Matt Heikkila / GNN / Guerilla News Network / May 30, 2005
America's unpopular and unnecessary predator war continues...
A pack of eight wolves (five adults, three pups) rises from its afternoon nap. It's late May in Alaska. After about 45 minutes of laying around, four of the adults follow the alpha male out on the hunt. The pups try following their other packmates for a few hundred feet but soon realize their short legs cannot keep up. A half-hour into the hunt the omega (lowest ranking) wolf notices a couple of porcupine caribou: stragglers. Just then, a loud two prop airplane swoops overhead. The passenger points his rifle out the window drops two wolves. He fires again and injures the hind left leg enough to return for him. The fifth wolf, the omega male attempts to sprint away from the massacre but is doomed. The plane follows him and gets within 30 feet of the ground, the shooter drops him easily. The plane turns around and lands near the injured alpha male. The shooter gets out and kills him with a final bullet.
Just over a year ago this sort of thing would be against the law in Alaska as voters had thought their votes had assured, but last summer Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski signed legislation that brought back same-day airborne and aerial wolf killing1. Over 100 wolves have been killed in the last year because of this legislation which is clearly against the Federal Airborne Hunting Act.
Alaskan voters banned aerial hunting of wolves in 1996, and then again in 2000 after the state legislature reinstated it. The Alaska Wildlife Alliance notes, "a recent poll commissioned by the Alaska Wildlife Alliance but conducted by Dittman Research Corporation shows that 72% of Alaskans, including hunters, oppose aerial predator- control as a means to increase moose and caribou populations," and continues, "In November 2000, 147,043 voters or 53.5% of Alaska's population voted to reject the practice of same-day aerial wolf hunting2."
The return to aerial wolf hunts in Alaska is shocking if you consider the opposition by the clear majority of Alaska voters (and an even larger percentage of Americans, overall), the lack of legality those votes brought, the complete void of a legitimate reason for the aggression, and the unmitigated cowardliness of it all. Then again this is entirely unsurprising if you consider this nation's history of extremists getting elected to political office only to ignore public opinion and the law in the service of their own irrational views and/or campaign contributors' wishes.
Persecution of our wild carnivores is hardly a new concept.
The predator "war" began as soon as the Europeans arrived on the North American continent 500 years ago. While wars are by definition two sided, this conflict has really been a rout by humans.
In Europe, plagues and wars had long devastated the continent, and with the massive amount of deaths they caused they left corpse ridden fields and mass graves. Wolves, being opportunistic hunters, understandably developed a bit of a taste for human flesh. While the instances of wolves killing humans were greatly exaggerated and often the real man-killers were actually wolf/dog hybrids, wolves did kill humans on occasion. This caused highly superstitious people to overreact. While most wolves were wiped out in Europe years before Columbus sailed, the hatred and fear still remained in the Europeans' hearts and culture, and with their fear they brought the same devastation they had wrought on Europe's natural predators. Over time old excuses (evil, for instance, and for the most part the fear of man-killers since North American wolves never seemed to cultivate a taste for human flesh) were replaced by new justifications (livestock became the primary concern, hunting, and the old stalwart fear), and the game rolled on.
The extermination effort that took centuries in the old world took only a fraction of that time here; this continent's predators paid a heavy toll.
With time, rather than becoming wiser, we seemed to elect to stay ignorant, and with our technological advances: strychnine, assault rifles, helicopters and planes, the war on predators just became more and more efficient and destructive.
Teddy Roosevelt is often considered the pioneering conservation president. Barry Lopez writes in Of Wolves and Men about the time Teddy, hand on the Bible, spoke gravely of the dangers of wolf predation on his North Dakotan ranch, of the impediment to progress they represented. He called wolves "the beast of waste and desolation3." The war on predators has forced several of the American carnivores incredibly close to extinction (and successfully wiped out Jaguars in the US; lobos, which have been reintroduced; and red wolves, which also have been returned to the wild) and reduced other's ranges and populations to fractions of their former existence. Each of the large North American predators has been a victim in this one sided war: the wolf, the bear, the cougar, as well as several other smaller carnivores. They have been killed for "safety," for the livestock industry, for sports hunters, even "ecology" and "aesthetics," but when each reason is thoroughly investigated each appears false or grossly overstated.
