The Wolf Controversay

The following was written by my husband, Pat Farmer, in response to Nancy Tanner’s blog post “the wolf” (

Good afternoon, Nancy,

Well, I guess I’ll have to throw in my two cents’ worth (or maybe it isn’t worth even that much).

First, thanks for writing a well informed, well reasoned post.  You obviously put a great deal of research and thought into the subject, which I really appreciate.  However, I have a different perspective on a few things in your post.

Like you, I don’t have a dog in this hunt.  I neither love nor hate wolves.  I don’t work for FWP or any pro- or anti- wolf group.  I don’t work for any federal or state land or wildlife management agency, although in the interest of full disclosure I will admit that I worked for the USFWS as a seasonal employee in the late 1960’s, long enough ago so that it shouldn’t count in this discussion.  However, I have earned my living as a wildlife biologist in the private sector for over 35 years, including projects where wolves were a potential concern.  Like you, I don’t claim to be a wolf expert (I don’t claim to be an expert on anything) but I have read a lot in both the scientific and popular literature about wolves, lived in wolf country (northern Minnesota) for a brief time in my childhood, and have had the opportunity to spend a bit of time watching wolves in the wild (and I admit to having howled at wolves in the middle of the night.  Unfortunately my howl sounds more like a toad’s croak, so I’ve never received a reply).

So here are my observations, for what they’re worth:

1.        When I was an undergraduate fish and wildlife management student, I was both fortunate and unfortunate to have a major advisor who was equal parts idealist and cynic (most fish and wildlife biologists are, by nature of the profession, idealists).  One of his favorite topics was people’s intolerance of wildlife, and what we students, as future wildlife managers, were going to face when and if we ever actually got jobs.  I hate to admit it, but he was right.  Depending on the location and time frame where I have lived or worked, I have met people that are intolerant of geese and ducks (grain farmers in North Dakota), black-billed magpies (livestock raisers in several states), blackbirds (rice, corn and grain growers in the South), ravens and crows (several states), pronghorn (farmers in northern Montana), elk and deer (ranchers and farmers in many states; people in towns like Helena and Banf), gophers and prairie dogs (farmers and ranchers in several states), skunks and coyotes (people everywhere hate skunks and coyotes), bears/bats/mice/toads/snakes (sometimes this intolerance is based on experience, like your experience with rattlesnakes, and sometimes it’s phobia), ad nauseum.   It seems to be part of the human condition that, as groups or societies (not necessarily as individuals) we have to be intolerant of something, and wildlife is often handy target.  Right now, here in Montana and other states, some people tolerate (or even love) or are intolerant of (or even hate) wolves.  Twenty-five years ago, the target was grizzly bears…remember the contentious debate about whether the grizzly should  be Montana’s state animal?  Now people are more concerned about wolves than grizzlies, and almost no one is concerned about cougars which, as you pointed out, are statistically more dangerous to people.  Human nature; go figure.

2.       As Kim stated, there are only a couple records of wolves attacking people in North America, both in the last 10 years.  There has been a big disagreement in the wildlife profession why there are so few records of wolf attacks in North America vs. so many records of wolves attacking people in Europe and Asia.  Many of the Old World records are undoubtedly folklore and legend, but some are verified and wolf attacks still occur, particularly in Siberia.  One argument often advanced here in North America is that wolves never attacked people because historically, all wolves were shot on sight.  This bucket doesn’t hold water for several reasons; in particular, it is interesting to note that it has long been legal to kill wolves in both locations where wolf attacks have occurred in North America in the last 10 years (Alaska and Canada).  However, these attacks (which as Kim pointed out, were both predatory rather than by sick or injured wolves) do prove that wolves are potentially a threat.  There’s a big difference between potential and real, but unfortunately most people will never know (or care enough to learn) to recognize the difference when they are actually confronted by wolves in the field.

