Howling mad 

Wolf wars flame up—and who's to blame?

When Sen. Jon Tester set an historic precedent by leading the way to the delisting of Northern Rockies wolves from the Endangered Species Act, the political rhetoric was that once the states were back in control of the situation, things would be just fine. Well, that was then, before the wholesale wolf slaughter commenced in Montana and Idaho. Things haven't settled down, they've flamed up—and it's no longer only wolves in the crosshairs, but wolf advocates and managers, too.

Two weeks ago, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to overturn Montana Federal District Judge Donald Molloy's ruling that Tester's wolf rider was constitutional. Those who follow wolf policy figured the game was pretty much over. The court's decision was unanimous and, despite Molloy's scathing criticism of using riders for such major policy changes, there was little doubt that the states were back in charge of what they loosely refer to as wolf management.

But then Earth Island Journal published an article about the gruesome death of a wolf in Idaho. Titled "Wolf Torture and Execution Continues in the Northern Rockies," the March 28 story, by James William Gibson, contained graphic pictures of a wolf that was caught in a leg trap, surrounded by bloody snow, and that was then shot several times and finally killed. The tale was posted on the trapperman.com website by someone calling himself "Pinching" who wrote, "Male that went right at 100 pounds. No rub spots on the hide, and he will make me a good wall hanger."

The story quickly spread on the internet. Footloose Montana, a Missoula-based anti-trapping organization, posted the pictures on its website. A thousand comments poured in within days. But it was an email to Footloose that sent the wolf issue into a new range of threat: "I would like to donate [sic] a gun to your childs [sic] head to make sure you can watch it die slowly so I can have my picture taken with it's [sic] bleeding dying screaming for mercy body. YOU WILL BE THE TARGET NEXT BITCHES!"

Footloose turned the email over to the FBI as well as Missoula law enforcement and the death threat is now being investigated. But in the meantime, some with political ambitions wasted no time in cranking up the issue.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill held a press conference the day after the story came out, at the offices of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, in Helena. Surrounded by ranchers and Republican legislators, Hill took dead aim not only at wolves, but also at the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, saying, "One of the things I've heard everywhere I go is that [the] relationship today between Fish, Wildlife and Parks and landowners and sportsmen is at an all-time low."

If he wins his bid to become governor, Hill said, he'll bring "a change of attitude and leadership" to the agency. He laid out what he believes are steps necessary to control the wolf population, which he says is "above the tipping point." Hill also said, "We're seeing the collapse of some of our elk herds already and there is great concern among sportsmen that if we cross this tipping point, we're not going to be able to recover."

Hill proposed a number of actions that Fish, Wildlife and Parks should take immediately, including continuing the wolf hunting season until the statewide quota is met, allowing hunters to shoot more than one wolf and to use calls and other "creative hunting methods," allowing trapping of wolves, reducing the price of non-resident wolf tags, using government-sponsored lethal removal to reduce wolf numbers and working with counties to implement bounties for killing wolves.

Hill goes even further on his campaign website, declaring that all of central and eastern Montana should be designated "Wolf No Tolerance Zones" where "NO WOLVES will be allowed east of [a] No Tolerance line; they won't be a huntable species, they will be a predator. Any person with a gun can legally shoot them, at any time of the day, on any day of the year."

Hill has never been a leader on wildlife issues, so it's unusual to see him stepping forward with such a vindictive stance toward wolves now. He apparently hasn't been keeping up with Fish, Wildlife and Parks' elk studies, which indicate mountain lions and bears kill more elk than wolves. Nor does he seem aware that Montana's statewide elk numbers are higher now than when wolves were re-introduced. Hill also seems to be vastly exaggerating the livestock industry's losses to wolves, which accounted for a mere 100 of the 140,000 animals lost to all causes. And he completely ignores the science of wolf sociology, which shows that non-selective hunting removes older members of wolf packs, leaving younger wolves with less skill and knowledge to forage on their own, often resulting in more, not less, domestic stock depredation.

There's an old saying in politics that Democrats shouldn't try to out-Republican Republicans. Yet, in congressionally delisting wolves, that's just what Tester tried to do. Now, the seed he planted has grown some very ugly and violent fruit, with political candidates targeting wolves and the state agency that manages them, as death threats are emailed to wolf advocates and as science and tolerance fall victim to election-year rhetoric as candidates turn Montanans against one another.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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