Hypocrisy clouds this whole subject. Ranchers talk about how evil it is of these carnivorous animals to kill helpless animals, yet what carnivores do for survival, cattlemen do for profit.
How has the US dealt with the other meateaters on this continent?
The US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Animal Damage Control program (ADC) was created in 1886 to advise people on how to control damaging birdsŠthere were no survivors4. Ok, I am being facetious, but it is truer than most know. The last passenger pigeon, a bird that numbered nearly 5 billion individuals when Europeans arrived, died in captivity in 19145. At first the ADC simply researched the poisoning of house sparrows, but they would soon expand to include rodents and predators; by the end of the 20th century they had killed nearly 10 million coyotes6. After the government had exterminated the American bison from the plains it was almost unavoidable that the wild predators would supplement their natural diets with livestock which took their former prey's place. After this happened, the ADC, ranchers, and bounty hunters went after the nation's native carnivores with a religious zeal that would make Pat Robertson look secularŠand sane.
When considering the attacks on livestock by predators and the perceivable retaliation by the government, Rick Bass writes in The Ninemile Wolves7, "The wolves preyed on these new intruders, without question, but ranchers and the government overreacted just a tad. Until very recently, the score stood at Cows: 99,200,000; Wolves: 0." Wolves used to be the most ubiquitous large mammal in North America next to man, but by the time the livestock industry and US government were done with them, perhaps 2 million wolves had been eradicated, and there were maybe a few hundred left in the lower forty eight (all in Minnesota). At this time, wolves received protection from the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Odd it happened like that, you'd almost think they meant to let wolves go extinct before protecting them.
Barry Lopez writes in Of Wolves and Men that during anti-wolf campaigns taking place in the US, "wolves were killed and thrown on the steps of the state legislature well into the 1970s to garner headlines and pressure lawmakers into instituting bounties8."
The public's perception of wolves has turned around from being considered earthly manifestations of evil (promoted by the Catholic Church), to being thought of as mascots for conservation, and more than that: an example of what careful conservation can do. Our attitudes toward coyotes have been more set in concrete. The public attitude towards coyotes has always been generally negative or apathetic. Luckily though, they really are wily, and have an incredible ability to replenish their numbers: we have killed 10 million in less than 80 years, and yet 7 million still remain.
In Coyote, Catherine Reid relates a Maine representative's argument for a coyote bounty, explaining "I know for a fact that [bounties] worked pretty well here in York County, when the British were paying $50 a pair for Indian ears9."
Hanging on by a thread.
About 1,000 grizzlies remain in the lower 48 states (reduced from an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 before our manifest destiny swept across the country like a plague10.
There are only about 40 (give or take) panthers left in Florida. The only western state that doesn't allow the hunting of panthers is California (thanks to prop 117, passed in 1990). If you read any of the newspapers in California you are likely to hear about the rampant fear of cougars, but on the whole North American continent there have only been 14 fatal cougar attacks in the last 20 years, in contrast with the 85 fatal dog attacks in California alone in that time span11.
The red wolf is an animal that reached the point of extinction in the wild before being protected. The attempt to bring them back (using captive stock from zoos) and re-release them into the wild was the first of it's kind with a carnivore. There were only 17 red wolves left in existence at the time: all in captivity. The US Fish and Wildlife Service declared red wolves extinct in the wild in 1980. The Endangered Species Act goes further than simply protecting animals: if listed animals are forced into extinction in the wild, the ESA makes it clear that every effort must be taken to return them to their place in the wild and ensure as much of a recovery as is possible.
A sub-species of wolf called the Mexican grey wolf (also known as the lobo), is another animal that was forced into extinction in the wild before action was finally taken. Rick Bass writes in The New Wolves, "There is a plan currently in progress (as mandated by federal law)-<>the Endangered Species Act, the closest thing we have to Noah's mandate - to bring Mexican wolves back from their 'functional extinction' and to turn them back loose in the world12."
Both the lobo and the red wolf are struggling to survive in a dwindling wilderness.
