Recently, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game changed its rules to allow any hunter or trapper to kill up to 30 wolves per year. And the state is considering a proposal to open much of the state to nearly year-round wolf killing.
In Montana, the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks is discussing increases from five to 10 wolf tags for some parts of the state.
In both states, we will be eliminating the ecological function of predators. Predators can change how large animals like elk use the landscape and can preclude excessive browsing of critical areas like riparian zones. Also, wolf kills can provide an essential source of food for scavengers, from magpies and eagles up to and including grizzlies.
Is this hatred of wolves based on massive livestock losses or huge declines in elk numbers?
In 2019, Montana had about 2,550,000 cattle, and 108 confirmed cattle losses attributed to all predators, including wolves. That is such a small percentage as to be laughable. By contrast, in 2018, Montana ranchers lost 37,000 cattle just to winter storms. The federal Livestock Indemnity Program paid ranchers $11.1 million of taxpayer funds.
How about predator impacts on hunting? In, 1995 when wolves were first restored to Yellowstone and central Idaho, the Montana elk population was 109,500. In 2019, Montana’s elk population was estimated at 134,557, 25 percent over the upper objective, and the 2018 elk harvest was 27,793.
A similar situation exists in Idaho. The 1995 Idaho elk population was estimated to be 112,333, and the harvest that year was 22,400. In 2017, the Idaho elk population stood at 116,800, 4,000 more than when wolves arrived. In 2017, elk harvest in Idaho was 22,751.
Many of my colleagues, particularly in the larger middle-of-the-road conservation groups, supported delisting of wolves arguing that once ranchers saw that wolves were responsible for almost insignificant losses and hunters found out that elk would continue to thrive over much of the West, opposition to predators would dissipate.
I disagreed because I did not think the opposition was based on rational ideas. Wolves, I suggested, were symbolic animals. As wild animals, wolves represented the forces that neither ranchers nor hunters could control. Wolves also represent to some people the actions of distant people, despised coastal residents or a federal government that they hate—except, of course, for all the federal welfare bestowed on them, coming primarily from the same coastal residents who pay the bulk of taxes.
The one take-home message from these actions is that the prediction that once the states were given management of wolves, we would see a rational, biologically informed management is inaccurate. The old bias against predators is based more on a cultural attitude as any scientific value.
I hope that younger ranchers and hunters will have a more sophisticated view of wolves and other predators. In the meantime, the only option for predator proponents is to continue to educate people on why wolves are an essential part of our wildlife heritage.
George Wuerthner is an ecologist who worked for both the Challis National Forest and Boise District of the BLM. He now lives in Livingston, Mont.