While the closest most of us have come to wolves is on some hipster graphic tee, the recent controversy over the Minnesota wolf hunt has earned this species some unwanted attention. This is more important than T-shirt graphics; this is serious. Opening the recently delisted Minnesota wolf population for hunting is an irresponsible and unnecessary move that ignores a complex ecology while threatening to compromise the integrity of the species. It’s highly risky, and its consequences might not be fully understood or realized before it’s too late.
The history of the wolf in Minnesota reads like a soap opera turned success story picture “Air Bud” for wolves. Their habitat already fragmented by human colonization, wolves were targeted from the get-go. They were trapped, hunted, poisoned and even became the focus of government programs intended for their elimination. Then came the Endangered Species Act, a landmark piece of environmental legislation that provided protection for the gray wolf. They were first listed as “endangered,” and as populations grew, they were granted the more benign “threatened” status. The gray wolf has since been delisted, and the Minnesota population has been considered stable for the past 10 years.
The recent success of wolves has provided much of the impetus for the hunt, with concern for livestock spurring calls to actively decrease the wolf population. This response is both ignorant and selfish, a thinly-veiled excuse on the part of those who stand to gain from the hunt.
A simple consideration of ecology provides ample concerns about the hunt. First, 10 years in ecological time is hardly a drop in the proverbial bucket, and it’s certainly no sign that the population is permanently stable and immune to future declines. To make this assumption is to deny the complex and intricate workings of a dynamic ecosystem. Wolves are a textbook keystone species, exerting a disproportionate influence on their ecosystem. This means that tinkering with the wolf population will have far-reaching effects on other members of the ecosystem.
And it’s not just deer, traditional prey for the wolves, that stand to be affected. When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995, the health of the river improved as grazers spent less time near the river and vegetation near the bank was restored. In tampering with these intricate relationships, the wolf hunt threatens to wield an undue impact on the entire natural web. It’s not just wolves who stand to lose.
Science notwithstanding, wolf hunting is simply unwarranted. The alleged problems stemming from the wolf population are unsubstantiated. First, the danger to livestock is minimal, and could even increase as a consequence of the hunt. As the population is more stressed, individual wolves become weaker and are more likely to turn to livestock for food. It’s also unlikely that the size of the wolf population could ever spiral out of control because of natural checks that it performs on itself. When a wolf population reaches its habitat or resource limits, an increase in wolf-on-wolf kills restricts population size. Additionally, a full third of the wolf population dies naturally of starvation every year, without any human influence.
Wolves are a fragile species that are part of a fragile ecosystem. With a current size of 3,000 individuals, allowing 400 wolves to be killed is unnecessary, unwise and uncalled for. And even if the worst potential consequences of the hunt aren’t fully realized, it still can’t be deemed wise.
Suppose that I’m wrong. Suppose that the wolf population really is stable and unaffected by the hunt. Does that give us license to kill? Maybe it won’t drastically alter the ecosystem or threaten the integrity of the wolf population, but does that mean we should allow the killing of hundreds of wolves so a handful of hunters can get an adrenaline rush? That raises deeper ethical questions, not just scientific ones. Like, do we have a right to enable mass killing of a species for no justifiable reason? Sounds like bad karma to me. And history certainly isn’t our ally either.
If we aren’t careful, the wolves gracing those beloved tees might become a historical relic, homage to the majestic wolf that once was.
Ellen Squires ’14 email@example.com is from Andover, Minn. She majors in biology and environmental studies.