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Backward Thinking Targets Bears And Wolves

Op-ed: Chris Servheen, longtime national head of grizzly recovery in Lower 48, says Montana, Idaho are degenerating into anti-predator hysteria

"Loops and Swift Horses Are Surer Than Lead," a painting by Charles M. Russell (1916). One of Russell's most famous paintings portraying backward Old West attitudes toward grizzlies. Image courtesy Wikipedia. To see the real painting, visit the Amon Carter Museum in Ft. Worth, Texas (carter museum.org)
"Loops and Swift Horses Are Surer Than Lead," a painting by Charles M. Russell (1916). One of Russell's most famous paintings portraying backward Old West attitudes toward grizzlies. Image courtesy Wikipedia. To see the real painting, visit the Amon Carter Museum in Ft. Worth, Texas (carter museum.org)

by Christopher Servheen
Op-ed written for Mountain Journal

Wildlife management after European settlement in North America can be briefly described in three phases. The initial phase was defined by the exploitation of native wildlife species, with market hunting and active elimination of all predators. 

The second phase was the selective conservation movement, where certain game animals like elk, deer, and bighorn sheep were conserved because they were desired by sport hunters. Finally, the third inclusive conservation phase promoted conservation of all species because they had existence value rather than value solely based on their exploitation.

The culmination of inclusive conservation was the passing of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973, resulting in organized recovery and conservation programs for many species on the verge of extinction. 

I led the recovery program for the grizzly bear for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service for 35 years in the Northern Rockies and the North Cascades. During much of that time, a similar recovery program was underway for the grey wolf in the Northern Rockies.

Both the grizzly bear and the grey wolf were listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA. These animals were pushed to the verge of extinction in the contiguous U.S. due to organized and relentless persecution driven by fear of large carnivores and the misguided concept of Manifest Destiny that tried to subdue nature and “civilize” the West. Native Americans suffered similar persecution for the same reasons.

The persecution of these animals involved destruction of their habitat and their food sources such as bison and salmon; shooting, trapping, and most lethally, wide-spread use of poisons like strychnine. The death and suffering that was visited upon wolves and grizzly bears was driven by a visceral hatred of predators and intolerance of anything that threatened humans or the livestock industry.
A bill written by the leadership of the Montana state game management agency under new Gov. Greg Gianforte would not allow relocation of any bear in any type of conflict if outside the recovery zones. This is contrary to 40 years of Montana grizzly management policy and would dramatically increase the number of bears killed in Montana. Another Montana bill would allow anyone to kill any grizzly that they thought was “threatening livestock," which would essentially allow anyone to kill a grizzly bear just for being in the general vicinity of livestock.
With applied conservation based on science and balancing the needs of people and wildlife, we managed to recover the wolf by reintroducing them to select wild areas. Grizzly bears took more time and effort because they reproduce so slowly, and do not disperse as rapidly as wolves. As recovery proceeded, more wolves and grizzlies encountered more people and there were some conflicts where livestock were killed. To address these conflicts, programs were developed to capture and remove wolves and bears involved in conflicts, and reimbursement programs paid ranchers for lost livestock. 

The passionate dislike of predators never abated in some people, however. The justification for their anti-predator emotion was based on their dislike of any predation on livestock and their belief that predators were going to destroy deer and elk herds that were popular to sport hunters. The most extreme anti-predator people were those who believed that deer and elk needed to be “saved” by killing wolves, mountain lions and both black and grizzly bears by any available means so that more deer and elk would be available for hunters.   

Those interested in reducing predator numbers found support in state legislatures, particularly in Idaho and Montana. They implemented policies to kill predators using hunting, leg-hold traps, neck snares, and even shooting wolves at night with spotlights.
The anti-predator fervor is pronounced in Idaho where the legislature is currently proposing classifying wolves as predators; allowing aerial gunning of wolves with helicopters; shooting them from ATVs, vehicles, and snow machines; and having no limit on how many wolves can be killed in most of the state. Idaho allows neck snaring of wolves throughout most of the state. 

Montana is considering bills that would extend the season for leg-hold trapping and neck snaring of wolves into the time that bears are out of their dens. This will result in bears being caught and killed in wolf traps and neck snares.

Montana legislators are also considering bills to allow payments to wolf hunters and trappers, which amounts to a bounty to kill wolves. And Montana is considering allowing unlimited spring hound hunting of black bears, which has been banned since 1921.

Hound hunting is very disruptive to bears and can result in cub abandonment, chronic stress, and heat exhaustion. One of the justifications for this bill was to reduce black bear numbers to “save” deer and elk from bear predation. 
There is little need to “save” game animals from predators since Montana and Idaho have abundant big game herds even in areas with predators. In fact, Montana hunters can kill up to three elk per year, and the legislature is currently considering bills to further liberalize regulations in order to kill more elk.
Grizzly bears are routinely managed if they come into conflicts with people. This includes capture and relocation or removal if the bear is a repeat offender. A bill written by the leadership of the Montana state game management agency under new Gov. Greg Gianforte would not allow relocation of any bear in any type of conflict if outside the recovery zones. 

This is contrary to 40 years of Montana grizzly management policy and would dramatically increase the number of bears killed in Montana. Another Montana bill would allow anyone to kill any grizzly that they thought was “threatening livestock," which would essentially allow anyone to kill a grizzly bear just for being in the general vicinity of livestock.

I understand the need for management of these species, and that includes ethical, fair-chase hunting using science to set mortality limits. But these extreme anti-predator laws in Montana and Idaho are a relapse back into the dark ages of wildlife and nature exploitation. 

There is little need to “save” game animals from predators since Montana and Idaho have abundant big game herds even in areas with predators. In fact, Montana hunters can kill up to three elk per year, and the legislature is currently considering bills to further liberalize regulations in order to kill more elk.

The unsportsmanlike killing of wolves by virtually any means is a blatant rejection of the concept of fair chase hunting, as defined by the Boone and Crockett Club. Such extreme anti-predator policies will malign the image of sport hunters in the eyes of most of the public. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2016 only 2.8 percent of Americans hunted big game animals as sport hunters, and the number of big game hunters declined 20 percent from 2011 to 2016.
The unsportsmanlike killing of wolves by virtually any means is a blatant rejection of the concept of fair chase hunting, as defined by the Boone and Crockett Club. Such extreme anti-predator policies will malign the image of sport hunters in the eyes of most of the public. 
Most Americans find value in wildlife for their existence and such extreme anti-predator policies in the name of providing sport hunters with more deer and elk to hunt gives hunters a terrible image.

This brings us back to the recovery of wolves and grizzly bears started 40 years ago to heal the damage done to natural ecosystems in the Northern Rockies. After all the effort, funding, and success under the federally led wolf and grizzly recovery programs, we now have state politicians promoting regressive anti-predator legislation that could negate all the gains that have been made.

These Idaho and Montana anti-predator laws pander to a small minority of special interests and are not supported by most of the public. If this is allowed to continue, we stand to lose all that we have gained to build and maintain healthy natural ecosystems and repair the historic wrongs done to wildlife and nature by past generations.


Christopher Servheen
About Christopher Servheen

Christopher Servheen is a professional wildlife biologist (PhD) who served for 35 years as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's national grizzly bear recovery coordinator. He is co-chair of the IUCN'S North American Bear Expert Team and vice president of the Montana Wildlife Federation. He is a lifelong hunter and angler.

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