“Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.”
-–Henry David Thoreau
After coming from Washington DC in 2004 with my wife Deanna Krantz to care for her parents in Minnesota, I did not expect to come to live in a State where I would once again confront some of the same advocates of ‘managed” wolf hunting and trapping whom I, along with others had successfully convinced, (over their objections and “science”-based rationalizations) our Federal Government to protect the wolf under the Endangered Species Act back in the 1970s.. This and other acts to protect the wild heritage of North America, which indigenous and other peoples call sacred, as well as the right of all citizens to a healthy environment which is dependent upon and managed by wolves and other species, plant and animal, whose protected communities and enhanced biodiversity helps us secure purer water, cleaner air, reduce climate change and prevent the emergence of Lyme and other diseases. Having studied wolves and the pack-hunting Dhole or Asiatic wild dog in-field in India, and I have experienced the kind of love that can be shared with a socialized and trusting wild canid, be he/she a wolf or any other non-domesticated canid species (including those whom I have known, from Artic and Kit, Red, Grey and Swift foxes to Asiatic Jackals, Kansas coyotes, dingoes, wolf-dog and coyote-dog hybrids. It is the kind of love that I have been gifted by wolves that inspires, informs and creates a bond of mutual respect and trust. It also empowers millions of people who have had less intimacy with wolves than I, to decry their continued persecution, suffering and exploitation.
Love is indeed a four-letter word, used by those who love the great outdoors to go hunt and trap as well as those who care. But love does not make right or can claim any right until it speaks for another, and the rights of that Other. Philosopher Martin Buber identified such love as the I-Thou relationship which he say as our salvation from ourselves!
Regardless of the concerted public education and conservation efforts over the past several decades in which I participated, the wolf continues to be subjected to continued persecution and even betrayal by state and federal authorities who voice empty rhetoric of conservation but practice wolf management as a form of exploitation and when called for, extermination by any and all means. The morality of exploiting such a highly intelligent, sociable and empathic species as a valuable recreational hunter’s trophy and commercial trapper’s prized fur has no sound justification or ethical validity.
The harmful consequences of such killing include great suffering for wolves caught in traps and snares and for those shot and injured but not immediately killed, and harm to their family-packs from social disruption, reduced hunting success and yes, the grieving of surviving mates. Harmful ecological consequences are highly probable, notably deer herd health, which wolves help maintain, and coyote insurgence leading to loss of red fox and other smaller predators that help control rodent reservoirs of tick-born Lyme disease and Babesiosis which are becoming a serious public health concern. Commercial trappers add to the problem killing thousands of red fox, bobcat and other small “fur-bearer” predators.
Those many other people who are not incapable of putting themselves in the wolf’s place, along with those wolf biologists and other scientists who value the wolf primarily as a species playing a vital role in maintaining healthy ecosystems and restoring biodiversity, succeeded in putting an end to this extermination by having the federal government put the Gray wolf on the endangered species list in 1974. But eventually the federal government (Dept. of Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) caved-in to pressure from various states, vested interest groups such as cattle ranchers and deer hunters, and was swayed by state and federal number-crunching Minnesota-based federal (Dept. of the Interior U.S. Geological Survey) wolf management biologist and trapper David Mech, PhD, who speaks the distancing and sentience- denying language of “harvesting sustainably managed wolf populations”.
Once the wolf was de-listed and put under state management, there was no guarantee of sustainable harvesting. On the contrary, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MN DNR) reported that in the 2012-2013 season 413 wolves were killed by 6,000 permit holders, with a further 298 being killed by state and federal trappers, and a reported additional 16 killed by farmers and property owners—a total of 712 individuals. This is close to one quarter of the state’s estimated population of 3,000 wolves. Wolf biologists estimate that a 35% or more population reduction could seriously impair wolf population sustainability and that 75% of the population would have to be exterminated through sport hunting and trapping to reduce the incidence of wolves killing livestock. Trophy hunting and commercial trapping will not reduce livestock depredations unless kill quotas are so high as to jeopardize wolf pack recovery. It is a form of wildlife farming, rather than seeking to maximize species diversity for optimal ecosystem integrity and health. Wildlife agencies contend that the best way to protect the wolf is to manage it as a trophy species and valuable fur-bearer with strictly enforced annual kill quotas. But there is no scientifically valid reason for not continuing to prohibit all such killing for the good of the ecosystems where wolves once flourished across much of the country and are now in dire need of CPR—conservation, protection and restoration with wolves fulfilling their biological purpose. From this latter perspective, the Western and Eastern Gray wolf populations in North America have certainly not recovered, a far greater number being needed to help maximize species diversity and the restoration and recovery of ecosystem integrity and health.
