Thursday, December 18, 2014

Wolves at the Door: How Hunter Hysteria Helped Justify Litigation

Last month the New York Times released a video, “Wolves at the Door, which rightfully points out tactical mistakes made by wolf advocates; mistakes that have helped fuel resentment towards "environmentalists" throughout Montana, Idaho and Wyoming where wolves were reintroduced in the mid-1990s and continue to expand.  The video, however, fails to adequately show the other side: How wolf hysteria among many hunters provoked and contributed to the divisiveness; helped erode trust and credibility towards hunters, and fueled justified skepticism towards the ability of states to manage wolves.

Before wolves were brought down from Canada and released into Yellowstone National Park in 1995 they were listed as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Although a small population had moved from Canada into northwest Montana on their own, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (after conducting numerous public hearings and completing an Environmental Impact Statement) decided to reestablish a viable wolf population in the Yellowstone area (one of three wolf recovery areas established in the Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Plan). They were to be brought back as a “nonessential, experimental” population, which allows for more management flexibility when a species is restored to historic, but not currently occupied habitat because they can be treated as “threatened” and not “endangered.”  Here’s the part that has become hotly contested:  The plan identified a “recovered” wolf population as being “at least” 10 breeding pairs of wolves, for 3 consecutive years, in each of 3 recovery areas (northwestern Montana, central Idaho, and Yellowstone). A population of this size would be comprised of a "minimum" 300 wolves.

“As a hunter I thought, you know, we can handle this,” says Randy Newberg, star of a Sportsman Channel “extreme public lands hunting” show sponsored by Federal Premium Ammunition and who is featured in the “Wolves at the Door” video. “As long as the agreement is followed, this isn’t the end of the world.”

But to listen to most hunters, hunting organizations and the hunting industry you’d think it was indeed the end of the world.

The rabid lies, half-truths and misconceptions many hunters spread about wolves, and the irrational hatred they express for the animal, borders on insanity. Get on most any hunting forum where the subject of wolves comes up and you will see hunters making claims such as: "wolves have decimated elk populations;" "there are no elk left;" "Yellowstone has become a biological wasteland;" "the wolves introduced are a different, larger, meaner subspecies than what once lived here;" "wolves were reintroduced illegally;" "once they eat all our elk they will turn on our children;" "wolves were forced upon us by out-of-state environmentalists from the cities," "wolves are terribly viscous; they eat animals while their still alive and do not kill humanely." 

Even mainstream hunting organizations joined the hysteria. The current director of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, David Allen, has repeatedly called wolf reintroduction the “worst ecological disaster since the decimation of bison herds” and erroneously claimed that wolves are “decimating” and “annihilating” elk herds. Like many hunters, he viciously attacks anyone who disagrees. (See: The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Wolves and the Abandonment of Science, Reason and Logic.)

Many hunters promote the infamous “SSS” solution (Shoot, Shovel and Shut-up) – in other words, they advocate poaching – and few, if any hunters or hunting organizations speak out against such activities. It’s common in Montana to see bumpers stickers that state, “Wolves: Smoke a Pack a Day,” and “Save 100 Elk, Kill a Wolf.” Even the best of hunting-conservation organizations avoid the issue, as to not anger their hunter base. To speak out in favor of wolves within the hunting community – even to just point out biological and factual errors – can get one ostracized and labeled a “wolf lover,” which is akin to being an accused communist during the McCarthy era. The hysteria against wolves has influenced and inflicted western politicians who must appease their hunter-rancher constituents, as well as state wildlife agencies who are funded mostly by hunting and fishing license fees and must be responsive to hunters, politically appointed game commissioners and state legislators.

So when wolves reached recovery goals in 2002, as predicted, and wolf populations continued to grow and expand (currently at about 1,600) the process of delisting wolves and turning management over to the states got held up by a series of lawsuits filed by environmental organizations and decisions handed down by federal judges.  For those who had hoped to see wolves delisted sooner, it seemed a violation of the initial agreement.  But the experimental, nonessential recovery plan did not just state wolves would be considered recovered when numbers reach a "minimum" (not maximum) 300. It also states:

“Delisting may occur when analysis of the best available scientific and commercial information shows that gray wolves are no longer threatened with extinction due to: (1) Loss of habitat, (2) overutilization, (3) disease or predation, (4) inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms, and (5) other natural or manmade factors. In addition to the above, the final EIS, states that the following criteria must be met: (1) For 3 consecutive years, a minimum of 10 breeding pairs are documented in each of the 3 recovery areas described in the revised wolf recovery plan; (2) protective legal mechanisms are in place; and (3) the EIS evaluation has been completed.”

That leaves a lot of room for interpretation by wildlife biologists, environmentalists, hunters, politicians, lawyers and judges.  For example: When the state of Wyoming decided to manage wolves as “varmits” that could be shot on site in most parts of the state, many people did not perceive that as having adequate “protective legal mechanisms” in place.

