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Is hunting America’s wolves the key to their conservation?

18/08/2011 16:31:34

INTOLERANCE: Gray wolves' protective status in being removed in many US states

Hunters' attitudes are inconsistent with stewardship

August 2011: Hunters have been credited with being strong conservation advocates for numerous game species in multiple countries. But, as America's gray wolf loses its endangered species status in several states, there are concerns that this would not be the case with carnivores.

Newly released public opinion surveys conducted in Wisconsin and the northern Rockies suggest that wolves are in a class by themselves and that existing deer, elk, and other game hunts are poor models for a potential wolf hunt.

University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers Adrian Treves and Kerry Martin surveyed 2,320 residents of Wisconsin, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming - including both hunters and non-hunters - between 2001 and 2007. Their findings reveal hunter attitudes toward wolves are largely inconsistent with stewardship.

Hunters are not tolerant of wolves
Questions assessed a range of factors including acceptance of management policy, tolerance of the carnivores, willingness to kill a wolf illegally, adherence to hunt regulations, and expected financial support of conservation.

‘Hunters were some of the least tolerant of wolves among our respondents, and the closer you got to wolf range the less tolerant they were,' says Treves, a professor in the UW-Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.

One issue may be that hunters often view wolves as competition for deer and other game. Opening a wolf hunt may not immediately shift that perception to viewing wolves as another game species to be conserved.

Treves was also surprised by the level of support expressed for a regulated wolf hunt among non-hunters and those living outside wolf range. In Wisconsin, for example, he says: ‘You find a surprising amount of support for a public regulated harvest of wolves.'

No evidence that wolf harvests protect livestock
But these endorsements tend to be conditional, he cautions, and the conditions vary. For example, many people support the idea of a ‘sustainable' hunt or hunting as a way to reduce attacks on livestock and other conflicts between wolves and humans.
‘To me that says that people see hunting as a tool for enabling coexistence,' Treves says.

But the evidence simply isn't there to indicate that hunting wolves would affect depredations of domestic animals. No depredation data were reported following a hunt in Idaho and Montana conducted during a window of time in 2009 when the animals were not federally protected. And though wolves have been hunted legally in Alaska for decades, the scarcity of domestic animals and difference in landscape make it nearly impossible to draw conclusions that would apply to other states.

‘The assumption that hunting and reducing the number of animals will reduce livestock losses would be proven false if hunters are targeting the wrong animals, such as animals in wilderness areas,' he says, adding that it will be important to understand hunter motivations. ‘Wolves in wilderness areas don't kill livestock, it's the wolves on the edge in agricultural areas. Do hunters want to hunt in farmland? I'm not sure.'

Reclassification would allow some lethal control
The challenge, Treves says, is to balance human needs with the need to conserve wolves as an essential component of ecosystems. Treves suggests some possible scenarios for the future of wolf management in the US. Those scenarios include reclassifying the wolves as threatened, which would permit lethal control under certain circumstances, or enacting specific federal protections outside the Endangered Species Act, such as those currently in place for bald eagles, wild horses, and migratory birds.

They advocate geographically tailored approaches that will permit local-level control within a federal framework to strike a balance between wolves and humans. Although sound long-term management could include a public regulated hunt, he said, it would unquestionably require compromise.

‘A public regulated harvest is a collaboration between hunters and the state, which requires give and take. I think the next few years in Wisconsin will reveal how well that collaboration works,' says Treves.

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