As the fall hunting season approaches, wolves in the lower 48 face an uncertain future.
More than 10,200 wolf hunting applications have already been submitted in Wisconsin, where the state will issue by lottery 2,000 licenses to effectively decimate its wolf population.
The limit this hunting season, running from Oct. 15 through the end of February, will be 201 animals out of an estimated population of about 800. But the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has formulated a long-term population goal of 350 wolves.
Aside from the obvious setback to the successful reintroduction of a genetically diverse population of a keystone species that hunting this many healthy wolves poses, another aspect to Wisconsin’s first wolf hunt creating controversy is the use of domestic dogs to track and chase their cousins.
Wisconsin is the only state to allow dogs to take part in hunting wolves, prompting the Wisconsin Humane Society and other humane groups to sue the state, claiming that the inevitable confrontations between man’s best friend and wolves amounts to illegal dog fighting.
Wisconsin’s native tribes have also come out against the hunt, maintaining that the killing of so many is biologically reckless, stressing the importance of wolves to create healthy ecosystems, and calling wolves their “brothers.” The tribes maintain that it is their right to allow wolves to thrive on territory ceded them in a treaty signed in the 1800s.
“The Tribes’ goal is for all suitable wolf habitat to be fully occupied, thus enabling wolves to perform their appropriate ecological and cultural function on the landscape. The State’s goal is to reduce the population to a level the Tribes consider ecologically unsound, culturally inappropriate, violative of their rights, and potentially unsustainable.”
Thanks in large part to putting the interests of ranchers and game hunters before good ecology, wolves were essentially wiped out in the West by the 1930s. After gaining Endangered Species Act protections, reintroduction programs slowly began shining a new light on the importance of wolves in their ecosystems.
In Yellowstone, for example, wolves forced elk to move more, thereby allowing many species of trees that were in decline since the time wolves were eradicated from the park in the 1920s to thrive. This, in turn, provided more food for beavers, and created healthier stream ecosystems. Fox and pronghorn also benefitted as wolves helped to keep the coyote population in check.
Wolves are a keystone species in the ecosystems where they are found naturally, vital to managing our wild areas. With wolves allowed to do their job, state’s would need less money from hunters who self-righteously claim that their hunting dues foot the bill for human-managed ecosystems, as well as help keep prey animals numbers from getting out of control.
Wolves are a threat to hunters because they take the same animals hunters want to kill, and wolves do their job and do it better… for free.
But the government dealt these animals a low blow in 2008 when it removed most wolves from federal protections, leaving wolf management to individual states thirsty for the hunt. Wisconsin joins Idaho and Montana in allowing wolf hunting.
Wyoming is currently battling for its right to ignore science and the mistakes of history by opening its first season on wolves. The Associated Press just reported that the Interior Department plans to approve the mass killing of formerly protected wolves in 80 percent of the state where they will be allowed to be shot on sight.
In the Center for Biological Diversity’s press release, Director of the Land and Wildlife Program for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Chicago, Andrew Wetzler was quoted as saying of the state’s plan:
“It’s essentially turning Wyoming into a free-fire wolf-kill zone outside of national parks and a few national forests. That’s a huge problem for the population, and it doesn’t take a conservation biologist to figure that out.”
In New Mexico, the Fish and Wildlife service gave the alpha female of a Mexican gray wolf pack a stay of execution last week, only to impose a life sentence on the mother of at least four pups. She is blamed for the deaths of four cattle in recent months, and even though the ranchers have been compensated, a kill order was given until Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center in Scottsdale, Ariz., offered to house the alpha female for the rest of her life.
There are only 58 wolves in the wild in southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico, so losing even one breeding female would be a tragedy. She won’t be killed, but her pups will still lose their mother and she will be a prisoner for the remainder of her life.
The only good news for wolves is coming from California, where the first and only wolf to grace the Golden State since the last one was killed 80 years ago, roams the northern part of the state looking in vain for a mate after travelling over the border from Oregon.
The California Department of Fish and Game recently recommended that the gray wolf be made a candidate for protection under the California Endangered Species Act, a welcome safeguard as the feds are considering removing federal protection under the act.
Historically maligned and vilified by ranchers and hunters, wolves are beautiful, social big players in the balance of nature. Our wild places belong to all of us. Picking and choosing which animals belong in our wild places mean those places aren’t wild anymore.
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