Thursday, January 22, 2015

#Wolf "Endangered" Ruling Raises as Many Questions as Answers

There are issues that a cautious columnist might steer clear of if he wants to avoid alienating readers. If he's a political columnist it might be the issues of immigration or abortion. If he's an outdoor columnist it could be the issue of wolves, and the degree of protection — if otherwise — that they should have. But while it's good to be sensitive to differing opinions, it's important that there be a forum for discussing difficult issues. That may not be at the office Christmas party, where being agreeable and avoiding controversy are widely-understood rules of the game. But sooner or later difficult issues have to have to find their place in the sun, and be wrestled with rather than skirted.
Readers are probably aware that in mid-December a federal district court judge ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) was wrong to remove the Eastern gray wolf (also known as timber wolf) from "threatened species" status in Minnesota, and the "endangered species" list in Michigan and Wisconsin. That "delisting" occurred in 2011, and since that time these states have been in control of their own gray wolf management. In Minnesota and Wisconsin this has included limited hunting and trapping. Minnesota hunters and trappers harvested 272 timber wolves in 2014.

One argument put forward for returning the gray wolf to and endangered and threatened species lists is that it's not sufficient that the wolf appears to be doing well in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. The contention is that their abundance beyond this three-state triangle has to be considered, too. The judge's opinion noted that the gray wolf does not yet inhabit all of its historic range, and therefore needs protection. Interestingly, the states of Illinois and Iowa were mentioned as being part of that former range.

I did not grow up with a philosophy that predators should be controlled in order to provide more harvest opportunities for hunters, though I am a lifelong hunter. Both my instincts and my education tell me that there is a purpose for every creature, with a basic right to exist; predators included. To which many might also add: in the right place, and in the right number.

And that, of course — place and number — is at the core of the newly-reopened gray wolf controversy.

For the present, since the December ruling, a private citizen may only kill a wolf in defense of human life. If a wolf or wolves are killing livestock, they can be controlled, but only by a state or federal agent authorized to kill nuisance animals. Some 200 were killed in 2014 in Minnesota for such livestock depredation. There is a possibility that the district court ruling halting state management of wolves will be challenged, but whether that will happen or not is unclear at this time.

For myself, I choose not to participate in the killing of things that I don't intend to use. (Yes, I do kill mosquitoes and house flies indiscriminately, and without apology!) It's not difficult to justify hunting deer or ducks or pheasants or grouse on those grounds, assuming there is a safely harvestable number, the taking is done ethically, and the harvest is used without waste. For that reason I will probably never be a predator or "varmint" hunter, although if the fur of a coyote or fox is used and not wasted, some might say that's as legitimate as my eating a breast of grouse, or a venison steak.

When I was cutting my teeth as a young outdoors writer in the 1970's the gray wolf's range in Minnesota was restricted to a modest slice of the far North; the Arrowhead in the Northeast, and most northerly counties across the top of the state. That has changed dramatically in the four decades since.
Gray wolves have expanded their range southward; there are thriving packs as far south as Camp Ripley near Little Falls, and individual wolves have been spotted as far south as the Twin Cities suburbs. The statewide population is estimated to be roughly 2,500.

Unlike such widely distributed herbivores as deer, which can forage successfully on farm crops, on grasslands or in forests, wolves will never reach the same population density. There are always fewer creatures at the top of the food chain, and wolves are pack animals that have large hunting territories — tolerating no competition from other packs — further ensuring a smaller and more scattered population.

There's no question that through the years the gray wolf has acquired a mystique as a symbol of wildness, and that this is one reason why its management by hunting and trapping is offensive to some.

This symbolism was especially true when its range was limited to the far North, to areas that actually are wilderness, or near-wilderness. But federal protection and an abundant population of prey species, particularly the whitetail deer — and the lack of other species that prey on wolves — have helped it expand its range and grow in abundance. For example, the mixture of farms and forest in Central Minnesota does not meet criteria as wilderness, yet the wolf is thriving there.

There is some evidence that wolves are becoming a limiting population factor for whitetail deer and moose in some parts of the state, though opinions and emotions vary greatly on this point. This expansion of the gray wolf's range is what prompted biologists — some of which are unaffiliated with any state resource agency, or sporting interest — to recommend that it be removed from federal protection, and management authority returned to the states.

The part of the December court ruling that is difficult for some to understand and accept is the "historic range" argument. The judge contended that it was inappropriate to manage the wolf through state-governed harvest even where it is abundant, until it becomes reestablished elsewhere within its historic range. This presumes that those states where the gray wolf is no longer a resident species even want the wolf restored.

Is it likely that cattle ranchers, or dairy or hog farmers in such states as Iowa, Illinois or Indiana, will be enthusiastic about reintroducing a species that is fully capable of killing their livestock? Those lands are no longer native prairie where wolves can prey on elk, buffalo, or antelope, all species that are now gone from the "agricultural ecosystem." The gray wolf would be as welcome there as a proposal to turn all that agricultural land back to native prairie. For a judge to think that there should be no population management of the wolf until it is restored to its historical range, reveals a knowledge of biology as shallow as the judge's knowledge of the law is deep.

As beautiful and symbolic as the gray wolf may be to Minnesotans, man's laws can't override Nature's. And lest we forget, man has a place in Nature, too. Unless we're willing to convert vast swaths of numerous states back to pre-settlement conditions, and remove man's enterprises from that land, the gray wolf will not be restored to its former abundance in all of its historical range. To propose, as did the district court judge, that a state where the wolf is thriving can't manage this creature to be in balance with other creatures and with man, seems both puzzling and unrealistic.