Fear has always dictated our actions in relation to the large carnivores: they'll eat my baby; they'll eat my dog; they'll kill my livestock; they'll eat my deer: my prey. But, as we consider each justification, each proves to be false or largely overstated.
Will a bear eat my baby?
"Bears are just big chickensŠthey've survived by running without question. The littlest hound can chase the biggest bear up a tree," says Lynn Rogers, director of both the Wildlife Research Institute and North American Bear Center" in Ely, Minnesota13.
Black bears killed 25 people between 1900 and 1989. 1 in 35,000 grizzly bears have killed a human14. That is in contrast with the 1 in 16,000 people have killed a human15. Between 1978 and 1992 in Yellowstone, 12 people were injured by bears, but 56 were injured by bison. Cougars have killed 17 Americans between 1890 and 2001. There is not a single case of a human getting killed by a healthy "wolf": or coyote on this continent16.
In the last century less than a hundred people have been killed by our large and fearsome North American carnivores (92, give or take). In the US alone, 93 people are killed by lightning in any given year17. An estimated 200 people are killed each year in car wrecks with deer.
Fear of these wild carnivores is surely misplaced.
Hypocrisy at the muzzle of a gun.
Human hunters will often oppose allowing the existence of the wild carnivores to continue unmolested because the wild animals eat the same animals the human "sportsmen" wish to kill for food or sport. Wild predators only kill a negligible amount of animals in a respective ecosystem (and enough for the prey to recover, for as biologists have known for nearly half a century, it is the prey animal which limit predator populations and not the other way around). They also tend to kill the old and weak which keep herds strong, and keeps epidemics rare and short. The most ironic part of hunters having a problem with competing with a wolf (Wolves will usually kill just enough to survive and only succeed on 1 in 10 hunts) is that they call themselves "sportsmen." You would think they would appreciate a little competition. If they truly want the hunt to be as easy as possible why don't they put on a camo hat, flak jacket, combat boots, a green beret and hump down to their local butcher and take home their easily gotten trophy/supper?
Mr Oz, the wolf ate Toto!
Wolf attacks on dogs aren't entirely unheard of, though most are from when dogs stray away from their owners to investigate wolf dens or otherwise intrude on a wolf's space. Usually, if the owner is able to keep an eye on his dog and stay on the trail in wolf country his dog will be fine. It comes down more to how attentive the owner can be than anything else. A lot of the arguments against allowing predators to remain where they belong are dependent on playing to the lowest common denominator. The person who lets his dog free at night, or the mother who let's her 8 year old go play out in the middle of the woods alone. Most dangers would evaporate if simply common sense were used and people were educated about the possible dangers. The most telling statistic is of the 36 fatal wolf attacks on dogs in Wisconsin from 1976 to 1998, 28 were killed while the dogs were being used to hunt predators18.
Mary has a little lamb? No, she had a little lamb.
Unquestionably, the largest and most effective argument for indiscriminate predator control is the effect of their teeth on necks of the rancher's chattel. In the lower 48, it is what drives the predator war (in Alaska there is very little livestock and hunters drive the debate). Unsurprising that it comes down to money isn't it?
When judging the impact of predators on livestock the measuring stick most often used is the wolves in Minnesota. There are 1,500 wolves and 7,200 farms. Conflicts are inevitable. In Kill the Cowboy, Sharman Apt Russell explains that out of 7,200 farms only "nine to fifty-five farms annually reported verified wolf depredations." She continues, "The highest cattle loss claimed by ranchers was in 1990, about 4.7 cows per 10,000 available victims. The highest sheep loss claimed was in 1981, 26.6 sheep lost per 10,000 sheep19."
Often those depredations blamed on wolves and other predators are not legitimate, either because the animal dropped dead of natural causes and the part time scavenger took advantage or it was actually dogs that killed the rancher's livestock.
How does the US government retaliate against predators inevitable and inconsiderable trespasses?
The Fish and Wildlife Service outlines their plan: "Predator damage control will be directed toward individual predators causing the damage rather than the general population and will be limited to the specific area where losses due to predators have been verified19."
