Todd Wilkinson writes his column for the News & Guide every week. He is author of “Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet.”
—Barry Lopez in “Of Wolves and Men.”
No state in the Lower 48 hates on gray wolves more rabidly than Idaho.
If you think vigilantes in Wyoming and Montana have done reprehensible things — actions ranging from running down exhausted lobos on snowmobiles to openly promoting the poisoning of wolves and threatening pro-wolf conservationists with violence — they don’t come close to matching the odium that’s condoned by law enforcement and elected officials in the Gem State.
One wolf advocate was warned that she shouldn’t set foot inside the state capitol building in Boise to testify for wolf protection because deranged anti-wolf activists might do her bodily harm. Think for a moment about the sickening symbolism of that.
Late last year, community folk from Salmon made international headlines when they staged an inaugural “predator derby” that offered cash to participants who bagged the biggest wolf and brought in the most dead coyotes.
No wolves died in the controversial competition, but 21 coyotes were felled for no compelling reason other than they were gunned down “for fun.” Now members of a group called “Idaho for Wildlife” are seeking a permit from the Bureau of Land Management to stage the derby for five years on federal public land.
Derby proponents claim the contest will help protect elk herds and reduce livestock depredation.
There is, however, zero scientific evidence supporting those claims. Ironically very likely the opposite is true.
Boosters also say the wolf derby is no different from “big buck contests” staged across the country and which offer prizes to hunters who harvest trophy deer that weigh the most or have the biggest racks.
In fact there’s huge difference. Those who partake in big buck contests are discriminating. They carefully assess their targets. They’re not pulling the trigger merely to document a tally; they’re killing to put meat in the freezer.
In contrast, the wolf derby has little to do with discrimination or with celebrating the mystique of an animal. It is all about feeding mythology based upon assumptions that often don’t hold up to scrutiny. Read the Barry Lopez quote on the left. “There is no excuse for derbies in 21st-century wildlife management,” says Suzanne Stone, the Idaho director of Defenders of Wildlife. “This derby would commercialize the harvest of predators and will not achieve any management objective.”
Stone helped start the Wood River Wolf Project outside Sun Valley that has achieved remarkable success using non-lethal management tools to reduce wolf-livestock conflicts.
One thing state fish and game departments seldom discuss, she says, is the complex social pack structure of wolves and coyotes.
Canid packs are led by breeding males and females that teach their offspring how and what to hunt. They maintain pack unity and tend to be the only animals that breed and raise pups.
In interviews I’ve done with well-respected canid researchers — I wrote a book about the natural history of coyotes — they say understanding social dynamics of predators is essential in knowing how to manage them.
I’m willing to bet that the BLM office reviewing the wolf derby permit request has no grasp of wolf and coyote biology. “I have been working on wolves for 20 years and predator-prey issues for 30. These predator derbies make little sense in terms of solving any wildlife issue as they tend to destabilize social structure in wolves and lead to reproductive responses in coyotes that then have larger litters and breed when they are younger,” says Bob Ferris, a biologist and executive director of Cascadia Wildlands.
Ferris, a long-time hunter, suggests that derbies, which almost equate blowing away animals with playing a video game, turn people off. “As a hunter, this sort of exercise seems more driven by a ‘red mist’ mentality that does not strike me as consistent with ‘fair chase’ strictures about killing for a purpose or doing so out of respect for the animal,” he adds. “Events like these only lead to an unfortunate degradation of the public perception of hunters.”