Counterpoint: Wolf hunting, trapping is unnecessary and very destructive

Gun Rights

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Recent opinions regarding wolves — including but not limited to “The wolf debate and modern America” (Opinion Exchange, March 3) — might lead some to think that we “need” a wolf hunt. Nothing could be further from the truth. Hunting and trapping wolves is extremely destructive and most definitely unnecessary. It will surprise some to learn that there is no wolf hunting “tradition.” Instead, European settlers made a massive effort to eliminate wolves, and they nearly succeeded. All wolves in the Lower 48 were eliminated around 1926 except for the wolves in northern Minnesota. The latest noise about having a wolf hunt is an effort to finish off the job.

The near hysterical complaints about deer and pets are nothing more than stories meant to induce fear and loathing of wolves. Unfortunately, the wolf is easily maligned. Much of mankind has been conditioned to fear wolves despite their gentle and shy nature. The wolf plays the role of villain and the symbol of fear and death in much of our stories and our art. We tell these stories to our children at impressionable ages, and this makes an unconscious bias that takes effort to overcome. Yet, many Native American tribes have lived with wolves for millennia. For the Ojibwe and other tribes, the wolf holds a sacred cultural role and is viewed as a teacher in how to live with each other. The cultural understanding and behavior toward wolves vastly differs between Indigenous people and the then settler culture and the now hunting and trapping culture.

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There is an ongoing push to remove federal protections for wolves and to hold recreational wolf hunting and trapping seasons. This has been the case since 1974 when the wolf was the first mammal placed on the endangered species list. Even the state of Utah funds millions of dollars to garner anti-wolf sentiment across the country. Groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Safari Club International (SCI) push to have wolf protections removed and allow wolf hunts. The hunting and trapping interests are so entangled with our own state agency that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had attorneys for SCI represent Minnesota in state court in 2012. Minnesotans deserve state agencies that work in the interests of all residents.

Minnesotans have witnessed the destructive impacts of the wolf hunts. The delisting in 2012 resulted in immediate wolf baiting, hunting and trapping that wiped out 35 years of conservation. That first year of delisting, Minnesota’s wolves dropped by 24% and pack sizes continue to remain smaller at 3.6 wolves per pack, down from 5.6 wolves in 1998. The state DNR held these hunts despite 79% of the public saying “no” to wolf hunting in the DNR’s official public survey. In total, three consecutive hunting seasons occurred before courts reinstated federal protection. The courts have repeatedly ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service erroneously delists the Great Lakes’ wolves. Court rulings emphasize that Minnesota wolves are vital to the entire Lower 48 wolf population.

If wolves are to be legitimately removed from the federal endangered species list, Minnesota must show that we can continue their recovery. A wolf hunt in law, at the discretion of the DNR, does not protect or recover wolves. Instead, it keeps the rally cry active to kill wolves. We know the DNR and the Legislature in 2012 rushed the wolf hunts because of pressure from hunters and trappers. We also know that the new Minnesota Wolf Plan contains wolf hunting and trapping “on the menu” with no recognition of the severe destruction of the 2012, 2013 and 2014 wolf seasons.

This destruction has long-lasting effects. The DNR’s own data on collared wolves from 2004 through 2019 showed a more than doubling of overall annual mortality and a more than tripling of human-caused wolf killing that started with the first wolf hunt. The annual mortality jumped from 21% to 43% starting in November 2012. This high annual mortality of 43% continued through the end of the data, more than five years after the hunts ended in 2019. This means that each year, a wolf has about a 50% chance of living.

In this study, all of the juvenile wolves were killed by humans. Humans accounted for 35% of wolf deaths after the hunts started, but it was only 10% before the hunts. Wolf hunting turns on the green light for illegal wolf killing, and it cannot be stopped. The science shows this and people openly brag about it. Even a former Wisconsin DNR manager who served on the wolf management committee there is under investigation for killing a research wolf.

Wolves are apex carnivores that rely on functioning packs to survive. They die naturally from illnesses, injuries, habitat loss, predators, other wolves and starvation. Wolves have social and biological ways to control their own numbers, and much depends on habitat and natural prey sources. The pack must be stable for its natural mechanisms to work.

When humans kill wolves, the packs are disrupted, making them less able to hunt large animals. When this happens, there are more wolf-livestock conflicts and even more human wolf killings. The wolf killing cycle can be slowed by a paradigm shift in how we let wolves live. That shift must be with the human animal. Removing a recreational wolf hunting law is the first step toward reducing illegal wolf killing and it enacts what most Minnesotans want — to let wolves live where they can survive and where conflicts are manageable. We are now using preventive nonlethal methods to avoid most conflicts with wolves.

We know how to deal with wolves if they cause trouble. We know the likelihood a wolf will cause trouble is higher when the packs are disrupted. A wolf hunt increases this disruption, causing more conflicts, and works against nonlethal methods, because smaller packs of young wolves cannot support their pups.

Though the objective science should be enough to put an end to wolf hunting, there are the inhumane methods to consider. Wolf hunts are mostly about baiting and trapping with wire noose snares that choke the wolf into a brain-injured stupor before the trapper kills the wolf by bludgeoning, usually with a baseball bat in order to preserve the fur.

We need a healthy deer herd for our deer hunting tradition. Given the erratic weather with wildfires, droughts and the 2022-23 harsh winter, the DNR is challenged with setting deer quotas that allow wolves to live too. Wolves are a keystone species, meaning many other species need wolves to survive. Wolves move deer and moose around and keep plants and trees growing for habitat that supports water for birds and fish, and deer. There may appear to be an imbalance when deer are less plentiful, but that is not a wolf population’s responsibility. Yes, they eat deer, and that is exactly what we want them to eat. For that, they do a great service by culling the weak, small and sick deer from the herd. What happens if chronic wasting disease (CWD) takes hold in Minnesota? Wolves are one of, if not the only, natural protection from CWD. Our forests are already stressed from fires and droughts. And once an environment loses its apex predators or they become ecologically ineffective, the landscape does not have the same biodiversity.

Minnesota’s leaders need to recognize that wolf hunts are barbaric, unnecessary and carry immense costs now and into the future. The latest genetic studies reveal that Minnesota has the most genetically diverse wolf population in the Lower 48 states. But there are not enough to avoid extinction in the long term. Wolf packs need to be left intact and undisturbed to work out their own genetics and numbers to the available resources and habitats.

The recent enthusiasm for wolf hunts reminds me of 2012, when there was excited glee about killing wolves just after they lost federal protections. Then, stories told by some state senators were senseless fearmongering used to pass the current law. We can do better. We can use the rational science to remove this wolf hunting law. The vast majority of Minnesotans want wolves protected for future generations. We can stop these hunts for good, this session.

Dr. Maureen Hackett is the founder of Howling For Wolves, a Minnesota-based wolf advocacy organization that formed in 2012.

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