With the MN DNR having identified 590 plant and animal species that may be endangered and on the way to extinction (Star Tribune, Aug 20th 2013) it is significant that DNR’s endangered species coordinator Richard Baker is quoted: “We’ve got to learn how to manage at a larger scale”.
Reporter Dennis Anderson’s Outdoors article “The Time Was Right” ( Star Tribune Dec 2, 2012)— to start the Minnesota wolf hunting and trapping season, lambastes those who buy into the “fatuous fact dalliance” of opponents. Ethical questions aside, the facts that he and others offer, such as increased wolf numbers and high livestock losses from wolf predation, fail to support any biological justification for wolf “control” through DNR-managed “harvesting” by lottery-winning recreational hunters and commercial trappers. There are those who say that since wolf numbers are up we can start killing them again without harming the population are surely guilty of the kind of “fatuous fact dalliance” by which they seek to discredit their opponents. One basic fact is that deer numbers as well as wolf numbers have both increased over the past decade in Minnesota when the wolves were under federal protection. Science supports the in-field evidence that thanks to the wolves, the ecosystem is healthier with more rather than fewer wolves. Their role in helping control the spread of chronic wasting disease in deer, elk and moose, and possibly Lyme disease, cannot be dismissed. Trophy hunting and commercial trapping will not reduce livestock depredations unless kill quotas are so high as to jeopardize wolf pack recovery.
Outdoors reporter Doug Smith (“It’s open season on rules for wolf hunt” Star Tribune May 22,2012), quotes David Mech that the MN DNR’s wolf hunting and trapping plan is “well-designed, won’t hurt the wolf population and should benefit both wolves and residents.” Thinking of animals as individuals rather than as populations is evidently beyond the scope of the kind of wildlife management science Dr. Mech, with whom I have flown and hiked in the northern woods to spot these elusive animals, is advocating. Otherwise who could conclude that killing a wolf ‘quota’ of an agreed-upon 400 wolves from a possibly over-estimated population of 3,000 in the state of Minnesota should “ultimately benefit wolves and residents”? Livestock owners were already being compensated for losses due to wolf predation, also being allowed to shoot wolves on their property or the wolves were trapped and killed by Mech and other licensed federal predator control agents.
Minnesota’s “Big Picture Environmentalist” Greg Breining points to the revenues from legal wolf hunting in Idaho and Montana, writing that the “sale of tags for first ever sporting seasons on wolves in 2009 generated $326,000 for Montana’s game agency and $423,000 in Idaho. —Unfortunately the exercise was short-lived, as yet another lawsuit put the western wolf back on the endangered species list.” (Star Tribune, “The wolf survives (IN NUMBERS STRONG ENOUGH TO BE HUNTED)” Jan 2, 2011, Opinion Exchange.)
MN DNR wolf monitors estimate that wolves take 10-13% of the 450,000 White -tailed deer, 45-57,000 annually, compared to the 180,000 or so killed by humans who do not take the very young, old, sick, injured, or nutritionally compromised deer, which the wolves do. Wolves contribute to the “extraordinary population performance of white-tailed deer in most of northern Minnesota,” according to the MN DNR wolf website. Clearly it would be detrimental to the health of the deer to have the wolf population seasonally decimated by hunters and trappers. But the MN Deer Hunters Association called for a doubling of the wolf hunting quota set by the DNR for the 2012-3 season. In 2012 the DNR depopulated whitetail deer excessively in some areas. This certainly meant some wolves starved to death, many reported being ravaged by mange, or turned to killing livestock.
