Thursday, May 17, 2012

To Kill a Mockingbird

I recently attended the wolf hearings held by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission in Helena. The commission is considering initiation of a trapping season, as well as eliminating quotas on the number of wolves that may be killed. The goal is to significantly reduce the state’s wolf population which currently numbers somewhere in the vicinity of 600 animals. The commission will make a final decision on the matter by July. At the hearing I felt like I was witnessing a modern day version of Harper Lee’s famous book To Kill a Mockingbird. In that novel the mockingbird is symbolic of innocence animals and by extension, innocence citizens destroyed by thoughtless and ignorant people. In Lee’s novel the main character, lawyer Atticus Finch, is one of the few residents of the southern community of Maycomb committed to racial equality and fairness. He agrees to defend a black man (a mockingbird in human society) wrongly accused of raping a poor southern girl. For his efforts both Atticus and his children suffer abuse and ridicule from the community. Worse, in the end, Atticus is unable to overcome the racial prejudice of his community members and win acquittal for the black man who was convicted by public opinion rather than facts. Even the otherwise descent people of that community were unable to put aside the cultural biases they had grown up with. In a similar way I believe the wolf has become a symbolic scapegoat for many otherwise descent Montanans who, for whatever reason, cannot overcome the cultural biases against wolves. I do not want to overstate this analogy. Wolves can and do kill elk and deer as well as livestock. They can sometimes even depress elk and deer populations. Yet for many who testified at the commission hearings, it is clear that killing wolves symbolizes more than just a predator that may occasionally create conflicts with human goals. When one can’t lash out at the real and/or imaginary forces that are creating fear or anger, someone or something else is punished. What was termed in my college animal behavior classes as “displaced” aggression. In Montana there is displaced aggression being heaped upon the wolf. For some with the most extreme opinions in Montana, the wolf actually represents the distance federal government or worse a UN global plot to subjugate rural America that they fear is controlling their lives. When they kill wolves, they are lashing out at these institutions they fear. And like the mythical towns people in Maycomb Alabama whose racial prejudice and lynch mob mentally convicted the black man Tom Robinson of imagined crimes based on dubious evidence, the wolf has been convicted and sentenced in the court of public opinion—at least the portion of the public I observed at the hearings. There is no other way to explain the depth of hatred and fear I witnessed. Any rational examination of the evidence against the wolf would not justify the death penalty that I fear will be imposed by the Commission. Over and over again I heard many of the same old inaccurate and often exaggerated justifications for wolf reductions. Among them is the assertion that wolves are decimating the state’s elk and deer herds and destroying hunter opportunity. Yet in 1992 when the state completed its elk management plan, and three years before wolves were reintroduced, there were an estimated 89,000 elk in Montana. By 2007 an article in Montana Outdoors proclaimed there may be as many as 150,000 elk in the state. And a recent communication I had with Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist put the current number at around 140,000 animals. Even as I write this commentary, the headlines in today’s papers proclaimed “FWP: Surveys Show Big Game Populations Bouncing Back.” Any reasonable person looking at those numbers would conclude that the presence of wolves is not a threat to hunting opportunities. Indeed, if I wanted to be as irrational as many of the hunters I heard at the hearing, I could suggest a correlation where the presence of wolves appears to increase elk numbers and hunting opportunities across a state. Similarly, accusations that wolves are a threat to the state’s livestock industry are equally as dubious. Last year according to the Montana Dept of Livestock, more than 140,000 cattle and sheep died from various causes including poisonous plants, disease, and other factors. Out of these 140,000 animals, wolves were responsible for less than a hundred deaths. This is not to suggest that the loss of any livestock is not an economic blow to the individual rancher, but can anyone seriously argue that wolves are a universal threat to the livestock industry that justifies state-wide persecution? And there are many positive benefits to the presence of a large wolf population that were rarely mentioned or acknowledged at the hearing. For instance, temporary or even sustained decrease in elk numbers can lead to a reduction in browsing on riparian vegetation like willows and cottonwood along streams. Healthy riparian areas create more food for beaver. Beaver ponds improve water storage and stream flow, reducing floods—which may be a huge net economic benefit to society. Healthy and functioning streams also equal more trout and other fish, improving fishing opportunities and of course the bottom line for businesses that depend on serving the fishing public. Predation by wolves can also reduce the occurrence of diseases that are a potential threat to both livestock and wildlife. For instance, the spread of disease like chronic wasting disease and brucellosis can have economic consequences to the livestock industry as well as elk and deer hunting. Wolves by their presence tend to reduce disease across a herd by dispersing elk and deer as well as by preying on sick animals. Collectively these positive economic benefits to society and even to the livestock industry may far outnumber any negative costs associated with wolf livestock losses. If we are going to manage wolves so they full fill their ecological function as top predators, one can’t kill the majority of wolves off and expect to maintain these positive ecological benefits. Even more troubling to me is that Montanans seem to want to use brute force instead of their brains to deal with wolf conflicts. A great deal of recent science on the social ecology of wolves as well as the positive benefits of predators on ecosystems is largely ignored by current management policies. There is a growing body research that suggests increased persecution of predators is likely to increase, not decrease, human conflicts. Even if you lower the wolf population, you may actually increase the human conflicts. Widespread and aggressive indiscriminate killing of wolves or any other predator may have unintended consequences. Hunting and trapping tends to skew predator populations towards younger age classes; Younger animals are less skillful hunters. They are the very animals most likely to wander into the backyards of people’s homes or come into a ranch yard to nab a young calf or lamb. Due to their inexperience and lack of hunting skill, younger animals are more inclined to seek out livestock as prey. In addition, a wolf population suffering from heavy mortality leads to break up of packs where breeding is usually limited to the dominant male and female. Fragmenting the population into many smaller packs can result in more breeding females and often results in a higher survival of pups. In a very short time the population rebounds, prompting endless calls for more persecution. Predator control can even potentially lead to greater kill of elk and deer. Smaller packs with many pups to feed are unable to guard their kills against other scavengers. When an adult kills an elk or deer, by the time it can carry meat back to the den and return, much of the carcass may be stripped of any remaining meat, leaving that animal no choice but to kill another elk or deer. Smaller packs may in the end also produce more pups—and like teenagers everywhere—the greater food demands of growing pups may lead to the killing of more prey and/or livestock. And since many wolves co-exist with livestock, the indiscriminate and random removal of wolves by hunting and trapping can actually create a void that may be filled by other wolves that may be more inclined to prey on livestock. There are definitely conflicts that sometimes arise between wolves and people. However, the intelligent way to respond is through the surgical removal of individual animals or packs and adoption of non-lethal animal husbandry practices. For instance, after California passed a state-wide ban on use of traps and poison to control predators, Marin County Commissioners voted to replace lethal measures with non-lethal methods. The tax payer funds that previously went to lethal control were used instead to build fences, purchase guard dogs and lambing sheds. In the end there was a reduction in predator losses while at the same time, the county spent less funds than what it had previously spent on lethal predator control. A similar effort in Montana’s own Blackfoot Valley where dead carcasses which serve as an attractant for predators are promptly removed has also lead to a reduction in livestock /predator conflicts. Such changes in policies demonstrate what is possible when people use their brains instead of their guns. In the novel to Kill a Mockingbird, the indiscriminate killing of mockingbirds represented the unnecessary and thoughtless destruction of animals and humans based on old biases. The sad truth is that in Montana we are still killing symbolic mockingbirds by our archaic and irrational attitudes towards predators like the wolf.

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