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Hunting has long been firmly ingrained in American culture, and governments have always had to regulate hunting carefully to protect certain species from possible extinction. In 1974, responding to over-hunting, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) listed the gray wolf as an endangered species in the lower 48 states, pursuant to the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Thirty-four years later, in 2008, the gray wolf population in the northern Rocky Mountain region–which includes Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and parts of Washington, Oregon, and Utah–had rebounded sufficiently to warrant delisting.
Great news, right? Let’s have a party in honor of the northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf! Don’t forget to bring drinks, cake, a card, and your hunting rifle. A bit more than a year after the FWS delisted the northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf population, Montana and Idaho approved plans to allow hunters to kill small numbers of the newly-recovered gray wolf populations, largely for sport. The hunts are set to start as early as the beginning of September, close to the start of hunting season for most other large game in the states.
Exactly how many gray wolves are in the area you ask? Between Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, scientists estimate the total gray wolf population to be at about 2300: “The tristate region had about a hundred breeding pairs and 1,600 individuals at the end of 2008. Biologists estimate 500 wolf pups were born this spring.” Although the Idaho and Montana hunting plans would only authorize the killing of a few hundred wolves, the sudden rush to kill a once-endangered species strikes me as odd, especially since part of the motivation behind the hunts seems to be a lust for killing an oft-villainized animal:
Vendors such as Daniel Stephenson, owner of River of No Return Taxidermy in Salmon, Idaho, expect robust demand. “In our area, there’re lots of [wolves] and they’re not a real popular thing for deer and elk hunters,” Stephenson said. “So everybody wants a chance to go get one.”
A coalition of animal rights groups, including Defenders of Wildlife, has filed a motion in federal court for a preliminary injunction to stop the wolf hunts. Wolf advocates argue that since wolves must breed with many packs to maintain genetic diversity, diminishing and further isolating gray wolf populations may do more harm to the species than expected. The outcome of an August 31, 2009 hearing on the issue is currently pending.
Although hunting is a socially acceptable sporting activity, and wolf hunting is all the rage lately, a few thousand wolves across three relatively large states doesn’t seem like a very high number to me. Perhaps states should wait until wolf populations are thriving, rather than simply non-endangered, to green light hunting. After all, we’ve seen bird flu and swine flu–maybe the next pandemic will be wolf flu.
Read more on Defenders of Wildlife’s gray wolves blog.
– Kevin Lumpkin
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