Minnesota State DNR wolf biologist Dan Stark attributes wolf predation on livestock as being due to the diseases and hard winters reducing the deer population, the wolves’ primary food source (Star Tribune, ‘Gray wolf protection ending’ Dec 22, 2011), no mention being made of how many deer are killed by humans. In this same news article David Mech states “It’s tough” to find, shoot or trap wolves, his crew catching 18 wolves during the past summer of a total averaging 200 wolves trapped annually for preying on domestic animals in Minnesota by federally contracted wildlife employees. Nick Wognum, writing in The Ely Echo, Dec 24, 2011, states: “Dave Mech, senior research scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey said the timing of the wolf hunting season, provisionally set for late November through early January, after the end of the firearms deer season, will not likely impact wolves and pups. “We conducted studies in the 1970s where we translocated wolf pups as young as four months old,” said Mech. “Those animals did not have the benefit of being raised by parents and they all did well, they survived”. Mech said a wolf’s ability to survive is innate and not taught by parents, similar to a domestic cat or dog killing a mouse or rabbit. Asked if he had concerns on the wolf population with a hunting season, Mech said, “No, none.”
As a wolf ethologist who has studied their development and social organization I find Mech’s comments misleading and disturbing, as well as his apparent disregard for the social and emotional bonds and dynamics of the wolf pack as an extended nuclear family. Four-month old wolves still have their milk teeth, they are physically immature with extremely limited hunting speed and skill, and could easily fall prey to larger predators. Furthermore, they are not so innately programmed when it comes to killing large prey like deer and moose, which takes much learning through observation and pack collaboration and highly evolved inter-communication.
The wolf pack is a family-based society: cubs at den greet mother (foreground) and yearlings. Fox archives.
Mech holds the influential position of Chairman of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Wolf Specialist Group and has made it very clear over the years that managing the wolf as a harvestable species for recreational and commercial purposes is the best way to preserve the species. On his personal website under “How to Become a Biologist” He writes: “In your spare time, gain experience with hunting, fishing, trapping—-and other outdoor pursuits”.
Mech (who debated me at a public meeting convened by the Wild Canid Research & Survival Center in 1973 in St. Louis over his opposition to ever putting the Gray wolf on the Endangered Species list), founded the International Wolf Center, (IWC) near Ely MN where captive wolves are kept to “educate people to appreciate them”. The current IWC executive director Mary Oritz similarly endorsed the de-listing of the Eastern Gray Timber wolf from the Endangered Species Act protections in favor of MN DNR management which she said “would continue to protect wolves for at least five years after federal delisting”. (Star Tribune, Nov.20th, 2010). These 5-years of ‘protection’, implying no hunting or commercial trapping, was part of the agreement with the federal government turning wolf management over to the State, and was immediately dropped once the State had control. I was also shocked that in this same article Ms. Oritz and the International Wolf Center dismissed the parvovirus threat to wolf populations and packs. This is one of several disease transmitted by infected free-roaming and feral dogs and possibly cats, which the MN DNR needs to address, along with diseases transmitted by livestock to deer and other wild herbivores.
Of the many factors leading to the drastic decline in the State’s moose population (notably wetland habitat loss, winter tick infestations and climate change), Mech pointed his finger at rising wolf numbers as responsible in his field-study area for the decline. He urged that the MN DNR “could allow hunters to kill more wolves in the moose range until the population recovers”. (Star Tribune Nov 2, 2014). Ironically, on this same page, reporter Dennis Anderson in his article “Gone From Sight” presents a debate on the dramatic decline in the state’s white tail deer herd, with finger-pointing at DNR mismanagement and over-harvesting. Earlier data indicate that when the wolf was protected under the Endangered Species Act the white tail deer population flourished. Wolves keep deer on the move, preventing overgrazing/browsing and tree damage). As though to bolster Mech’s questionable opinion, Anderson subsequently published a long interview with Mech ( Star Tribune Nov 16, 2014, pC20) who plays cautious scientist when it comes to climate change and associated debilitating tick infestations being significant factors in the decline of moose especially in northeastern Minnesota. He repeatedly states that while these factors may be “true” or “possible”, “we don’t have evidence of it”, while insisting that wolves are the main cause, along with consecutive bad winters.
Bad winters and too many hunters diminish deer numbers which means more wolves prey on livestock, some 200 wolves being killed for doing so in 2014 by state and federal officials. MN DNR wolf manager Dan Stark states that “The hunt isn’t having a significant influence on wolf numbers”, insisting that the de-listing of the wolf as an endangered species was not intended to reduce wolf numbers (because there were too many, which many people argued), but to “have a sustainable hunting and trapping season”. (Star Tribune Nov.16.2014 p C20). Stark, as a defender of the status quo, refused to respond to my questions I posed at the Feb. 28th 2013 White Earth Wolf Conference, concerning the impact of 500,000 deer hunters on wolves and how that may relate to livestock predation by hungry wolves, and the significance of wolves in helping control diseases transmissible to humans, wildlife and livestock.
