Part three of our series brings us to the 1990's. Allow me to set the stage. Boys II Men were topping the charts, Jim Kelly was still the Bill's quarterback and a passing fad called "the Internet" was beginning to sweep the country.
Meanwhile, it had been six decades since anyone in the lower 48 had seen a wolf outside of the zoo. Several generations of sportsmen grew up without ever seeing a game population that had been subject to natural predation. In the absence of apex predators, game herds grew significantly larger than they had ever been before human intervention, though hunting pressure kept them from reaching Kaibab-esque ecological meltdown levels. The sportsmen from three generations all came to expect these inflated elk and deer populations, as though they were "normal". Similarly, several generations of Western ranchers became acclimated to an environment where their livestock faced essentially no threat from predators and came to expect that condition as though it were the norm.
When the movement we discussed in part 2 succeeded, those six long, wolf free decades came to a comparatively rapid halt. The wolves took hold quickly in their native habitat and the reintroduction program was a resounding success. As anyone who thought things through could have predicted, ranchers saw a noticeable rise in predation rates on their livestock. Sportsmen also noticed that big game herds were down (though it's unclear how much of the later can actually be attributed to wolves).
Now here's where things start to get sticky. You know how sticky a New York politician's hands get when they're inside someone else's pocket?...Well this isn't quite that sticky...but it's close. It's understandable that those sportsmen and ranchers would be upset. They'd had several generations of comparatively easy, wolf-free living and they saw no immediate problem that needed to be solved by reintroducing wolves.
Unfortunately, many of our brothers to the West fell back into that 19th century mindset that I discussed in the first post. Peruse the comment section of any article on this topic and you will see a legion of posters calling the wolves an "invasive species" and saying that we need to kill as many of them as possible to "protect" the deer and elk herds. This is where I get the title for this series of articles. Sadly, the Internet battle cry of those opposed to wolves became the "three S's", standing for "Shoot, Shovel, and Shut up". In other words, encouraging people to illegally poach wolves and then bury the bodies and not tell anyone in order to avoid law enforcement. I cannot think of a worse solution to the problem.
Environmental groups like the "Sierra Club" and the "Defenders of Wildlife" are already opposed to hunting in general, as well as most of the other types of outdoor recreation that we enjoy. These well-funded organizations were likely already predisposed to oppose any wolf hunting. However, these vocal calls for poaching, along with their perception of the wolf as a symbol of nature in general and the success of the environmental movement in particular, solidified that position.
By the 2000's, the wolf population had recovered that it could no longer be considered "endangered" in the biological sense of the word. This point is generally agreed upon by both the state and federal governments as well as the various advocacy groups involved. So, the feds removed the wolves from the endangered species list and they were promptly sued by environmental groups who were looking to stop the wolf hunting that would begin as soon as the wolves were de-listed. The feds lost in the courtroom and the judge issued a court order mandating that the wolves be re-listed. The fish and game agencies set about addressing the judge's concerns and the cycle begins again. Our tax dollars have been dancing this cyclical dance for the better part of a decade now.
Unfortunately, one of the most powerful arguments that these groups have had in court is this "19th century mindset" that I have been talking about. For instance, in one of the early court cycles the judge ordered the wolves be re-listed because the state game agencies did not have management plans in place for the wolves in order to ensure they do not become endangered again in the future. In response, Wyoming passed a "management plan" (big time air quotes) wherein any wolf could be shot on sight by anyone at anytime in any place. No bag limits whatsoever... as you can imagine, we sportsmen were laughed out of court on the next go-round.
What needs to happen is simple. First, we need to get widespread acceptance amongst the sportsmen community that the wolves are here to stay, and that this doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing. Second, we need to work with the state fish and game agencies to set up wolf management plans that handle the animals more like a valuable game species than like rapidly reproducing "varmint" species. This will remove the last remaining cogent argument against wolf de-listing, and hopefully the courts will then allow the process to go forward.
The benefits of de-listing will be numerous. Firstly, ranchers will be able to cull "problem" animals who target livestock and domestic pets (currently, wolves can only be shot if they are in the act of attacking a human). Secondly, each state will be free to choose a balance between their wolf and big game population that best suits their needs, so long as that balance maintains a sustainable (read: non-endangered) wolf population. This is obviously preferable to game management decisions being mandated from Washington DC, a thousand miles away. Finally, population estimates say that there are only a few thousand wolves spread across the American Rockies. This will mean that there will only relatively limited number of tags issued in any given state. Elusive game animal, beautiful trophy furs, opportunity to bolster the elk herd, hard-to-get lottery-drawn tags...sounds like a recipe for a wildly popular hunting season to me. And that is really the best news of all for the wolves, because no game species has ever gone extinct in modern times. There is no stronger constituency that a wildlife species can have than a community of hunters eagerly awaiting the next hunting season. Just ask the wild turkeys, migratory waterfowl, and ringneck pheasants.