Everything we hunters love about elk – their speed, wariness, agility, intelligence – was shaped and honed through thousands of years of coevolution with wolves, bears, mountain lions and coyotes. Predators helped make elk what they are, and predators help keep elk what they are. In the wilds, everything is intimately connected; the health of the whole depends on every part. When I merge into the wilds to hunt, I feel part of the whole -- not merely a visitor to the wilds, but a participant; a predator.
I love wild elk meat, but also see myself as a vegetarian of sorts -- living off the wild grasses, sedges and forbs that grow near my home in western Montana. Most of these plants are not palatable to humans, so I let elk convert them to protein for me. Perhaps someday I will travel through the digestive system of a grizzly and fertilize the vegetation that elk eat: Seems only fair considering all the elk I've killed and eaten. We’re all connected.
Unfortunately, many hunters don’t see it this way. They show disdain and disrespect for our fellow predators. They see them as “competitors” killing and eating what they arrogantly and selfishly think is “theirs” instead of trying to understand the vital, ecological role they play in shaping and maintaining what they claim to love. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the ongoing war on wolves.
Idaho Fish and Game recently hired a paid bounty hunter to eliminate two wolf packs in a wilderness. Idaho hunters have organized wolf-killing competitions and co-ops to pay trappers to kill wolves. The state legislature and governor declared wolves a "disaster emergency" and allocated $2 million to killing wolves. More recently Idaho Fish and Game conducted secretive aerial shootings of wolves from helicopters without public knowledge or input; they spent $30,000 to kill 23 wolves. Idaho Fish and Game is doing this and more in an ongoing effort to appease hunters to protect livestock and maintain artificially high and unhealthy numbers of elk for hunters to shoot.
Elk populations are increasing in most of the West. State wildlife departments are expanding elk hunting to reduce elk populations while simultaneously killing wolves under the guise of protecting and boosting elk numbers. Where elk populations do appear on the decline there are plenty of factors to consider in addition to wolves: Changes in habitat; a natural reduction in numbers where, prior to the return of wolves, populations were artificially high; lack of mature bulls and low bull-to-cow ratios in herds (often resulting from early season hunting and too much hunting pressure on bull elk) which influences the timing of the rut and breeding behavior, the timing of spring calving influencing increased vulnerability of elk calves to predation; influence of other predators including mountain lions, black bears and grizzlies; unanticipated impacts of various hunting regulations and hunting pressure, and changes in behavior and habitat use by elk in the presence of wolves.
Where I hunt, the growing presence of wolves has changed the behavior and habits of elk. Elk bunch up more for safety, and move around more to evade and avoid wolves. They are a lot more wary. I have adapted and adjusted to these changes and have no problem finding elk. This is part of the beauty and value of hunting within wilderness -- to adjust, adapt and be part of the landscape; to be, as my friend David Petersen put it, part of the "bedrock workings of nature." We render the wilds a diminished abstract when we alter it to suit our own needs and desires and, in the process, make it less healthy and whole. There are those who espouse the virtues of backcountry hunting and yet seem apathetic or supportive towards the destruction of backcountry integrity. Those who understand the wilds know how critically important predators are to the health of the land. To remain silent about the nonscientific, politically-based killing of wolves in the wildest of places is to be complacent towards the degradation of what we claim to cherish.
One of the cornerstones of our North American Model of Wildlife Conservation is that wildlife be managed based on good science. That good science shows the return of wolves to much of the western United States has resulted in significant, long-term benefits to wildlife and the habitat that sustains them -- including the species we love to hunt.
Predators are rarely managed based on science or for the benefit of predators and healthy ecosystems. They’re rarely managed in accordance of what most Americans accept. Hunters and anglers pay the bills through licenses and excise taxes on hunting and fishing gear and (along with governor-appointed commissioners) have lopsided power and influence over how wildlife is managed. Thus, wildlife management often leans more towards animal husbandry – producing more to catch and shoot sometimes to the detriment of other wildlife. Predators get a bad deal.
A recent report about the flaws of the North American Model summed it up this way: "The scientists also express concern that the interests of recreational hunters sometimes conflict with conservation principles. For example, they say, wildlife management conducted in the interest of hunters can lead to an overabundance of animals that people like to hunt, such as deer, and the extermination of predators that also provide a vital balance to the ecosystem."
More than half a century ago Leopold wrote: "I personally believed, at least in 1914 when predator control began, that there could not be too much horned game, and that the extirpation of predators was a reasonable price to pay for better big game hunting. Some of us have learned since the tragic error of such a view, and acknowledged our mistake."
We still haven't caught up to Leopold.