While a 35% or more population reduction could seriously impair wolf population sustainability and cause great social instability, wolf biologists estimate that 75% of the population would have to be exterminated for hunting and trapping to have any impact on reducing the incidence of wolves killing livestock. Targeted take of verified depredating wolves is the most effective solution to protect the wolf population and for ranchers, many now adopting more protective husbandry practices. Trophy hunting and commercial trapping will not reduce livestock depredations unless kill quotas are so high as to impact wolf pack recoveries.
In the 2012-2013 wolf hunting and trapping season 413 wolves were killed by permit holders, a further 298 killed by state and federal trappers, and a reported additional 16 killed by farmers and property owners for threatening and killing domestic animals—a total of 712 individuals, close to one quarter of the state’s estimated population of 3,000 wolves. When morbidity and mortality rates from natural causes, and the illegal killing of wolves are added to these numbers, it is unlikely that the wolf has the reproductive capacity to replenish its numbers at a replacement rate sufficient to compensate for losses due to legalized hunting and trapping. In a review “Population Dynamics of Wolves in North-Central Minnesota ( Wildlife Monographs no.105, Oct.1989) wolf ecologist Todd K. Fuller reports that; “Despite legal protection, 80% of identified wolf mortality was human caused (30% shot, 12% snared, 11% hit by vehicles, 6% killed by government trappers, and 21% killed by humans in some undetermined manner); 10% of wolves that died were killed by other wolves.”
Hunting is not a sound way to manage wolf numbers, damages wolf pack structures, does not serve to resolve or reduce verified livestock depredations, does not increase local public acceptance of the wolf or enhance low “social carrying capacity” and only serves the interests of those who want to enjoy and profit from shooting and trapping wolves.
Prior to legalization of recreational hunting and commercial trapping, according to DNR and federal wolf experts the wolf population, along with white- tailed deer numbers, has been relatively stable over the past 10 years, as has the numbers of livestock killed by wolves. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, giving the wolf protection under the ESA actually increased the numbers of deer harvested by hunters, stating: “since wolves became protected in northern Minnesota in 1978, there has been a high and even increasing harvest of deer by hunters”. (italics mine).
In the final analysis, a population count of around 3,000 wolves for northern Minnesota may be the optimal number for both the wolves and the white-tailed deer’s health and fecundity, and so the status quo of the wolf as a species of Special Concern should not be changed. Wolves play a significant, indirect role in the control of Lyme disease (See Fox, M.W. Lyme disease prevention and wildlife management: a one health perspective.J.Amer Holistic Vet Med Assoc in press, and posted on www.drfoxvet.com), and under optimal conditions enhance habitat biodiversity and ecosystem health. Also by killing deer with early signs of chronic wasting disease, as well as other infectious and contagious diseases, help prevent the spread of disease to other herd members. In light of my review of the diseases afflicting the Gray wolves of this state (see “Minnesota’s Wolves Suffering Mange (Scabies) and Other Diseases” posted on my website at www.drfoxvet.com) it would be prudent and beneficial for the health of the deer population and the ecology to cancel the next scheduled wolf hunting and trapping season and instead conduct a through population census in the fall of 2013.
The Minnesota DNR published its wolf census for 2013, noting a 24 percent decline from an estimated 2,921 since its last survey in 2008, to an estimated 2,211. With an estimated birth of 2,600 cubs being born in the spring of 2013 and an estimated 50% mortality, the DNR contends that the population will likely exceed 3,000 when the next hunting and trapping season begins.
Evidently the quoted opponents of Minnesota’s wolf hunting season have been drawn in to the numbers game of “sustainable harvest” quotas.( Star Tribune, 7/10/13). But that is not the issue that moves most informed Minnesotans and others around the world to decry killing wolves for sport and for their fur. The suffering of those injured and not immediately killed and the social and emotional disruption of pack relationships which can weaken the strength of the pack and hunting success cannot be discounted: Nor can the ecological value of high wolf numbers to balance coyote numbers which can reduce red fox numbers shown in some studies to be significant in controlling Lyme and other tick-born disease-carrying rodents. Reporter Doug Smith notes that the DNR depopulated whitetail deer excessively in some areas. This certainly meant some wolves starved to death, many reported being ravaged by mange, or turned to killing livestock. The juggernaut of DNR managed exploitation of wildlife must be stopped and a science-based approach to ecologically sound, biodiversity-enhancing and compassionate conservation policies and practices adopted.
