Gov. Steve Bullock was recently quoted as supporting legislation that would increase the killing of wolves because the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks supports the legislation.
Bullock was quoted as saying: “... at the end of the day we need to base these decisions on science, not on politics …” Unfortunately, indiscriminate killing of wolves is largely about politics and ignores the best science.
Predator killing creates a self-fulfilling feedback mechanism, whereby more wolves (cougar, bears, coyotes) are indiscriminately killed, the greater social disruptions, resulting in additional conflicts, and more demand for additional killing.
We’ve seen this cycle for decades in our failed attempts to reduce coyote depredations. As Albert Einstein has said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
There are good scientific reasons why indiscriminate killing (which hunting and trapping are) fails to get the expected results.
The loss of experienced, older animals and their “cultural” knowledge of their territory may mean the remaining wolves will starve or seek out easy prey like livestock.
With wolves, the loss of pack members may result in an inability to hold on to territory, forcing the remaining pack members into new territory where they may not know wildlife use patterns – such as where elk calve or migration corridors. Again this may cause them to seek out livestock for food.
When there is heavy mortality and fragmented packs, populations are skewed toward younger animals. This ultimately leads to a greater number of breeding pairs, and even higher number of young pups.
The end result is a higher percentage of young inexperienced animals, which like human teenagers, are more inclined towards risky behavior and lack the skills to survive. This naturally predisposes them to seeking easy prey like livestock.
Another problem with indiscriminate predator killing is that it often removes the very animals that are the least likely to be involved in livestock depredations. The majority of hunting occurs on the larger blocks of public land. The wolf pack that is attacking cattle on private ranchlands are unlikely to be the animals removed by hunters and/or trappers.
Worse, current state policies ignore or devalue the multiple ecological benefits of predators – from reduction of disease transmission among other species such as elk and deer, to restoration of riparian areas and increases in both songbirds and trout.
Striving to keep predator numbers well below the number that actually influences ungulate populations seriously undermines the ecological function of predation, and contributes to ecological impoverishment.
Finally there is the ethical question. One continuously hears about fair chase and ethical behavior regarding hunting. What is ethical about killing animals you don’t eat? Is gratuitous killing ethical behavior? Most U.S. citizens no longer hunt. They only accept hunting if they believe hunters are involved in ethical hunting practices. Montana FWP’s backward and archaic policies are undermining ultimately public support for hunting in general.
There may be an occasional need to surgically remove a particularly troublesome animal, however that is entirely different from the indiscriminate slaughter Montana FWP gratuitously calls “hunting.”
The bottom line is Montana FWP does not use science to manage predators. Its predator policies are archaic, unethical and often self-defeating relics from the past. It’s time for Montana to enter the 21st century and manage predators with a scientific understanding of their social ecology and treating predators with the respect they deserve.
George Wuerthner is a former Montana hunting guide and ecologist who writes from Helena.