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Hate mail, angry community meetings, hyperbolic letters to the editor.

No, not health care reform: Wolf hunting.

Here in Idaho, it seems, the wolf hunting season — which opened earlier this month — has pushed all other news aside.

Many environmentalists are mad as hell that wolf management has been turned over to the states in Idaho (and soon Montana), leading to hunting seasons for these large, majestic predators.

As such, there is a very concerted effort to stop the wolf hunt – even after a federal judge ruled the hunt could tentatively continue.

This effort is certainly a great way to mobilize people into action.

But opposing the wolf hunt is not, ultimately, good for wolf conservation.

Stopping the wolf hunt essentially concerns saving individual wolves.

Conservation, by necessity, must concern a much broader view:

How can we keep wolves a part of large, intact landscapes?

How can we preserve the large forests necessary for wolves in the face of subdivision, climate change and energy development?

Such issues, unfortunately, don’t lend themselves to simple slogans or simple solutions.

Opposing the wolf hunt seems, on the other hand, to be a simple case of “crying wolf”: creating a conservation crisis where none really exists.

Gray wolves were reintroduced to parts of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho in 1995. By all accounts, they have thrived, much better than anyone expected. And so, as promised at the time of reintroduction, the states now have control over wolf management.

That means more wolf control and wolf hunting seasons: unacceptable to many environmentalists.

I am a wolf lover. Hearing them howl in the backcountry reminds me why I live where I do. Seeing them walk by in the moonlight, as I did this summer in Yellowstone, was one of my most memorable wildlife sightings.

I’m also a big fan of wildlife reintroductions. I think that native mammals should be reintroduced to every patch of suitable habitat across the continent.

As research in Yellowstone consistently demonstrates, wolves are undoubtedly one of the most important species in the ecosystem.

As a hunter, I’m embarrassed by the circus-like atmosphere surrounding the selling of wolf tags. I’m even more embarrassed by the claims of some hunters that wolves are causing elk and deer to go “extinct.”

The anti-wolf activists — and there are such folks in Idaho — quite frankly bore me, with their endless predictions that wolves will eat your children at the bus stop.

But all that aside, it’s time to let the wolf hunt happen. Most likely, wolves will quickly become just another well-managed big game animal, much like mountain lions. Mountain lions are hunted, and they’re thriving and even expanding their range.

Environmentalists said they would support delisting when wolf recovery goals were met, which they have been. By opposing delisting now, it makes it harder for other predator reintroductions and conservation efforts to take place.

And stopping the hunt could, in the long run, lead to far worse wolf control efforts. The longer wolves are not hunted, the more rural Westerners will demand more drastic measures. Eventually, I fear, this would lead to trapping, poisoning, aerial shooting or even wolf eradication.

Think it can’t happen? I suggest you don’t understand the fervor with which many ranchers and hunters hate wolves.

With the hunting season, wolves will continue to thrive. They’ll become more wary and avoid humans — not a bad thing.

Individual wolves will be killed, a sad reality. But as conservationists, we should be working so that populations can survive.

Habitat loss, climate change, irresponsible energy development: These are issues that will dramatically affect the long-term survival of wolf populations.

It’s time for environmentalists to let go of the conservation non-issue of saving individual wolves, and instead use their passion to save wolf habitat.


— Text by Matt Miller, Cool Green Science Blog

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