Wolf Hunting photo

It’s looking like wolves will once again be managed as wildlife: by restrained public hunting.

At least that’s one of the more optimistic conclusions I reach after last week’s welcome news that hard-core environmental groups are split on whether to stay the course with a lawsuit keeping wolves on the federal endangered species list or to hand some management authority of the predators to state wildlife agencies.

The rift took the starch out of opposition to managed hunting of the predators. On Friday, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced a settlement of the gray wolf lawsuit.

But, as with any developments regarding wolf management, there’s more smoke here than fire. My sense is that another lawsuit is likely to gum up the works. Meanwhile, a messy legislative solution is splitting the pro-hunting camp.

While everyone is sorting out the legal status of wolves, and whether or not states will be issuing hunting permits for them this year, here are some random thoughts about wolves, politics and the nut cases on either side:

  • Wolves are political animals – Both sides of the wolf divide are guilty of politicizing what should be science-based wildlife management, but no one who has been involved in wolf recovery has the high ground here. Wolves have been political pawns since Bill Clinton’s administration brought the first Canadian predators to Yellowstone National Park. Politics determined the recovery goals (which were met back in 2002) and politics have determined where they were hunted in 2010, when Idaho and Montana conducted successful public hunts. Internal politics has kept Wyoming from approving a federally approved management plan, and organizational politics has turned the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation from interested bystander to active participants in the wolf debate.

  • Mess with ESA under advisement – The rift among wolf advocates stems from how to deal with congressional legislation that would remove wolves from the federal endangered species list. Remember, wolves are only the most polarizing of the hundreds of species under federal protection. Environmental groups are afraid that if wolves are removed from federal management by congressional decree, then the underpinnings of the entire Endangered Species Act might unravel. What’s to stop Piedmont landowners from working with their congressional delegation to remove protections from the Virginia long-eared bat? Or to remove ESA protection from Klamath Basin suckers because California irrigators manage to elect representatives receptive to their cause? Love or hate the ESA, but if it offers protection only to those species without a political constituency, then the whole notion of science-based wildlife management suffers. If there’s a problem with the ESA, deal with its structure. Don’t selectively remove certain critters just because the political climate makes that a popular decision.

  • Marginalize the zealots: This goes both ways. The most extreme environmentalists have been marginalized – that’s what this settlement tells me. Now the anti-wolf groups need to do the same. The “shoot, shovel and shut-up” bunch that advocates vigilante killing of wolves needs to be quieted, and the reasonable middle ground of responsible hunters needs to be tasked with managing wolves.

  • Fund state wolf management: It’s a dirty little secret among state wildlife managers that they breathed a little sigh of relief when federal protections were restored. That’s because state agencies are running on fumes right now, and adding such high-profile species such as wolves takes a good deal of money and staff to manage. If wolf management returns to the states, the feds should help fund monitoring work for the near term, until license sales and other funding sources kick in to help the states develop sustainable management programs.

  • Buy a wolf tag – Most of us have been sitting on the sidelines, reading about the ever-changing legal status of wolves. It’s enough to make a right-minded hunter feel helpless, but here’s one thing you can do: Buy a wolf license the minute they become available. It’s easy to do if you live in Montana and Idaho, two states that are likely to issue permits later this year. But consider buying a license even if you live elsewhere. Your contribution helps fund state-based predator management, it sends a message to the larger population that hunters can–and should be–the ultimate responsible managers of America’s wildlife.