Save the Wolves (this month)

I am a hunter. But, I have to say that some of my brethren are fools.

A case in point is the Wisconsin wolf hunt. The Gray Wolf has been on and off the endangered species list in recent years. When it’s off, Wisconsin law requires that the Department of Natural Resources conduct a wolf hunt from November through February.

Well, a judge ordered the wolf to come back off the endangered list on January 4th. DNR staff concluded that that didn’t give them enough time to set up a hunt for this season, mostly because they didn’t have time to consult with tribes for whom the animal is considered sacred. Out of deference to the tribes, not to mention common sense, the Natural Resources Board voted to start a hunt with the new season in November. The only surprising thing about that is that the motion passed by only one vote.

To reasonable people this makes sense. But not to Hunter Nation, Inc., a Kansas-based group that I have never heard of until now. Ted Nugent is on their board of directors. Hunter Nation filed a lawsuit in Jefferson County circuit court seeking to over rule the DNR and force a hunt in what’s left of February. This week that court said that they had a high probability of success on the merits and so denied the DNR’s motion to stay the ruling and stop the hunt. So, right now, unless a higher court reverses that ruling, it looks like a wolf hunt will take place in whatever remains of February.

Photo by Steve on Pexels.com

This whole debate is an example of how emotionalism too often trumps reason in public policy. It is a debate suffused with symbolism and ideology. (Whenever somebody tells you that, ‘it’s just the principle of the thing!’ you can be pretty sure that they’re covering for their lack of a coherent argument.) Reason doesn’t just take a back seat; it’s in the trunk where its muffled protests can barely be heard. Both sides ignore the damage they’re doing to their own cause.

Let’s take the radical hunters first. Yes, you can press the point about the plain language in the statute and get a judge to agree with you. But just because you might have a winning legal argument doesn’t mean you have to suspend your better judgement and press ahead with it.

As a practical matter, getting a wolf hunt that will end up lasting all of about a week amid a polar vortex will produce no appreciable results if your aim is reducing the population and the associated damage.

And about that damage: it’s overstated. The DNR reports that wolves killed all of 152 domestic and farm animals last year. (Some of those were hunting dogs used for bear hunts, a practice that a lot of us find reprehensible in itself.) And the owners of those animals were compensated by the DNR to the tune of $1.8 million. In the context of the population of animals in this state that’s a fraction of a fraction. Now, look, if it was my dog that had been attacked, I’d feel differently. But I think it’s fair to say that a lot more pets get hit by cars every year than chewed by wolves.

Finally, groups like Hunter Nation need to remind themselves of the bigger picture. We are an urbanizing nation with fewer people who hunt. Hunting is not an absolute right, but is subject to regulation and those regulations are increasingly written by policy makers who don’t represent a hunting constituency. By pressing your point here you risk turning people off on hunters altogether. By winning this battle you could be losing your war.

Now, if you’re a lover of wolves you may be cheering at this point. Let me see what I can do to ruin your day too.

Some of the very same people who argue for science when it comes to things like climate change, all of a sudden become mystics when it comes to wolves. The science, while not undisputed, is pretty clear. Wisconsin now has a healthy and sustainable wolf population of over 1,000 animals in about 250 packs and those numbers are growing. A carefully controlled hunt in which only a relative few of those animals can be taken is easily sustainable. In fact, unlike other hunts, DNR will end the wolf hunt early once a quota is reached. That’s exactly what they did in 2014, the only other year in which a hunt has taken place here.

Non-hunters, and even some hunters, oppose the wolf hunt not because they are driven by science, but because they are driven by literature. The wolf holds a magical place in the imaginations of many people. When I worked at The Nature Conservancy the wolf was an example of what we used to call “charismatic mega-fauna.” That referred to big, awe-inspiring or cute animals that drew people into conservation: bear, deer, moose, elk, buffalo, wolves, etc. The Nature Conservancy was working to protect a lot of stuff like snakes, ants and small plants, but we realized that what got people excited to help our work was the big, impressive animals, most of which were not endangered at all.

Frankly, if hunting groups were thinking strategically they would just lay off the wolf hunt altogether. The price they pay in overall public goodwill for hunting just isn’t worth it.

And, to be honest, if urban-based non-hunters wanted to build some bridges to rural communities they would ease back on their opposition to the hunt. Allowing hunters to kill a tightly controlled number of wolves each year is perfectly responsible.

But those are reasonable points of view and, let’s face it, when it comes to wolves, reason was long ago made collateral damage in the fight.

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