Why management of wolf populations will be necessary

When a man wants to murder a tiger he calls it sport; when the tiger wants to murder him he calls it ferocity.
~George Bernard Shaw

I imagine this post will make some people very unhappy.

In the past, I was against predator control for wolves. Now, I’m thinking it’ll be a necessary evil. Do I like it? No. But the reality of the situation is that wolves are predators. And once it was brought to my attention by Monstertalk’s interview with Dr. Valerius Geist, an animal ethologist, I realized that, indeed, all the data we have on American wolf populations has been collected after the near-extirpation of wolves in the continental US.

But if our data all comes from a time in which wolf numbers were artificially low, what will happen when wolf populations rise to a point at which they begin to lower prey numbers? It may be that human management steps in and wolf numbers drop due to the massive power of the hunting lobby, but what of Yellowstone, an unmanaged area full of tourists? Wolves will eat. They will not starve voluntarily. The balance of predator-prey is not neat and tidy. “When initially studied, many researchers believed the [wolves and moose on Isle Royale, Michigan] would eventually reach a population equilibrium (which is believed to be about twenty-five wolves, and 1,500 moose). They have not yet shown any sign of settling into one, instead tending to fluctuate unpredictably.” With enough wolves, plus abiotic and uncontrollable situations such as famine and disease, prey populations may begin to fluctuate in a way that occasionally leaves wolves without their preferred prey. And as I just said…they won’t starve voluntarily.

America does have a leg up on other countries, as wolves here were shot at with guns probably from the start of European colonization (thus likely selecting for less risky behavior in wolves). Fewer of us take guns into the woods now, meaning that approaching humans is less risky, and risky behavior may actually be selected for due to the sheer numbers of humans in the areas wolves are moving into.

Every other predator in the US is known for occasionally attacking humans. I don’t doubt Dr. Geist’s prediction that wolf attacks in North America are going to begin to rise as more wolves come into contact with more humans and the added pressure on prey makes population numbers fluctuate. Therefore, I think it is essential that we do have some form of management for wolf populations in the US. It took strychnine to extirpate the wolf originally. I doubt opening a hunting season on a moderately recovered wolf population, especially if such season is strictly regulated, will extirpate the wolf again. Instead, I think it may very well start selecting for more risk-adverse wolves. And whether we like it or not, our choice may be managed wolves, or no wolves at all. I’ll happily take the former over the latter.


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