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A Rocky Mountain Tragedy…Revisited

A message about a  sobering milestone …

As a wildlife education organization we celebrate when a species is delisted from the Endangered Species Act because it signifies that the species has recovered biologically.  As advocates for wolves, however, our celebration was short lived.

When the wolves of the Northern Rockies were delisted in 2011, it marked the first time in history when a species was removed from the Endangered Species List via Congressional action rather than federally mandated scientific analysis.  Since then over 1,000 wolves – almost half the population in the Northern Rockies – have been killed as a result of increasingly aggressive state management plans in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming which call for large reductions in wolf populations via recreational hunting and trapping seasons.

The value and importance of conserving species and ensuring biodiversity is an accepted axiom of the 21st century. The importance of a keystone predator such as the gray wolf to a balanced ecosystem is undeniable. That our policies would and should be motivated by these basic scientific principles seems sound. However, not surprisingly, there are serious cultural and political realities that continue to affect the future of wolf in America’s West.
Presently, state wildlife agencies in charge of conserving and protecting our wildlife are funded almost exclusively by hunter license fees and an excise tax on the sale of guns, ammunition and archery equipment (the “Pittman-Robertson Act”).  This funding structure persists today virtually unchanged since the 1930’s. And, as expected, at the heart of almost all wildlife conservation policies are the interests of the hunting and gun buying public.

Since conservation laws were developed in the 1930’s, at a time when preventing uncontrolled hunting was the objective, little attention was given to the notion that animals have intrinsic worth, are essential to biodiversity or that game and non-game animals alike are needed for a balanced ecosystem. Tragically, we acknowledge that “conservation” is a misnomer in today’s American wildlife agency system. And, the mandate to safeguard our wildlife for the public at large is a virtual impossibility under the present system.

The wolf controversy is a prime example of the complexities at play.  Once wolf management was passed from the federal government to the state wildlife agencies, the states picked up where they left off in the 1930’s and, once again, they became exclusively beholden to their local hunting communities and other special interests. On the other hand, the interests of a new generation of educated stakeholders, those who value the ecological and economic importance of wolves and other predators in the American West, are undeniably ignored.

A recent flurry of new state bills through the Northern Rockies and neighboring states have been introduced seeking to reduce the wolf populations even more.  Instead of letting nature strike its own balance between predator and prey, these states choose to manipulate the population of wolves in order to grow more game – elk and deer – a practice in direct conflict with how wildlife should be managed.  It is ethically and scientifically wrong to manipulate the population of one species to benefit the hunting of another. And, yet, as long as state wildlife agencies are funded exclusively by hunters and the gun-buying public, these and other unsound practices will enable the  Northern Rockies to remain a managed game farm for hunters.
Presently, there are approximately 305 million people in our nation and only 6% of them (37 million people) buy hunting licenses; the vast majority of people do not hunt.  Nearly 72 million (9% of the nation’s population) engage in wildlife-watching activities nationwide.  Ironically, the region with wildlife watching rates well above the national average includes the Mountain States – wolf populated states – at 13%.  Wolf-populated states are part of the national economy, and non-resident tourism and wildlife watching have become one of the largest growing industries in the Northern Rockies region. It supports hundreds of thousands of jobs regionally. 

Compounding the effects of these demographic trends is the fact that while hunting is a seasonal activity, wildlife watchers/tourists, photographers, outdoor enthusiasts, etc. can provide states with a much more reliable, year round source of revenue. They comprise a broader base of resident and nonresident consumers who are eager and willing to assist in the funding of state wildlife agencies.
The wildlife in this country is owned by its citizens. This legal concept implies that we all share equal, undivided interests in our wild animals. The government holds wildlife in trust for our benefit and is empowered to manage it for the public good.

Until legislative changes in the structure and funding of hunter-dominated state wildlife agencies are implemented – policies that more appropriately reflect the most current peer reviewed science and the changing demographic trends in our nation – wolves and other predators are doomed to the same fate as when they were exterminated to the brink of extinction.

Diane Bentivegna

Wolf Conservation Center Advisory Board Member