On a similar vein, it is interesting to note that there are very few records of European brown bears (which are the same species as our grizzly bears) killing people, either historically or at the present.  The bears that peddle bicycles around the center ring under the circus big top are grizzly bears but we never hear stories about them killing their handlers.  There is all sorts of speculation among wildlife biologists about this contrast, too, but no agreement; as my major advisor used to say, put five wildlife biologists in a room for one hour to discuss one topic and you’ll end up with seven opinions, none of which agree.

3.       Livestock growers in the Great Lakes area spend more time with their cattle and sheep than ranchers in the West not because of wolves, but because of their husbandry practices.  When I was a boy in northern Minnesota (which I admit was a long time ago; however, in the last 20 years I’ve returned several times to northern Minnesota to hunt and/or visit relatives, and things don’t seem to have changed much) the cattle owners in the area were either dairy farmers (which obviously meant they collected their cattle twice each day) or owned a comparatively small number of cattle, often no more than 10-20 head.  Pastures were small compared to those in the West, and cattle and sheep were usually no more than a ¼-mile from the farmhouse.  “Range” cattle and sheep, as we think of them here in the West, simply didn’t exist.  And farmers were most definitely not tolerant of wolves, which were shot on sight (this was long before the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973) both because of fear and loathing, and because prime wolf hides were worth a lot of money.  Black bears were (and are) a bigger threat to livestock than wolves; seeing wolf tracks was common, seeing wolves was not.

4.       The argument “…before wolves we used to check on our cattle every two weeks or so, now we have to do it every two days or so, it’s more work…”  is partly valid.  To paraphrase a Paradise Valley rancher I talked with in about 1989 (shortly before wolves were translocated to YNP): “My father and grandfather worked hard to get rid of wolves and grizzly bears so they didn’t have to check their cattle every two days, or hire cowboys to do it.  Why in hell would I ever want to go back to those days, and who gave the government the right to force me to do it?”  I didn’t agree with his viewpoint, but it was honest and valid.  In my experience, very few people approve of the government (federal, state or local) making our lives more difficult.  Indeed, many of us want the government to make our lives easier.  Some ranchers have employed measures to protect their livestock, but others honestly wonder why they should have to.

5.       Kim wrote:   “…depredations by wolves have never impacted the actual livestock industry…not in Montana, or anywhere else in the west.”  Well, it depends on who gets to define “impact.”

6.       Hank Fischer’s group, Defenders of Wildlife, established a fund to compensate landowners for livestock losses, which it promised to keep in perpetuity.  Then Defenders rejected most compensation claims, delayed paying approved claims for months (sometimes years), and finally dissolved the “perpetual” fund.   This resulted in lots of frustration and resentment from ranchers who were otherwise willing to give wolves a chance, and they have taken their frustration out on wolves.

7.       Kim is correct; wolf range expansion into Washington, Oregon, northwest Montana and much of Idaho occurred “naturally.”  Wolves were “reintroduced” (wildlife biologists prefer “translocate” to “reintroduce,” since “reintroduce” implies that animals were “introduced” originally rather than occurring naturally) only into the Yellowstone ecosystem in MT and Bitterroots in ID.  There is a public misconception that the USFWS was running around the country, indiscriminately releasing wolves.  I was in Libby in early June and talked with a guy in the local sporting goods store who is absolutely sure the USFWS did that very thing…sort of a “black helicopters” approach to wolf recovery.  A few years ago a couple agency biologists were caught trespassing on private land (they said they thought they were on public land) in Wyoming, where they released a radio-collared wolf that they had captured elsewhere.  The son-in-law of the ranch owners worked for a pipeline company that my company was working for, and I talked to him shortly thereafter; after listening to him, I doubt that the wolf management agencies will ever convince the skeptics that subterfuge wasn’t part of wolf recovery.  That distrust of government is taken out on wolves.

