Wolf_istockA wolf. Or least a wolf hunting tag if you’re an Idaho resident. 

Bad, right? Yes, but it’s not really as simple as it first appears.

As you may already know, the federal government is preparing to remove Rocky Mountain wolves from the the Endangered Species Act, probably this year or next. (The re-introduced wolves have been exceeding recovery targets since 2002.) When “de-listing” occurs, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming will initiate a regulated wolf hunt. This, by the way, is a certainty. There is virtually zero viable opposition to wolf hunting in those states. 

So the question for those of us who think restored wolf populations are a good thing for the West (see here, here, and here for a few reasons why), is how to make wolf hunting as beneficial as possible. The good news is that there are ways to do just that.

The first step is recognizing that the biggest threat facing Rocky Mountain wolves is not hunting. It’s idiocy (cf. Idaho’s Governor C.L. “Temper Tantrum” Otter). That is, the future for wolves depends on whether people treat them as wildlife to be protected and managed, or whether they’re hated.

To date, a handful of Westerners have behaved like denim-clad Little Red Riding Hoods, wailing and shrieking at every mention of a wolf (cf. almost everyone in Wyoming politics). A well-managed hunt, however, can be an effective antivenin to their hysterics.

  • Our work is made possible by the generosity of people like you!

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  • Although hunting is likely to reduce the number of wolves, past experience suggests that it can be conducted in ways that promote sustainable populations. In preparation for wolf hunting, lawmakers in Montana and Idaho have rightly noted that those states have conducted hunts for other large predators—namely cougars and black bears—in ways that maintain viable populations in perpetuity. Other states have too. (Here’s an intriguing op-ed on the subject.)

    Hunting may also have surprising consequences. It can fracture and re-align one of the biggest blocs opposing wolves: hunters. A wolf hunt can create a new constituency for sustaining wolves over the long term — hunters—a constituency that is especially effective because it neutralizes objections from other hunters. And hunters still have plenty of political power in the Rockies.

    Not only that, but hunting fees can support conservation efforts such as habitat studies, land protection, and bio-monitoring. (In fact, hunting and fishing license fees already support the lion’s share of those activities by most state governments.) And hunting may have more direct positive benefits. For instance, hunters can target wolves who harass and kill livestock, the very same wolves that are already culled by federal agents. That might have the added benefit of conditioning wolves to keep away from domestic animals and people, which may in turn ratchet down people’s negative perceptions of them.

    The big problem for wolves, as I said, is not primarily the hunting. It’s that they are about to enter a policy landscape that is dominated by idiocy. At the moment, there’s only a minimal guarantee that the Western states will develop sustainable hunting policies. (Selling tags for $9.75 is not necessarily a good sign.) If conservationists cannot prevent de-listing until the policy environment improves—the feds are accepting comments here—then it’s important to ensure that the hunt is sustainable and that wolves get a new and powerful ally in hunters.

    Nota Bene to those about to email me spittle-flecked threats: I don’t approve of wolf hunting. I think it stinks. But like it or not, wolf hunting is going to be a reality in the Rockies in the near future. Fortunately, it can be used to some good effect, especially if non-hunting conservationists make common cause—and good policy—with their conservationist brethren in the hunting crowd. That’s my point.