“We’re now standing around saying ‘You can’t trust this process,’” says Randy Newberg in the “Wolves at the Door” video. True. And many of us were standing around saying “you can’t trust hunters and the state fish and game agencies to manage wolves based on science.”  Also true.

In no small way, hunters helped justify the litigation.

Granted, many citizens do not support any hunting of wolves under any circumstances, and were bound to oppose any and all plans that included hunting.  But even for those of us who supported eventual state management and limited hunting it became pretty difficult to trust hysterical hunters who basically control state wildlife agencies and weren’t coming across as very rational, reasonable or science-based.  Idaho Fish and Game hired a bounty hunter to try and eliminate two packs of wolves in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, one of the largest wilderness areas in the United States. Idaho hunters have organized wolf-killing competitions and killer 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 the department conducted secretive aerial shootings of wolves from helicopters with no public knowledge or input and spent $30,000 to kill 23 wolves. Idaho Fish and Game is doing this and more in an ongoing effort to appease many ranchers and hunters to protect livestock and maintain artificially high and unhealthy numbers of elk for hunters to shoot at. (See: Killing Wolves: A Hunter-Led War Against Science and Wildlife.)

Most hunters and hunting-based conservation organizations love to tout the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, a set of principles that has guided wildlife management in the United States and Canada. One of those principles is that “science is the proper tool for discharge of wildlife policy.”  This tenet draws from the writings of Aldo Leopold, considered the father of wildlife management, who in the 1930s called for a wildlife conservation movement facilitated by trained wildlife biologists that made decisions based on facts, professional experience, and commitment to shared underlying principles rather than just the interests of hunting or culling of predators. Science in wildlife policy includes studies of the biology, ecology, population dynamics and behavior of the animals being managed.

What do we know about wolves?  We know they are apex predators that are generally self-regulatory. We know that 65 percent of wolf mortality is the result of wolves themselves. We know wolves have complex social structures and breeding behaviors that, when disrupted by hunting and trapping in some places during certain times of year, can cause packs to disperse and sometimes results in more packs, more breeding and more wolves.  Studies in Canada show that wolf predation on elk is often “compensatory” and not “additive” – in other words, when comparing elk herds where there are no wolves with elk herds where there are wolves, in similar habitats, overall mortality is often similar because of other factors.  A recent study that took a close look at 25 years of wolf management statistics in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming concludes that for every wolf killed the probability of getting an increased number of breeding pairs increases as does associated livestock depredation, and both increase at about the same five-percent rate.  A recent study in Wyoming funded by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Boone and Crocket Club, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Safari Club International concludes that wolves may not be as “detrimental” to elk herds as people think and that elk are adapting to the presence of wolves.

We know that the return of wolves to much of the western United States has resulted in significant overall, long-term benefits to wildlife and the habitat that sustains them -- including the species we love to hunt. (Check out: "How Wolves Change Rivers.")

In Yellowstone National Park we know wolves have knocked elk populations back to sustainable levels and, as a result, aspen forests, rangelands and riparian communities (previously hammered by too many elk) are recovering – benefiting streams, rivers, forests, grasslands and an abundance and diversity of wildlife they sustain.  We know the northern Yellowstone elk herd (one of six herds within the park) numbered 16,000 in 1932 and were knocked down to a more sustainable 6,000 by 1968 by Park Service shooters, hunters and winter kill.  We know the herd increased to an unsustainable 17,000 after the controversial shooting program ended and the Park Service adopted a “natural regulation” policy. We know that from 1976-2004 the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks issued a lot of cow elk permits north of the park and enough 3-14 year old cows with “high reproductive value” were killed to cause a significant reduction in the birth of elk calves and calf survival.  We know that the number of elk killed by wolves within the northern herd now exceeds the number killed by hunters, but they mostly prey on calves and older cows (14-plus years) with “low reproductive value,” and so the number of calves born has increased. (However, there is concern about current low bull-to-cow ratios within the herd and low calf survival, which is attributed to a complexity of factors of which wolves are only a part.)  We know the northern herd now numbers about 4,000 elk, well within the objective of 3,000-5,000 and much closer to the 5,000 population level that wildlife biologists estimated as a good, healthy, sustainable number more than 50 years ago. We know elk numbers are more difficult to estimate now because elk travel in smaller groups and hide within the forests and are not standing in the open in large numbers overgrazing their range like they used to. We know a higher percentage of elk (77 percent) leave the park as opposed to the 30 percent that used to leave. We know elk have adapted to the presence of wolves, are “leaner and meaner” (as one wildlife biologist put it) and that wolves are killing fewer elk (as most us hunters can attest, elk are smart and adaptable). We know that as elk populations first declined and then stabilized wolf populations also declined and stabilized from a high of about 175 to an estimated 85 today (some of this may be a result of hunting wolves outside the park, but biologists I have spoken to predicted and expected this sort of decline and stabilization).   