8.       Before wolves were translocated into YNP there were several analyses that speculated about what would happen after wolves were released.  If you look back through all those ponderously thick documents, there were five predictions:

A–Nothing would happen, i.e., wolves would not re-establish and would die out.  Given the actual course of events, that seems like a silly statement but it is not implausible.  Efforts to translocate species such as the whooping crane and black-footed ferret have met with very limited success and many failures.  If you look at translocations of all species (including animals that are not endangered such as the bighorn sheep and ring-necked pheasant), translocations fail more often than they succeed;

B–Wolves would successfully re-establish and elk (the principal prey species in YNP) would respond by changing their behavior, range and habitat use, but would not be otherwise severely affected.  This prediction has come true in some places.  For example, the number of elk wintering on lower elevation, privately owned ranches in the upper Gallatin River drainage, where they are inaccessible to human hunters and where wolf predation is inhibited, has increased dramatically;

C–Wolves would successfully re-establish, prey populations would be reduced to a “more-balanced” level (no living things in Nature are ever truly in balance), and everyone would live happily ever after.  The first two parts of the equation have occurred in some places, but human hunters who have grown accustomed to seeing lots of deer and elk aren’t happy.   It should be noted that elk populations in MT have increased substantially since the 1970s.  Many hunters don’t remember, or are too young to remember, what it was like to hunt back then.  This has turned into a major problem for FWP’s wildlife managers; and

D–Wolves would successfully re-establish, prey populations would be decimated and wolves would eventually die out.  It appears that prey populations, particularly elk, have been or are being decimated by wolves in some places.  This may be the case with the Northern Yellowstone elk herd, which has declined (apparently due to wolf predation and its side effects) from about 12,000 to about 3,200 animals.  As you wrote, at least one of the wolf packs that was released within the range of the Northern herd, the Druid Pack, has disappeared; or

D–Combinations of the above.

So  if you look at wolf recovery over the combined ID-MT-WY area, wolves and their prey are responding just as predicted.  One unpredicted result, as Kim mentioned, was that it all happened a lot faster than expected.  Unfortunately, in my opinion the agencies (and news media) did not do a good job of disseminating these predictions to the public.  Instead, pro-wolf groups did a very good job of misdirecting the discussion (e.g., “wolves only kill the young, old and sick,”  “wolves probably won’t leave Yellowstone Park because they’ll be surrounded by all that food,” “wolves don’t like people and will avoid places where people are at”) and anti-wolf groups kept preaching the same old, unsubstantiated gloom-and-doom story.  I keep talking with people who are surprised at what has happened, when in reality there is nothing to be surprised about.  However, I think this “surprise” is the root of a lot of the hatred you refer to in your post…people just weren’t expecting what happened.

9.       You mentioned “…ranchers chatting about the killing for fun.”  This really seems to be a hot issue, one that I have difficulty understanding.  After all, killing is what wolves do for a living.  Is it so hard to imagine that they would kill for fun?  Many dogs (and as you know, all dogs are genetically wolves) may not need to kill prey to survive but won’t pass up the chance to chase a squirrel or rabbit, and it appears to me that they enjoy the chase, i.e., it’s fun.  Why wouldn’t wolves do the same?  Further, it appears that most multiple livestock kills/maiming are done by one or two wolves, not entire packs.  Who knows?  Maybe a wolf runs across a bunch of sheep, kills/maims one, and thinks to itself “Isn’t this fun?  I’m gonna do it again!”  Regardless, the fact that wolves do sometimes kill indiscriminately adds to their bad image.

