September 3, 2009 in Outdoors

Trust the real experts in wolf debate

By The Spokesman-Review
 
More on this topic

Background and the latest updates

Wolves are running a spectrum of emotions in the thoughts of people across the nation this week.

Certainly it’s news to ask a hunter why he wants to kill a wolf as well as to ask an anti-hunter why wolves should be protected.

But the path to enlightenment more often is reached through experts rather than advocates.

In recent weeks I interviewed a half dozen of the world’s leading wolf authorities on a range of issues before realizing they all supported some sort of regulated hunting for wolves.

Even though their careers have been dedicated to studying and promoting wolves, they did not hesitate to suggest that a few well-placed bullets would be needed to assure that wolves remain socially accepted as well as biologically viable in the Northern Rockies.

That story ran in Sunday’s paper.

What’s left is an appreciation for the book-length backgrounds these authorities have compiled.

Each of them has devoted 20 to 50 years studying predators.

“We’ve taken pups from dens, run wolves off fresh kills, trapped and darted them, been in the woods with them without any concern about human safety,” said Ed Bangs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wolf recovery coordinator for the Northern Rockies.

Wolves are known to be observational learners, but Mark McNay can shed considerably more insight on that topic.

“Having wolves that run away at the first sight of a human may be the best thing for both the wolves and people,” said McNay, a retired Alaska Fish and Game Department biologist who compiled a landmark study on aggressive wolf behavior in Alaska and Canada.

“But it’s not normal for a wolf to instantly flee from a human at a distance, and it shouldn’t be considered aggressive behavior if they don’t.

“Wolves are naturally curious, and they’re used to being the fastest carnivore at the top of the food chain.

“I’ve watched a wolf run up and bite a grizzly on the butt then sprint off 20 yards, turn around, and look to see what happens.

“If wolves ever get any sense there’s no threat from something, they get closer to crossing the threshold and considering it as possible prey, especially in the case of small children. They look for vulnerability.

“For 70 years the mantra was that we don’t have to be afraid of wolves. That was the case history. But that’s not necessarily how it will play out, given more people in the woods and more frequent encounters with people without negative conditioning.

“We don’t have to be afraid of wolves, but we should respect them for what they are, and also for what they are not – they are not dogs.”

Martin Nie, a University of Montana associate professor of natural resource policy, has been probing the issue of endangered species delisting beyond the behavior of the wolves themselves.

He said the public and wildlife managers should be looking past scheduled wolf hunts to the larger issue: What if hunting is not effective in controlling wolves?

“Then we’ll be in the same boat as Alaska where hunting has not been able to do the job,” he said, noting that aerial hunting by government agents and other control methods have generated a tourism boycott, National Academy of Sciences investigations and negative international media attention.

“And then you have state ballot initiatives, and that’s not a preferred way to manage wildlife,” said Nie, author of “Beyond Wolves: The Politics of Wolf Recovery and Management.”

Wolves are heavily hunted in Canada with less debate “because we never wiped them out,” said Lu Carbyn, a leading Canadian government wolf biologist. “Killing them off and then bringing them back intensifies the debate.”

“The biggest threat to wolves,” he suggested, “is the loss of wild areas where wolves are allowed to survive on their own, without competition with man.”

Contact Rich Landers at 459-5508 or e-mail richl@spokesman.com

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