In early February 2014 a government-convened scientific review panel issued its report on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s plan to strip federal protection from wolves across the entire U.S. save for a small colony of Mexican wolves in the Southwest. In the Report’s own words: “There was unanimity among the panel that the rule does not currently represent the ‘best available science’ “with regard to the government’s unproven claims about wolf genetics. The earlier removal of the wolf from federal protection under the endangered species act was similarly based on politics and not sound science as per the efforts of those such as misinformed Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) on behalf of constituent pet owners (whose free-roaming dogs were killed by wolves), hunters and livestock owners.
In their review entitled Effects of Wolf Mortality on Livestock Depredations (PLOS One, Dec.3rd 2014) Washington State University, Pullman WA scientists R.B.Wielgus and K.A. Peebles concluded that killing wolves to reduce their numbers is not an effective wildlife management tool nor can it be justified as a way to protect livestock from wolf predation.
On Dec 19th U.S. District Court Judge Beryl Howell ruled that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s 2011 de-listing of the gray wolf population in the Great Lakes region, giving management authority to the state authorities of Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, was scientifically unsound, politicized, arbitrary and capricious. It has resulted in the trophy killing and trapping of over 1,500 wolves which the estimated population of 3,500-4,000 cannot sustain. She noted that some 65% of the wolf’s range in Minnesota was unmanaged with essentially unregulated killing permitted if wolves were perceived by property owners and livestock and pet owners as a threat to their animals. Consequently this wolf population has been put back onto the endangered species list and under federal protection, thus outlawing the exploitive state ‘management’ practices which are driven by various vested interests that put wolves at risk and undoubtedly cause significant suffering. The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association immediately responded with the threatening statement that illegal killing of wolves will result because many deer hunters will want to “protect” the deer from the wolves, adopting the practice of “shoot, shovel and shut up”.
Since this federal ruling has once more put the Great Lakes Gray wolf under the ESA protection, it is illegal for farmers and others to kill wolves whom they claim are threatening and killing their animals. For this special interest group the state governments of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan and their representatives in Congress may soon pressure the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to appeal this ruling, have this wolf population taken off the “endangered status” and seek support from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture which took charge of wolves killing livestock when the wolf was under ESA protection. It is notable that the USDA did more wolf-killing than establishing non-lethal methods of wolf control. A compromise under the ESA would be to classify the Great Lakes Gray wolf population (as well as others across the nation, sub-species of wolves notwithstanding, with the exception of the southern Mexican wolf) as threatened rather than endangered. This would legalize the killing of wolves preying on livestock which is prohibited when they have “endangered” status. But non-lethal methods of predator deterrence to protect livestock should take precedence over trapping, snaring, shooting and poisoning, such deterrence and related husbandry practices, including the use of guard dogs and night-corrals, being extended to more humanely and effectively deter coyotes, bears, cougars and other predators.
A more ethical, compassionate, scientific and ecological approach to wildlife and habitat stewardship that does not give primacy to consumptive, exploitive and predatory human interests and values is clearly long overdue at both State and federal levels. Millions of people who love their dogs have a natural affinity and respect for the wolf, as do deer hunters who see the wolf as a better wildlife manager than State agencies, and indigenous native American Indians who declared their reservations wolf sanctuaries after federal de-listing of the Great Lakes gray wolves. Others reject ‘big bad wolf’ folklore because they know something about wolf intelligence and highly evolved cooperative pack society and social dynamics. Wolves, like other creatures, in the words of Henry Beston, “are not brethren; they are not underlings; they are other Nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”
Pandering to the negative attitude toward the wolf held by a rabid minority and to those who see the wolf as a ‘harvestable’ resource, both the federal and state governments have violated the public trust of a democratic and demographic majority that gave to them the authority and responsibility to protect and preserve wildlife and wild lands as part of the greater good or commonwealth of all that people hold dear for reasons spiritual and ethical as well as rational and scientific. It is surely on these principles of reason and sentiment that a sane, just and sustainable society is founded and best governed.