Wolf hunt may make problem worse

Ecologist addresses issue at Kootenai Environmental Alliance meeting

COEUR d'ALENE - As an ecologist, author and wilderness and hunting guide, George Wuerthner has spent a lot of time studying wolves.

"For whatever reason, I was always fascinated by predators," he said Thursday.

He spoke about predator ecology in Coeur d'Alene at the Iron Horse restaurant and bar on Sherman Avenue, a presentation hosted by Kootenai Environmental Alliance. About 60 people attended his presentation.

He has published 34 books on geography, national parks, wilderness, conservation history and environmental issues.

"You have to wonder why there is so much hysteria and passion around wolves?" he said.

He said it might come down to who gets to control wildlife.

Hunters and ranchers are two of the groups that hold the most negative attitudes concerning wolves.

Those also happen to be two groups that have had a major influence on wildlife management in the West.

"I think for some people the idea of wolf recovery is that it's the federal government, and, 'I don't like government, and so wolves are a symbol of what I don't like,'" he said. "'That's one of the reasons why I don't like having wolves around.' That's one of my fears. I can't explain it otherwise given what the reality is."

In 2010, Idaho cattle producers lost 93,000 animals to all causes. Confirmed kills by wolves was 75, he said.

After hearing a question from the audience about the monstrous-sized photos of wolves popping up on Facebook and elsewhere online, he said that the average male wolf in Idaho weighs 90 to 120 pounds.

Asked if wolves kill for fun, he pointed out that wolves risk serious injury every time they take down a larger animal, like an elk or moose.

Wolves were listed as an endangered species in 1973.

They were reintroduced in the northern Rocky Mountains in 1995 and 1996, from Alberta and British Columbia, Canada.

In 2010, there was an estimated 850 wolves in Idaho, and 525 in Montana. The numbers are small compared with the approximately 3,500 in Minnesota.

His presentation focused on how wolves are a top predator and have a major influence on ecosystems.

Wuerthner said heavy hunting or predator control disrupt social structures in a pack leading to conflicts with people.

And he said there is no scientific evidence that hunting or predator control reduces livestock depredation or reduces risks to people.

Indiscriminate lethal control of wolves such as hunting can actually make conflicts worse, he said.

What he calls the "cultural knowledge" of where to hunt and the ability of a pack to effectively hunt is destroyed by the loss of key pack members, creating more unstable social systems. The remaining, possibly younger, pack members might be more prone to attack livestock.

He recommends nighttime corralling of livestock. He said ranchers should remove carcasses so wolves don't find them and get a taste for the livestock.

Predators can't be managed like other animals, by reducing the population, he said.

"They have these social interactions you have to consider," Wuerthner said. "Managing for populations, which is the way state agencies tend to do it today, doesn't consider a whole lot of social things."

He said that predator control creates a vicious cycle of "self-fulfilling feedback mechanisms," and livestock owners and hunters demand greater predator control.

As more predators are killed, there is greater disruption in the social organization of predator populations. The remaining younger predators are more likely to kill livestock, leading to even more demands for more "predator control."

Wuerthner said it takes three years for a wolf to learn to hunt.

Wolves have different roles in hunts, with smaller females and younger males chasing the prey initially. The larger, heavier and sometimes slower males pull them down.

He also challenged the belief by many that wolves are responsible for declining elk populations.

In 1992, three years before wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho, the state of Montana estimated the state's elk population at 89,000. Today there are 600 wolves in Montana and a statewide elk population of 150,000.

He also emphasized that wolves don't kill the same animals that humans hunt.

Wolves, he said, preyed mostly on male elk in poor condition, while hunters tend to kill mature bulls in prime condition.

To make a larger point about killing predators to manage the animals better, he pointed to the contrast between California and Washington state on cougar control.

Cougars are not hunted in California, but Washington hunters kill an average of 225 cougars.

California has three times the number of cougars and six times the number of people of Washington, but has less than a third of the number of reported "incidents," such as preying on livestock and showing up in people's yards.

Also, he said as more bears are killed in Pennsylvania more conflicts are reported. As more bears were killed in New York, the number of complaints increased.

Minnesota had the same pattern, as did Juneau, Alaska., and the Great Smoky Mountains in the eastern U.S., he said.

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