For Montana Wolves, Politics Trumps Science

by lizard

When it comes to hot button topics in Montana, wolves are near the top of the list.

I was going to begin this post with a picture of a dead wolf, but what would that accomplish? It seems, with this topic, most people have made up their minds, and images of bloody carcasses would only exacerbate the already heightened emotions on both sides of this issue.

A few days ago, in the Missoulian, it was reported that the Murie family has pulled an award from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation for their “all-out war against wolves.”

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has removed all references to its Olaus Murie conservation award after the researcher’s family objected to the group’s policy on wolves.

In a letter to RMEF President David Allen, Olaus Murie’s son, Donald Murie, said the organization’s “all-out war against wolves” is “anathema to the entire Murie family.”

“We must regretfully demand that unless you have a major change in policy regarding wolves that you cancel the Olaus Murie Award,” Donald Murie wrote. “The Murie name must never be associated with the unscientific and inhumane practices you are advancing.”

The Missoula-based RMEF has filed amicus briefs in federal lawsuits supporting the removal of Rocky Mountain gray wolves from Endangered Species Act protection. In March, it donated $50,000 to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to fund contracts with federal Wildlife Services for wolf-killing activity.

George Wuerthner—a former Montana hunting guide with a degree in Wildlife Biology—wrote a piece about the politics of the Montana wolf hunt, which appeared online at Counterpunch last Friday. In the article he touches on that pesky science stuff that the Murie family seems concerned isn’t informing the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s position on wolves. Here is how Wuerthner begins his article:

On July 12, 2012, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MDFWP) Commissioners voted 4-0 to increase wolf hunting in the state, expanding the hunting season and permitting the trapping of wolves for the first time as well. The goal is to reduce wolf numbers across the state in hopes that it will calm the hysteria that presently surrounds wolf management.

The commission’s decision to boost wolf hunting and trapping will likely lead to greater conflicts between humans and wolves because MDFWP’s management ignores the social ecology of predators.

Hunting predators tends to skew populations towards younger animals. Younger animals are inexperienced hunters and thus are more likely to attack livestock. Predator hunting disrupts pack cohesion, reduces the “cultural” knowledge of pack members about things like where elk might migrate or where deer spend the winter.

In addition, just as occurs with coyotes, under heavy persecution, wolves respond by producing more pups. More pups means greater mouths to feed, and a need to kill even more game—thus hunting and trapping may actually lead to greater predator kill of game animals like elk and deer.

Thus a vicious self-reinforcing feedback mechanism is set up whereby more predators are killed, leading to greater conflicts, and more demand for even greater predator control.

So why has MDFWP and the commission ignored the social ecology of predators? The answer lies in politics.

The rest of the article looks at the politics of wolves in Montana, and it’s probably a familiar story for most who have been either involved or have followed this issue. Wuerthner’s summary of the political landscape in Montana is definitely worth reading. He even has some “should have done” criticism for pro-wolf advocates who, Wuerthner claims, have lost the rhetorical debate.

I might even go so far as to suggest pro wolf sympathizers made some strategic mistakes. They failed to hammer over and over again that predator control is unnecessary, ethically suspect, and only leads to greater conflict. By not taking the high moral ground, they lost the political debate.

Many were unwilling to argue against wolf hunting in general—afraid that such a position would be unacceptable to most hunters and ranchers. By passively and in some cases, even agreeing that wolf control was needed, it legitimized the idea that wolf control was necessary. At that point the discussion just degenerates to a debate about how many wolves should be killed, not whether wolves should be killed in the first place.

Environmentalists should stated categorically there is no legitimate reason to kill wolves or any other predators for that matter, except perhaps for the most unusual and special circumstances such as the surgical removal of an aggressive animal.

Instead of arguing that wolves are part of the Nation’s wildlife patrimony that deserve to be treated with respect, appreciation, and enlightened policies, pro wolf activists lost the rhetorical argument by allowing anti wolf forces to define the limits of discussion and successfully frame the issue.

Political opportunism has successfully marginalized science when it comes to wolves in Montana. For a politician like Jon Tester, it no doubt appeared to be a political necessity to pander to the public’s fear any way he could, even if it meant using dubious riders on legislation and damaging the Endangered Species Act.

To achieve the arbitrary quota of bloody wolf carcasses, tortuous traps will now be used. What a despicable way of “managing” predators.