10.   As Carlene pointed out, hunting (except for “management removals,” which is a wildlife biologist’s politically correct way to say “killing wolves that are creating problems”) is the only means that wildlife managers have to control the number of wolves.  All other methods (killing by other wolves, cougars or bears (incidentally, most wolf mortality is by other wolves); disease; prey base collapse; etc.) are out of a manager’s control.  Wolves, like grizzly bears and cougars, are apex predators capable of killing people, livestock and pets, and generally making people uncomfortable.  Human tolerance of wildlife is one of the wildlife manager’s biggest obstacles (remember my “80 percent people management” line?).  The truth is that, in today’s Montana, wolf toleration will generally stop at the fenceline that separates public from private land.  Wolves that go places where there are more livestock than wild prey, i.e., most of Montana, are going to eventually kill livestock and will have to be killed themselves.  We could continue down the path of “management removals” but that trail only leads to more resentment of wolves by landowners (remember Andie McDowell and the Ninemile wolf pack?) and isolation of the rest of us (out of sight, out of mind).  Not killing wolves is simply not going to be an option.   Consequently, I believe that hunting is a much more practical and, in my opinion, ethical means to address the wolf population.  Yes, bio-politics (and money) are involved…none of our hats are completely white.  But hunting, because of the attention and money it brought to the subject, was responsible for the recovery of game populations in Montana, and I have no reason to believe that it will be ultimately detrimental to wolves.  Neither public opinion nor the legislature sets hunting seasons and quotas in Montana (up to now, anyway; who knows about the future?); wildlife managers  do (through the Commission), and wildlife managers have no interest, vested or otherwise, in the extirpation of the wolf.  Yes, FWP was opposed to the translocation of wolves, for both political (after all, they are the government) and practical (everyone knew that if wolf translocation was successful, this nightmare was coming) reasons, but if you could talk to individual wildlife biologists in the Department (which I got to do), most were in favor of translocation because they (and I) believe that the wolf has a place in Montana.

11.     You stated in your blog: “Should there be an open wolf hunt to people who are filled with such deep seeded hatred that they are tunnel visioned, no! An open wolf hunt is repeating history and predator extermination, it will not solve anything, but rather divide.“  I disagree.  First, I don’t think most people who will purchase a wolf tag have a deep seated hatred of wolves.  The last time Montana had a wolf hunting season, many people who purchased tags reported to FWP that it would be an opportunistic hunt, i.e., if they were hunting deer or elk and saw a wolf, they’d try to shoot it.  But not many were going to deliberately hunt wolves…doesn’t sound like deep seated hatred to me.  Second, the hunt will not be “open” but will be restricted by a permit system.  Yes, there will probably be some instances of “shoot, shovel and shut up” but that would occur whether there is a legitimate hunting season or not, because poachers don’t play be the rules.  Third, regulated hunting will not result in the extermination of wolves (see below).  And finally, I think the wolf issue could not be much more polarized than it is now.  Legitimate hunting will never satisfy the extremists on either end of the issue, but in my opinion hunting can serve to bring together (rather than divide) the people in the middle who are trying to see both sides of the argument, and want to see some sort of wolf control but don’t want to see the wolf eradicated.

So is a quota of 220 wolves too high?  Maybe; we’ll find out.  If it is, FWP will drop the quota.  But killing 220 wolves (as one commenter pointed out, roughly one quarter of the state’s current wolf population) will not eradicate the wolf;  I can’t think of a single large-bodied wildlife species in North America where loss of 25 percent of its population in one year led to its demise. For example, look at pronghorn in eastern Montana.  Last year (2010) it was estimated that numbers were down 30 percent compared to 2009, due to the severe winter.  This year, estimates are that numbers declined another 60 percent due to the even more severe winter.  In other words, pronghorn numbers this year are less than one-third of their level in 2009 but no one in the wildlife profession is arguing that pronghorn will be eradicated, even though the biotic potential of pronghorn is lower than that of wolves.  Instead, as Carlene noted, wildlife managers have severely curtailed the hunting opportunity, and I would expect them to do the same with wolves.

It should be noted that it could be argued that unrestricted hunting (which is essentially the wolf management approach that Wyoming has proposed) will not eradicate the wolf, since historically it was not possible to eradicate wolves in the West by shooting them.  Wolves weren’t eradicated in the West until they were poisoned and trapped.  In recent years, Alaska increased wolf hunting opportunities in some portions of the state in an effort to restore declining moose and caribou numbers, but found that these efforts were not really successful until the regulatory agencies implemented aerial gunning (which is not hunting).

