Not a Comfortable Place to Reside

The wolf hunt in Montana and Idaho ignited a firestorm of controversy. This morning, when I opened our local paper, the issue hit home like a punch to the gut. The headline read, “First Bitterroot Wolf Killed” and a photo displayed a 35 year old man kneeling above the bloody carcass of a wolf. My insides tightened. My breath came out in short bursts. I set the paper aside and willed myself to take a deep breath. I called our dog, Ripley, and headed out for a walk.

When something hits me where I feel it, my first response is emotional. That’s all well and fine… it tells me that I care and that passion still burns inside. However, as I’ve aged, I’ve come to see that a stance or course of action based upon a gut reaction usually results in a bigger mess. As Rip and I made tracks across a thin veil of new snow, I thought about the wolf hunt. There are two ways to view the issue: emotional and rational. In the emotional level, I included perceptions, attitudes, and values. I’d started, upon seeing the picture of the dead wolf, at the emotional level. But as I walked, I explored the rational level. Within that context I saw three basic elements of the hunt to ponder: biological, legal, and sociopolitical.


I’ll start with the legal morass involved with wolves and the Endangered Species Act because that’s the stickiest issue. Wolves in the northern Rockies are designated a ‘distinct population’ meaning they’re viewed as a subgroup of the entire population of wolves in the United States. Last year the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service removed wolves from endangered status and turned management over to the states… well, all of the states except Wyoming because Wyoming has acted like a recalcitrant and spoiled child. Wyoming submitted a management plan that, outside the greater Yellowstone area, allowed anyone to kill wolves, by any means (at den sites, run over by snowmobiles…), at any time, and in unlimited numbers. The USFWS could not sign off on that. Idaho produced a marginal management plan and Montana wrote a respectable plan. Oregon and Washington, where wolves aren’t really an issue (because there are so few), have plans that are more restrictive than the federal guidelines. (From here on, the wolves I’m referring to are those in the northern Rockies.)

There are two law suits filed against the USFWS for delisting wolves. The principal argument of both suits maintain that the distinct population of wolves can’t be sub-divided – that for delisting to occur it’s all-or-nothing. Ironically, though the grounds for both are pretty much the same, the suing parties and their motivations are at polar opposites.

In arena one, there’s the state of Wyoming and an alliance of woolgrowers, cattle ranchers, and sportsmen suing the USFWS. According to them, wolves can’t be delisted in Montana and Idaho without including Wyoming. You don’t need to be a political wonk to suspect that this group doesn’t have the welfare of wolves in mind. They want Wyoming included in delisting without the state coming up with a reasonable management plan. In arena two, we have a group of environmental organizations. The grounds for their suit are that the USFWS can’t turn wolf management over to Montana and Idaho until Wyoming gets onboard with a decent plan. And knowing that Wyoming isn’t about to cooperate in the foreseeable future, they see this as a means of taking management away from Montana and Idaho, stopping wolf hunts, and keeping the wolf listed. (It’s only fair to point out that a number of other environmental organizations are quite displeased with the groups involved with the lawsuit.)

The big legal question, in both cases, is: within the context of the Endangered Species Act, can a portion of a Recovered population be delisted while another portion remains protected? The judicial system does not decide cases based on feelings, what’s reasonable, or what ought to be… it simply adheres to the law and when the intent of the law isn’t clear, it’s up to the court system to interpret the law. In terms of these cases, the legal briefs must be submitted and oral arguments made by early 2010. Decisions will probably be rendered by mid-2010.


Next, let’s segue into the biological realm. Will the current Idaho and Montana hunts eradicate wolves? No. Conservationists, and I consider myself one, tend to see the glass as half empty… So I’d like to put this into context – wolf recovery in the northern Rockies has been a success. When Pat and I started presenting Wild Sentry programs in 1991, I hoped to see wolf reintroduction take place in my life time. Then, quite amazingly, four and five years later, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone and central Idaho. Now, a mere decade and a half down the road, the fact that there are enough wolves to even consider allowing a hunt… well, that’s astounding. And there are a lot of wolves – we’ve gone from 66 reintroduced wolves (plus a small number of wolves that migrated from Canada into northwestern Montana) in the mid-90’s to more than 1,645 as of December of 2008.

Here are some rough annual averages, based on numbers provided by the USFWS, for wolf births and deaths relative to the total population prior to the hunts. Births accounted for a 30-50% increase (the only number that wolf-haters pay attention to) and deaths for around a 25% decrease (the only number that wolf-huggers see). So from 100 wolves, there were 30-50 births and 26 deaths: 10 from illegal killings, 10 from government control actions, 3 from road kills, and 3 natural causes. Based on these figures, we see that the wolf population, without a hunt, grows five to twenty-five per cent each year.

Idaho, with some 520 wolves, set its sights on a hunting quota of 220 wolves (which I personally view as extreme… but I’m trying to remain rational) spread out over 12 zones. As I write (on Nov. 18th), 108 Idaho wolves have been harvested… a hunting euphemism for killed. Montana’s quota of 77 from three zones has been met and the season is closed.

Hunting wolves, especially given the quotas and zones, is not going to jeopardize the existence of wolves. In order to exterminate wolves, the use of poison would have to be allowed, as occurred during the extermination campaign at the turn of the 19th century. And while there is strong opposition to wolves, no state has proposed returning to the use of poison, not even Wyoming.


Now, into the sociopolitical zone. I’ve been monitoring comments submitted by Bitterrooters in response to that front page article about the wolf shot by a local hunter and the ignorance, profiling, polarization, and depraved craziness is running rampant. If it’s still posted, it’s well worth viewing: In one camp the anti-wolf contingent is firing off comments and insults – congratulating the local hunter for defending himself and his children (from a wolf that was oblivious to their presence), going into graphic detail about how wolves bring down an elk or deer (you try it without tools or opposable thumbs), describing how they haven’t seen any elk or deer since the wolves came back (try getting out of your truck), telling the tree-huggers to go to hell or at least back to where they came from, and basically being rude.

I have to admit that, at times, I tire of moral relativism. It’s so much easier to take a stand, shout out that I’m for this or aging that, and not worry my little head about details and complexities. But such an unexamined reaction seldom aids the process of working towards solutions. Perhaps one purpose of life is to learn to live with the tension that results when reason and emotion collide. It’s not an easy or comfortable place to reside. But then, there’s no evidence that life was meant to be easy.

I recognize that I haven’t fully addressed this issue, but that would require a book… And who’d read it?

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