As the self-appointed stewards of wilderness, too many humans continue to prove themselves self-centered, irrationally fearful, and contemptuous of science. And to remain in power, too many politicians are happy to play along.

  1. Big Johansson

    Betcha old Olaus is spinning in that grave right now.

  2. Steve W

    The news rules are stupidity in motion. Hunters everywhere are getting a black eye because of this cave in to emotionalism.

  3. What the wolf “hunt,” and now trapping, has done is move the war against wolves onto public land. According to MTFWP’s report on the 2009 wolf hunt, 83% of deaths by hunters occurred on public land. Most of those wolves weren’t anywhere near livestock grazing on private property.

    Like the war on buffalo, and wolves, the real battle is over control of public land. One can either stand up and actively protect it, or passively watch it slip away. Once commercialized, industrialized — privatized — it will be gone forever.

  4. Matthew Koehler

    See also:

    Muries Rebuke Elk Foundation over Anti-Wolf Remarks

    Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation – Needed: Less 10 Gallon Hats and More 10 Pound Brains

    David Allen vs David Allen

  5. Mal Gills

    It might do you and “the cause” well to include reference to the science, because as much as “livestock-killer” and “vermin” have become a part of conservative rhetoric, so has “science” of liberal rhetoric. Most don’t have access to literature surrounding the issue of wolves that is free of bias and personal speculation, i.e. real science, and hence have a hard time making substantive claims for one case or the other. Part of the problem has to do with the fact that the “science” of wolves really is understudied, at least in the context of how allowing hunts negatively affects pack dynamics. A larger part of it has to do with, like you say, the fact that political opportunism and special interests have diluted strength in the voice of reason. The science first has to be done before it’s going to convince anybody, and studying a population with complex dynamics takes time. There are systems in place (MFWP is perhaps the worst) that invariably favor revenue over ecologically sound management practices, and thus don’t give research the political support that it needs to in order to produce. We need to put people in office that will give scientists that support, and that is next to impossible in our wonderful state.

    • lizard19

      you’re right, there was absolutely no science referenced in the making of this post.

    • Matthew Koehler

      New Report Highlights Need for Changes in Predator Management Policies

      For Release: May 24, 2011

      View Report at

      A new report, which provides a synthesis of the latest science and research concerning predator management, highlights the need for changes in predator management policies throughout the western U.S. The report is available at:

      The report was written by George Wuerthner, a former Montana hunting guide who previously worked as a biologist and botanist for several wildlife and land management agencies. Wuerthner is also the author of 35 books dealing with natural history, conservation and environmental issues. The report was commissioned by Big Wildlife, a non-profit conservation group working to protect predators throughout the west.

      Key findings in the report include:

      • Current state wildlife policies often maintain predator populations above extinction levels, but well below maximum biological carrying capacity.

      • Predator policy typically ignores the ecological influence of predators in terms of their critically important influence upon ecosystem heath and organization.

      • Management of predator populations, without consideration of the social organization of top predators, can lead to great conflicts with humans and livestock.

      • Simple animal husbandry techniques have been shown to greatly reduce livestock losses from predators; unfortunately, many ranchers don’t use these practices.

      “A growing body of scientific research suggests that hunting disrupts the social ecology of predators, leading to more predation on livestock, thus exacerbating conflicts with humans,” explained George Wuerthner. “Hunting is an indiscriminate and crude way of managing predators. Surgical removal of individuals causing problems is the only sensible way of reducing human conflicts.”

      • George Wuerthner seems like a BAMF–disappointed I’ve only heard from him in counter-punch. Particularly liked the “causes of livestock mortality” chart that showed domestic dogs (and basically everything else under the sun) are a higher risk to cattle than wolves…

        • Matthew Koehler

          Not sure what a BAMF is exactly, but glad you found this predator management report from Wuerthner to be useful. To be certain, George’s pieces end up at Counterpunch from time-to-time; however, he’s a pretty prolific writer and it’s been good to see his opinion pieces (on a variety of wildlife and ecology issues) show up all around Montana this year in the mainstream press.

  6. john w

    I get a kick out the “moronic” persecution of wolves, or any other predator for that matter….check out how many of our game animals (and livestock) that are slaughtered every year from motor vehicles. It`s so incredibly stupid to put the blame on any individual animal for the depletion of game animals or livestock. It`s all POLITICS, alright !

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