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Hunters aren't the worst threat to wolves' survival

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Gray wolf
L. David Mech, a senior research scientist with the Biological Resource Discipline of the U.S. Geological Survey who has studied wolves for years, says habitat loss is the biggest danger to wolves' survival.
MPR file photo

By L. David Mech

Well, they are hunting wolves out West this fall, and many people think it's a shame. The wolf is barely off the federal endangered species list in Montana and Idaho, and right away these states are allowing public hunting. But not everyone thinks hunting wolves is bad, and not just ranchers and sportsmen who believe the wolf conflicts with their own interests.

Many of the folks who see public wolf hunting as a positive development actually are pro-wolf.  They notice that wolf populations that only 20 years ago were almost nonexistent in the West have now recovered so much that the populations can afford regulated harvesting like their fellow large carnivores -- mountain lions and bears.  These folks view the wolf's new status as a state-managed species as helping to secure a more normal and healthy standing for the wolf in the West's wildlife community. 

Not so long ago wolves, cougars and bears held a more nefarious image. Citizens of the West regarded them as total enemies to be annihilated in any way possible. For the wolf this meant widespread and officially sanctioned government poisoning programs. The net result: Wolves were deliberately exterminated from throughout the 48 contiguous states, except for a small population in Minnesota and in Isle Royale National Park, Mich. 

Not until U.S. society changed from a predominately agrarian to an urban culture did the country awaken to what it had done. The environmental revolution began, the Endangered Species Act was passed, and the wolf population responded by increasing from about 750 to its current number of 6,000 or more in the lower United States.

My  life has spanned both the strong anti-wolf period before the Endangered Species Act in 1973 and the wolf's reintroduction into Yellowstone National Park and Idaho. I have followed the animal's removal from the list of endangered species and now the restoration of wolf management in at least a few states. It is heartening to be able to review a history that culminates in the wolf's present status as a regular member of the wilderness fauna, with no special listing as endangered and no special drive toward its extermination.    But a long lifespan gives one perspective. And my perspective tells me that, in the long run of history, wolves' troubles are not really over.    Even more than cougars or bears, wolves do conflict with human interests. As people continue to develop more and more wild lands where wolves can best survive without conflicts, the species will again face challenges that in many cases could be overwhelming.

Regulated hunting of wolves will not endanger the species again. But habitat loss, especially the loss of large contiguous tracts of wild land, will. That, rather than the human-caused deaths of individual wolves, will be the big concern of those folks who now decry state management of the species. To paraphrase Henry David Thoreau, "In wilderness is the preservation of the wolf."  

L. David Mech is a senior research scientist with the Biological Resource Discipline of the U.S. Geological Survey. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota and a founder of  the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn. He has studied wolves full-time for more than 50 years.