Wolf management isn't about sport

Posted: Monday, August 24, 2009

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., understands the essence of Alaska's wolf population control program perfectly. "Shooting wildlife from airplanes is not sport," Feinstein declared.

Unfortunately, Feinstein doesn't seem to grasp the implications of her own declaration. She and others last week relaunched an effort to curtail Alaska's wolf management via federal law.

Feinstein did so, at least in part, because she believes the state's effort violates "the hunting principle of fair chase."

No, it does not, because, as she said, Alaska's wolf control program is not sport.

"Fair chase" is a loose, ever-shifting set of guidelines employed by individual hunters who, for a variety of personal reasons, often make their hunts more difficult for themselves and thus potentially less lethal to their prey. More power to them, but such standards are illogical when attempting to manage wildlife populations.

What homeowner would set a mouse trap but leave it unbaited just to give the mice a chance? What farmer would put cats in the barn but remove their claws so the rats have a fair shake?

When attempting to control an animal population, neither individuals nor the government can apply standards of fair chase, because those standards are designed solely to make success more difficult. In a control effort, the intent is to kill the animal. The most efficient, quickest method should be used. The state of Alaska follows that mandate when it kills wolves using gunners in aircraft.

Arguments about technique aside, the question remains: Should the state even attempt to control wolf populations? Opponents of the current control efforts have a range of arguments.

Some make the false claim that the state is attempting to exterminate the species. The state, quite obviously, is attempting to give Alaskans more reliable, year-to-year seasons and bag limits by moderating the natural, but often extreme, fluctuations in predator and prey species.

Other opponents offer more intelligent criticism - that the state's effort could cause undetected, long-term malformations in the ecological landscape. They march under an unassailable banner reading "more study needed." More study would be an excellent step, but evidence to date shows no reason to suspect any great trauma to the landscape - certainly nothing to justify eliminating the state's option.

In a curious nod to the essential legitimacy of wolf control, Feinstein's legislation actually would allow such a program but only in biological emergencies where elimination of a moose or caribou prey population is imminent. Of course, that's the wrong time to apply such control. Managers shouldn't wait for an animal population to be on the edge of extinction before acting.

And imagine the limits managers might adopt if, in such an emergency, they still were constrained by the rules of "fair chase." We could send them out dressed in loincloths and armed with spears. Just to be fair.

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