“We have a declining wolf population,” says Doug Smith, leader of the Yellowstone Wolf Project. “Numbers here got as high as we expected based on available prey. This suggests that once wolves reach a certain density you start to get social regulations of their numbers.”

Hunters can no longer shoot as many elk as they used to when the animals migrate out of the park to winter – but the landscape is healthier.

Many hunters and hunting organizations say wolves need to be managed like other wildlife. But various wildlife species are managed differently in accordance with what we know about the species being managed. We do not and should not manage ungulates, such as deer and elk, in the same manner that we manage predators, such as bears and mountain lions. Yes, wolves need to be managed like other wildlife but not in the same manner as other wildlife. Wolves are not elk. Wolves are not deer. Wolves should not be managed like elk and deer; wolves should be managed like wolves. We are not managing wolves based on good, sound science and what we know about their natural history, behavior and ecology – we are managing wolves based on anger, resentment, hatred and political pressure.

Like many parts of our society today, facts and science are often quickly dismissed by many hunters if it goes against what they want to believe; it seems a lot of hunters only support science when the conclusions match their preconceived notions. That is not in line with the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.

This, in large part, is why environmentalists filed lawsuits. Lots of lawsuits. Too many lawsuits. And it did, indeed, cause a backlash among those who were already not so fond of wolves or environmentalists.  As Lisa Upson, the executive director of Keystone Conservation, puts it in the “Wolves at the Door” video: “We should have thought harder about the potential for backlash.”

In 2011 Congress intervened, passing legislation that turned wolf management over to individual states while setting a dangerous precedence of politicians deciding when a species is recovered rather than the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its scientists.

I can understand the frustrations of Randy Newberg as expressed in “Wolves at the Door.” But in other outlets he merely helps fan the fires. He refers to the process as a “betrayal of local citizens in the face of zealous groups who view wolves not as a canine, but rather a bovine - cash cow." He says that "the groups continual litigation of the issue for their own financial benefit did nothing to help wildlife. If anything, they set back the idea of species introduction/re-introduction by 50 years."  In response to the dangerously unprecedented Congressional action that removed wolves from the Endangered Species List based on politics and not science he said, “It upset a lot of the fringe operators and their attorneys who viewed wolf litigation as a lifetime annuity; but they would mistake me for someone who cares about their hurt feelings.” On one of his wolf hunts filmed for his Sportsmen Channel show, he calls wolf advocates “a bunch of wingnut screwballs from wherever telling us how to manage wildlife.”

Randy Newberg knows his audience, and knows how to turn wolves into his own cash cow.

There are many of us wolf advocates living right here in the West, close to the wildlands, wild elk and wild wolves we cherish. Some of us even hunt. (See: Why I Hunt: Thoughts from a Wolf-Loving, Elk-Killing Tree Hugger.) I never felt betrayed. I support several of the groups involved in the litigation, as do many of my friends here in Montana, and certainly do not consider them "zealous," "fringe" or "wingnut srewballs." Rather, I am embarrassed by the way fellow hunters and hunting organizations have reacted to the return of wolves.  The volatile, irrational fear, hatred and ignorance not only portrays hunters as knowing even less about wildlife than the “city folks” they like to deride, but helped fuel the litigation and related anger and resentment that led to passage of legislation that could potentially erode the Endangered Species Act.  

There’s plenty of blame to go around; “Wolves at the Door” only tells part of the story.  

“The Wolf Advocacy community made a strategic error early on,” says Hal Herring, a well-respected hunter, wildlife advocate and conservation writer who was interviewed for the “Wolves at the Door” video. “At some point the fears of the hunters and ranchers became realized when the lawsuits came in. Formerly very reasonable people were beginning to despise the Endangered Species Act . . . wolf recovery . . . the whole thing. It became a metaphor for overreaching federal power.”

I agree with Hal. I, too, know formerly reasonable people who now despise the Endangered Species Act.  But I also know many very reasonable people (who remain reasonable people) who are beginning to despise hunters and hunting – people who are having a difficult time believing that wolves are the “worst ecological disaster since the decimation of bison herds” and that wolves have “decimated” and “annihilated” our elk herds. The science is on their side.

If we hunters want to build, restore and maintain credibility, respect and support, we need to speak out in support of science and speak out against those who spread lies, misconceptions and half-truths about a wild animal that not only plays a vital role in the big ecological scheme of things, but that most Americans are glad to have back.

1 comment:

  1. I believe wolves should be managed, but they are not doing it the right way. The way they do it causes more issues. More livestock killings, because they kill the alpha's. The alphas keep the pack in check and they don't over populate. When you kill the alphas then the rest over breed because there is no one to keep them in check and then people rant and rave because there are more livestock killings. Learn a better approach to management and you would not have near the problems. And there is a better way to manage them and not fueled by hate and ignorance. And to the fact some of these renegade hunters are making it worse all the way around.

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