This fall, Montana opened a sport hunting season – on wolves. Yeah – the same wolves that wildlife biologists have been working so hard (and spending lots of federal money) to successfully reintroduce to restore the Yellowstone ecosystem. So what happened? It really isn’t that surprising: hunters have already killed nine wolves in the wilderness area near Yellowstone’s northern border – including both the radio-collared alpha and beta females of Yellowstone Park’s Cottonwood wolf pack. Uh. . . oops.
And what do Montana authorities have to say about this?
“Members of the commission and state wildlife managers have acknowledged a mistake in the decision to open early season hunting next to Yellowstone.They characterized it as a learning experience. (source)”
A learning experience. Really.
I’m not completely against hunting. I grew up in a rural area. My dad was a hunter. I grew up eating hunted meat. And I have no problem with the idea of hunting for meat, as long as it’s responsible. Hunting can help manage species like deer or elk, who have gotten unhealthily overabundant due to lack of predators and too much food in suburban areas.
I don’t like pure sport hunting – killing an animal that you’re not going to eat or otherwise use just seems distasteful to me. But I don’t blame the hunters for what happened in Montana. The state told them they could “harvest” wolves, so they did. True, any hunter with a decent sight should have seen the radio collars, and my dad would never have killed a radio-collared animal. But even so, it’s not the hunters’ fault the people in charge of Montana wildlife management appear, generously, to be flipping idiots.
Let’s get something clear: these wolves were not killed on or near ranchland. They were not killed to protect cattle from predation. They were killed because you can’t expect wild animals to know where Yellowstone Park (safe) borders Montana wilderness land (unsafe). But hunters understand borders, and hunters know the best place to bag a wolf is right outside the park. Why does this surprise anyone?
Yet somehow it does:
That’s not what FWP had envisioned. The agency has viewed the hunt, in part, as a way to remove the predators from the front country where they’re more likely to interact with or kill livestock. If only wolves in the backcountry are killed, FWP isn’t meeting part of its objective.
“When we started out on the whole hunting season, we would’ve been the first to say we don’t know how this is going to work,” Sime said.
She said wildlife managers want to encourage wolves to remain in the backcountry, away from potential conflicts with livestock.
“So what we’re learning is that maybe we need to rethink these backcountry hunts and see if we can fine-tune that.” (source)
Unfortunately, with its senior females dead, and at least two more members whose identity is uncertain (they apparently weren’t radio-tagged) the Cottonwood wolf pack is in serious trouble. Keep in mind the average wolf pack is between 4-7 individuals, so that’s basically a whole pack dead in one abortive hunting season. Conservationists are seething. The biologists who actually work with these wolves are no doubt heartbroken. But more to the point, these killings are utterly inefficient and wasteful, don’t do anything to protect cattle, and only heighten tensions in an already hostile legal, cultural, and political conflict over wolf conservation.
We need to figure out what our priorities are. If we want, as a nation, to have any authentic parks like Yellowstone where traditional ecosystems are still in place – for both study and enjoyment – then we need everyone on the same page. On one side of an invisible border, Yellowstone’s wolves are celebrities, individuals, and valuable tourist draws (for watchers of Bob Landis’ National Geographic series Return of the Wolf, Cottonwood’s alpha female 527F was the daughter of 42F, the “Cinderella wolf”). On the other side of that border, they’re vermin and shooting targets. It sure seems to me that state and federal wildlife management officials ought to be doing what they can to buffer these radically disparate attitudes towards wolves. Instead, Ken Salazar handed off wolf management to Montana. And as the Montana wolf hunt shows, state officials are doing nothing to improve the situation. No wonder hunters, ranchers, and conservationists are as far apart as they’ve ever been on this issue.
Anyone have any constructive ideas on how to actually fix this? Cause I sure don’t.