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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Politicians Crying Wolf

With fragmented populations numbering just 5,000 or so wolves in the lower 48 states—and so many of the survivors having lost family members as a consequence of traps and guns—these iconic canids face more threats to their survival than ever.

Last week in Washington, some members of Congress—led by Reps. John Kline, R-Minn., Reid Ribble, R-Wis., and Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo.—predictably introduced bills to strip wolves of federal protections. The legislators trotted out the same old false claim about wolves being “overpopulated”—a species on the endangered list that occupies less than 5 percent of its historic range.

Wolves face more threats to their survival than ever.

Meanwhile in Lansing, State Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, pushed through a non-binding resolution in the Michigan legislature urging Congress to act, falsely claiming that wolves “increasingly endanger people and domestic animals” in Michigan. This from the same legislator who previously had to apologize on the Senate floor for telling a tall tale about wolves stalking children outside a daycare center, which never happened.

It seems these anti-wolf politicians will say and do just about anything to get their way, facts be damned. Of all of the large predators in the world, wolves appear to be among the least dangerous, with no known attacks by a healthy wolf on a person in the lower 48 states. Yet, a small subset of people in the United States still fear and loath these animals, more because of myth than fact or science. A number of lawmakers have rushed to be their mouthpieces.

The federal government delisted wolves in the Great Lakes in 2012, and in just three years of state management more than 1,500 wolves have been killed under irresponsible trophy hunting and commercial trapping programs through cruel and unsporting methods such as steel-jawed leghold traps, baiting, and hounding.

In Wisconsin, 20 percent of the population has been wiped out in just three hunting seasons, including the loss of 17 entire family units. The carnage would have been substantial in Michigan, but for our efforts in the state to suppress the kill in 2013 and to block it entirely last year.

What the states had been doing—in authorizing the killing of large numbers of wolves, mostly at random—was actually worsening the problem, not solving it. A peer-reviewed study from researchers at Washington State University demonstrated that random trophy killing and even killing of depredating wolves may not have the intended population control effect. In fact, it may even spur more wolf breeding.

Why would some politicians lament a failed management tool that never even worked in the first place, and try to legislate a return to this wildlife pogrom that is, at best, a psychological salve for the anti-wolf zealots?

Wolves provide enormous ecological benefits, like keeping deer and elk in balance. They remove sick and weak animals, preventing slow starvation, and limiting deer-auto collisions and deer depredation on crops. By controlling prey herds, wolves act as a sort of barrier to Chronic Wasting Disease and other infections that could cost the states millions of dollars to eradicate and in lost hunting license sales.

Wolves provide other economic benefits, too. Many small businesses now rely on wolf-watching tourism to support their rural communities and local economies. A 2006 study of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming found that the wolf presence in the Yellowstone ecosystem created a $35.5 million annual revenue stream. In the Great Lakes region, the International Wolf Center, an educational facility in Ely, Minnesota, brings in as much as $3 million annually and creates up to 66 jobs.

These are the types of benefits lawmakers should want for their states and the ones they should encourage and applaud. And while wolves kill some sheep and cattle, these problems can be dealt with selectively in a targeted way, rather than a wholesale slaughter that targets wolves not bothering anyone in the forest.

The HSUS and 21 other conservation and animal protection groups have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to downlist wolves from endangered to threatened status in the lower 48 states—a proposal that balances federal oversight and protections for wolves with more flexibility to manage wolf conflicts, including the depredation of livestock.

A threatened listing would allow more management without ceding control entirely to state agencies that have consistently demonstrated an overreaching and cruel hand in dealing with wolves. This proposal is a rational, middle-ground approach that balances wolf protection with the practical realities of dealing with the occasional problem wolf, and it provides a reasonable pathway forward on what has been a controversial issue.

Congress and the Obama administration should embrace this compromise solution and reject the extreme efforts of some anti-wolf politicians to eliminate all federal protections for wolves by legislative fiat.


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