Is it possible to kill 220 wolves in one season?  I doubt it, for a couple reasons:  a) the last time around FWP set a quota of 75 wolves with the intention that most would be killed on private land.  At the time I bet that no more than 60 would be killed, because I didn’t think wolves would be that accessible.  In the end, 72 kills were reported.  I was surprised but (as one of the commenters noted) many of them were “wilderness” wolves, i.e., wolves on public land that were accessible to hunters were killed, while wolves that were inaccessible (including wolves that ranged partly or wholly on private land) survived.  This time around, FWP has redrawn its wolf hunting district boundaries and quotas to limit the number of “wilderness” wolves that will be killed; and 2) in order to kill 220 wolves, hunters are going to need access to private lands late in the hunting season when wolves are forced to follow their prey to lower elevations.  If ranchers don’t open their lands to wolf hunters, I don’t believe there is any way 220 wolves will be killed.  I’m not sure it will be possible to kill 220 wolves even if access to private land is available.  As you know, wolves are smart.  It won’t take them long to learn to avoid hunters.

12.   Finally (at long last), a few ramblings about the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  You said in your blog “…The Endangered Species Act had a special provision for wolves that were transplanted into the park would be designated as ‘experimental population’. The system was not perfect, but it did get things going and truly was set up to try and be fair to everyone involved. The only glitch that I have read is that with this special designation, ranchers hands were tied, even if they saw a wolf in the act of killing, they were protected and could not be touched.”  Not entirely true.  Under the ESA, the translocated wolves were considered an “experimental, non-essential” population.  “Experimental, non-essential” means that the translocation:  a) was not considered “essential” to the continued survival of the wolf across its range, i.e., it was recognized that wolves were not going to go extinct in Alaska, Canada or even northern Montana if the translocation into YNP failed.  The translocation was considered an “experiment” to determine if it was possible to re-establish a population of wolves into YNP (after all, no one had ever translocated wolves before); and 2) “Experimental, non-essential” means that on private land the ESA provides the same status as if a species is “proposed” for listing under the Act.  “Proposed” species are given many of the same protections as “listed” species; the USFWS determines what the protections will be, tailored to the individual species.  For wolves in the Yellowstone ecosystem, that meant that a person could kill a wolf if it posed an imminent threat to human safety (the USFWS recognized the potential for wolf attacks), but not to protect livestock and pets.  The USFWS assumed, at the assurance of pro-wolf advocates, that livestock losses to wolf predation would be compensated from the private sector, an assumption that turned out to be, more often than not, false.

I am a strong advocate and staunch defender of the ESA.  But as you said, it is not a perfect law.  It has weaknesses, and some environmental groups have learned to exploit these weaknesses to further their political agendas as well as pad their coffers.  For example, you might remember the news story where a representative of an environmental group (the Sierra Club?  I don’t remember) crowed that because of the listing of the polar bear under the ESA, there would never be another coal-fired power plant built in the U.S. because the project proponents would never be able to prove that carbon emissions from the power plant weren’t contributing to global warming.  Talk about furthering a political agenda!

Under the ESA (and a lot of other environmental statutes), the federal government has to compensate appellants for their legal-and-related expenses.  This proviso was added for a very noble reason, to proved the “little guy” with resources to fight the big, bad government if it tried to steam roll over him.  In my opinion, this is a very worthwhile and commendable position.  Unfortunately some environmental groups have learned that, in order to keep their cash registers ca-chinking, all they have to do is appeal every ESA ruling and the USFWS has to compensate them for their efforts.  In other words, some environmental groups have a vested reason for seeing that the wolf is never delisted (the same is true for other species such as the grizzly bear).  It’s a necessary evil that unfortunately adds to the polarization in the argument over the wolf.

So, all the above blarney really does is emphasize the obvious, that the discussion in our society about the wolf is complex, polarized by extremists on either side of the argument, and poorly understood and communicated by our media (hmmm, sounds kind of like American politics).  Clear as the proverbial mud, eh?



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