How can those who love the wolf come to accept a hunting season?

Nancy Tubbs
Nancy jo Tubbs: I can't claim the moral high ground that I hold inviolate the sacred lives of animals.
Courtesy of Nancy jo Tubbs

By Nancy jo Tubbs

Nancy jo Tubbs is a resort owner who lives in the midst of the Burntside Pack near Ely, Minn., and chairs the board of the International Wolf Center, which doesn't take positions on wolf issues. This commentary represents only the author's views.

I've helped raise captive-reared wolf pups and held the feisty little beasts in my arms while they nursed from a bottle. For me, seeing wolves killed in legal hunting and trapping seasons will be like watching Bambi being shot in the horrific old Disney movie of the same name.

Yet, there's much talk about whether wolf hunting and trapping will start in Minnesota this fall. Can I come to a personal acceptance of that eventual reality?

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It will take some work. For one thing, the dialogue we are used to hearing during deer season here in Minnesota will infiltrate our conversation about wolves. We'll hear the nitty-gritty narrative about how big, how old, how good the pelt, and what the wolf's eyes spoke to the hunter in the moment that it was hit — those rough details will shock me at first, but may eventually become familiar to us.

I share the sentiments of naturalist Nancy Gibson, who recently wrote, "I know wolves are smart, resilient and their high reproduction rates are an asset for survival. The proposed hunting season won't hurt their population. But I bristle at the extent of boastful words that has transformed an endangered species one day into a varmint the next."

Whether we Minnesotans will feel grief, exultation, relief or indifference at the realities of a wolf season will have everything to do with our personal experiences. The emotions of the trophy hunter will differ from those of the cattleman whose herd has suffered depredation from a pack. Or from those of many who worked to see wolf populations recover under the Endangered Species Act, or who legislated or will manage this proposed hunt. Emotions will likely run high, and individuals' values, too, will come into play: The wolf is no more special than the deer and should be a game animal. The wolf is sacred. No wolf should be killed. The only good wolf is a dead wolf.

A book sitting on my to-read shelf has the catchy title of "Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard To Think Straight About Animals." It has me examining my beliefs, even before I've opened the cover. I can't say that I hate any animal, though snakes that suddenly appear underfoot freak me out, and I admit to trapping the red squirrels that invade my log house and chew the upholstery.

I do love many things about wolves. I eat beef. And of course I swat mosquitoes. So, now I have to admit that, in the eyes of the universe, the squirrel, mosquito, cow and wolf probably are of equal value. I can't claim the moral high ground that I hold inviolate the sacred lives of animals.

Relying neither on values nor emotions is going to help me decide how to react to the proposed wolf season, so I turn to the facts:

Minnesota's wolf population has stabilized at around 3,000 wolves for the past several years. Each time a wolf disperses outside its northern range, it faces livestock owners and the skills of federal trappers who annually kill about 200 wolves.

Biologically, the state's wolf population is capable of sustaining the killing of at least 400 wolves, the number proposed by the Department of Natural Resources.

Wolf populations can increase by 30 to 50 percent in a year. That is because their numbers are estimated in winter, and in spring packs produce an average of six pups. A standard pack of six adults will double in population then. About half the pups usually die in the first year, and some adult wolves will also die from disease, starvation and by being killed by other wolves.

The DNR's plan proposes a limited wolf harvest season to take place after the firearm deer season, when wolves are less likely to be shot illegally by someone without a license and when fewer hunters are likely to be in the woods. Most hunters prefer that the deer and wolf seasons run simultaneously.

A late fall wolf hunting and trapping season coincides with a time of year when spring pups have reached adult physical size, are no longer dependent on their parents and are traveling with the pack. Killing an adult wolf will not put the young wolves at risk.

I come to the conclusion that our Minnesota laws will keep our wolf population sustainable. I know the wolf's own elusive nature and reproductive generosity will give it a leg up. I will personally grieve the taking of wolves in hunting and trapping seasons, but I know that the wolf will survive as deer and bear and grouse and other hunted species survive. And I can tolerate that.

I know that many others will follow a similar personal and public dialogue: the emotions, values and science-based facts will figure in, and our conclusions will differ in substance or in degree. Each person should make up his or her own mind about whether to support, tolerate or oppose a wolf season.

I'll be interested to hear how others walk that path.