal with it? That’s what managers like Wydeven want to know and what researchers like Naughton and Treves want to find out.
“A reading of where public attitudes are coming from gives us a sense of what kind of things we can propose,” says Wydeven. What kind of regulations will work. Where wolves can live and be accepted as wild neighbors. But also where a growing wolf population is likely to pose problems.
Certainly, Wydeven knows that patience with wolves wears most thin among those who suffer their losses. “The people who accept these large predators are often the people who don’t live near them,” he says. “If you look at the people who are living in areas where wolves actually are, (attitudes) still tend to be negative. And I think for long-term viability, we need to do a better job getting better acceptance by people living close to wolves.”
Naughton notes that damage payments can help alleviate some of those concerns. “What better way to balance the very uneven costs and benefits of conserving something like a wolf?” she asks. “Most of the U.S. and Wisconsin love the idea of having wolves. But it’s a few people who have to absorb the cost by having to be at risk of losing pets and livestock. Compensation doesn’t necessarily change individual attitudes about wolves, but it does buy wolves precious political space.”
Hunting the Hunter
Hunting actually might have the same effect. Naughton notes that bears cause far more economic damage than wolves, but they generate fewer complaints. Could that tolerance be driven to some extent by the rising popularity of bear hunting? “There is a kind of alienation from wolves that hunting may remedy,” she suggests.
But the interplay of hunting and damage payments gets tricky. Compensation payments come from the DNR endangered resources fund, which includes proceeds from sales of wolf license plates and income tax checkoffs. More than a quarter of these contributors say they deeply oppose public hunting of wolves, suggesting they might stop giving if the state authorizes a hunt. That could mean a loss of a half million dollars, more than could be offset by the sale of hunting permits.
And budget might be the least of the issues raised by a proposed hunt. Tim Van Deelen, an assistant professor of forest and wildlife ecology, says hunting wolves would throw all kinds of new variables into the management equation. “Harvesting wolves is different,” he cautions, especially when compared to the brute-force numbers game we play with deer. “There are a million or more deer, but perhaps only about 600 wolves. Each individual removal is proportionately a much bigger part of the population.”
If a hunt were to adopt the state’s goal of 350 wolves outside of Indian reservations, Van Deelen points out, the state would need two kinds of hunts-one to nearly halve the population to the target, and then an annual removal of around 40 wolves to maintain that level. And we really know very little about the impact a hunt might have on pack structure.
“Let’s say as part of your public hunt you wipe out the alpha female. You wipe out reproduction for that pack for at least the first year. Does the pack stay together? Or do you wipe out reproduction for the next year? Those are things we haven’t been able to predict yet,” he says. Three hundred and fifty may seem like plenty of wolves, but in terms of population dynamics, it creates a system that is unstable and difficult to manage.
A bigger target population would be more stable, but it would also create a doubled-edged problem. While wolf advocates would be most likely to support a larger pack, they will likely oppose any hunt. And the groups most actively pushing a wolf hunt-including deer and bear hunters-want fewer wolves, not more. Furthermore, Wydeven believes a wolf hunt would have to be surgically planned to target wolves that were posing a particular threat to dogs and livestock. And it’s unclear that hunters would even be interested in a hunt this proscribed.
“We need to have a discussion about acceptance for more than 350 wolves,” Van Deelen says. “Is the level of wolf damage that we’re incurring here so intolerable that we need to cut the population almost by half? I don’t think so. Like a lot of natural resource issues, the agenda is set by the people who scream the loudest.”