On Saturday, Nov. 3, another chapter in the lives of wolves will be completed. Minnesota will host its first legal hunt. It has been a long and arduous novel with the wolf being either wrapped in evil or worshiped at the altar. The controversy leading up to this weekend’s hunt offers the same scenarios.
Is it possible to broaden the discussion? According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Endangered Species Act lists 1,990 species that could use a little public relations with their survival. Who is championing the Canada lynx, the piping plover, pipit, critical populations of mussels, fish and butterflies that need habitat and money for their existence in Minnesota? The federal and state budgets are tight, and the environmental areas are the first to cut. Public pressure has a good track record with wolves.
The war on wolves began in earnest a century ago with publicly funded troops lined up to hunt, trap, gas dens, tie up pups to fatally attract adults, aerial hunt and offer bounties. The final assault was a potpourri of poisons that killed wolves and any other wildlife near its toxic leftovers. Just think; the land now cemented over by the Mall of America was home to wolves. Two legs and a head from a male wolf were presented for a bounty in September of 1921. It was a troubling episode.
A resurgence of public interest in our natural resources created the Endangered Species Act in 1973, and the wolf was one of the beneficiaries. However, ranchers soon feared for their livelihood and the success of eliminating wolves would soon be challenged. As years passed, the fortunes of wolves were, once again, ensnared in the politics of humans.
Meanwhile, wolves were taking advantage of the protection provided them in the Act. Minnesota was thought to have about 750 wolves in the mid-1970s with a ready supply of new wolves from Canada. Wolves travel long distances in search of food, mates and fresh territory, so Wisconsin and Michigan became a destination point. Canadian wolves refreshed Montana’s wildlands as well. But Yellowstone National Park and Idaho needed some human intervention with trans-located wolves in 1995-1996. The wolf’s high reproductive rates and mobility expanded their range and populations. In the eyes of scientists, the wolf numbers and range have recovered sufficiently for de-listing. Others aren’t so sure, hence, a quagmire of tensions and endless trips to the courts.
Several states offering hunts now
Public pressure from ranchers swayed Congress to pass a bill preventing more lawsuits on wolves, and Idaho and Montana each responded with their first wolf hunt last year. Wyoming, Wisconsin and Minnesota started this year. Idaho, with an estimated wolf population of 750 animals, has opened year-round hunting in an attempt to lower the population to 150 wolves. Montana estimates about 650 wolves; it decided not to establish a quota and allows hunting Sept. 1 to Feb. 28, 2013.
Wyoming is a bit more complicated. Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park and the Wind River Reservation are off-limits. Approximately 275 wolves range outside those protected areas, and they are divided into trophy animals in parts of the state and varmints in the remaining area that can be shot on sight with no limit. Forty-one wolves have been killed to date in Wisconsin since Oct. 15. The state hunters and trappers have until Feb. 28 to fill the quota of 201 wolves. Minnesota is the last to start hunting and trapping, with two seasons targeted to kill 400 wolves.
Wolves offer lots of ethical and moral challenges, and the only consistency is the wolf’s status as the alpha of conflict. Here is an attempt for some resolution for those sitting on opposite sides of a barbed wire fence:
- For policy holders, hold real public hearings allowing citizens to voice their view and use those views to guide compromise similar to allowing an experimental population of wolves in Yellowstone National Park and Idaho. Internet polls are cheap but invite mischief and frustration with no real means of resolution. Would a scientific poll on shooting and trapping wolves really have had an impact on legislators who came to the hearings with preconceived notions?
Consider buying wolf habitat
- For those who think that the wolves should always be protected, consider placing your money and effort into buying wolf habitat that provides a secure location to raise pups, hunt prey and disperse their genes. President Richard Nixon signed the 1973 Act with the words, “Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed.” That “rich array” or biodiversity needs the same fervor, science and awareness.
- And finally, for those readying their guns for wolves, it is your turn to conserve the species. When you speak of saving habitat for duck, deer and walleye, please add the wolf to your list. Bobcat, fox and mink are trapped each year with rarely a mention of conserving those species. Show your true colors as a steward of the land. Taking a wolf in early November when the pelt is not prime is baffling. Assuming the wolf won’t be eaten, use the pelt for your wall or fur market, but don’t waste it. Don’t post photos of a bloodied dead, tortured or trapped wolf to provoke more protests. And remember there are biology classes that would welcome a tanned pelt to enhance their education about wolves.
After watching the wonders of wolves in Minnesota and many remote parts of the world for the past 25 years, I feel joy in its recovery. However, my brain and heart struggle with shooting and trapping wolves. I know wolves are smart and resilient, and their high reproductive rates are an asset for a sustainable population. But I bristle at the extent of boastful and senseless words that has transformed an endangered species one day into a varmint the next. The wolf is at the mercy of our actions, so we are burdened to get it right this time.
Nancy Gibson, of St. Louis Park, is the co-founder of the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn.
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