While this may sound all fine and good it in no way works in practice as cleanly as it is stated in the mission. Sharman Apt Russell writes in Kill the Cowboy "In fiscal year 1990, in seventeen western states, ADC employees killed more than 809,000 animals. A partial list would include 91,158 coyotes, 8144 skunks, 9363 beavers, 7064 foxes (four species); 5,933 raccoons, 3,463 opossums, 1,083 porcupines, 1,028 bobcats, 265 muskrats, 250 mountain lions, 236 black bears, 25 river otters, various rats, mice, rabbits, squirrels, cats, and dogs; and more than one-half million birds, ranging from starlings to meadowlarks. Unintentionally, ADC killed 5,759 non target animals20."
The US government's kill is peanuts compared to the other humans that kill predators. Sharman Apt Russell notes, "in Colorado in 1988, ADC killed 13 black bears. Legal hunters killed 600 black bears, poachers may have killed yet another 500, and property and livestock growers another 300-600 again. Similarly, the average annual kill of mountain lions by the ADC between 1979 and 1988 was 126; trappers and hunters alone killed over 1,180. ADC's average kill of coyotes between these years was 67,852; in an extremely conservative estimate, other people killed five times that amount."
How should a rancher's chattel be protected?
Luckily there are several techniques and systems in place to protect the livestock industry already which make this war outdated and completely unnecessary.
The USDA already has a livestock guarding dog program. These animals have been extremely successful over the centuries in protecting their charges. This old dog profession is as effective as ever against depredation.
Ranchers who move their livestock around a lot using many fences and gates so the predators never get used to them in one area are extremely successful. It is usually the most removed ranchers that experience the most loss (which both makes sense and is usually the large scale ranchers who can afford to lose many).
There are also high frequency speakers which can be set up outside near the cattle or sheep herds which often work as a passive deterrent.
The US government could just use the money it throws away on the predator war on something like the Defenders of Wildlife program in Minnesota where they reimburse ranchers for losses sustained from wolf attacks
Support the wild.
The opposition to predators is strong, well funded, and determined. The Anchorage Daily News reports that one Alaska resident gunned down 60 wolves from his private plane over a three-year period21. But the pro-predator lobby and those who simply understand the necessity of all parts of the ecosystem to function healthily have them greatly outnumbered.
Rick Bass writes that in Montana, where wolves had been fervently eradicated years before, a poll was done in 1990 which showed that 2/3rds of Montanans believed that wolves should be reintroduced where they had previously been extirpated. This is just a microcosm of the majority of American's attitudes towards predators. It seems if we let go of our dogmatic preconceptions about these keystone species and look simply at the reality of the situation, our fears all appear irrational and perhaps even respect for our carnivorous ex competitors can be cultivated.
1 Defenders of Wildlife press realease, " DEFENDERS OF WILDLIFE PETITIONS INTERIOR DEPARTMENT TO HALT ALASKA AERIAL WOLF KILLS"
2 The Alaska Wildlife Alliance
3 Lopez, Barry H., Of Wolves and Men, New Yirk:Touchstone, 1978. 142
4 Animal Disease Control
5 "The Story of the Passenger Pigeon," Clive Ponting, Eco Action
6 "Living in the House That Jack Built" Animal People Editorial, November 1997
7 Bass, Rick, The Ninemile Wolves, New York: Random House, 1992. 5.
8 Lopez, Barry H., Of Wolves and Men, New York: Touchstone, 1978. 150.
9 Reid, Catherine, Coyote, New York: Houghtin Mifflin, 2004. 16.
10 The American Grizzly Bear
11 The Mountain Lion Foundation
12 Bass, Rick, The New Wolves, New York: The Lyons Press, 1998. 3.
13 What Prompted Deadly Bear Attack? AP(Associated Press) August 20, 2002
14 Jennifer Jones Whistler Bear Society
15 US Department of Justice
16 Our kids face a lot of dangers besides wolves Letter to the Bozeman Chronicle, Norman A. Bishop, May 23rd, 2002.
17 National Weather Service Forecast Office National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
18 Wolf Depredation, Wolf Trust
19 Fish and Wilflife Service Manual
20 Russell, Sharman Apt, Kill the Cowboy, page 79-80
21 Aerial wolf hunting flies again in Alaska, CNN, May 3, 2000.
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