In case you missed it, on May 6 Idaho Gov. Brad Little signed Senate Bill 1211 into law. The bill is being referred to as the “wolf-kill bill” because, starting July 1, it allows hunters and private contractors to kill almost an unlimited number of wolves in the state.
There are an estimated 1,500 wolves in Idaho. Because Idaho’s Wolf Conservation and Management Plan set the minimum threshold of wolves in the state at 150, the new law will allow for up to 90% of the state’s wolf population to be killed.
Paving the way for this bill to be signed into law was the Trump Administration’s removal of the grey wolf from the endangered species list. Without the federal protections under the Endangered Species Act, state governments now have the authority to kill or protect grey wolves as they see fit.
Why Was the Bill Introduced?
The purpose of the wolf-kill bill is to respond to the concerns of farmers who have lost livestock due to wolves. The agriculture industry accounts for 28% of the state’s economic output and 13% of its GDP, making livestock a vital source of income for many in the state.
The sponsor of the bill was State Representative Van Burtenshaw, who stated that the bill would benefit ranchers by reducing wolf attacks on livestock and elk hunters who compete with the wolves.
According to the reporting of the Idaho Mountain Express, Rep. Burtenshaw stated, “I represent our cattlemen, our woolgrowers and outfitters… This is legislation put together by that industry, for that industry.” No legislators were invited to the meetings to create the proposed bill.
What’s the controversy?
The full text of the bill can be read here.
The primary changes that the new law will make is extending wolf hunting season to year-round, and granting the authority to hire private contractors to hunt and kill wolves in the state.
The changes also expands the means hunters may use to trap and kill wolves, which now include helicopters, ATV’s, night vision equipment, among other equipment as well.
A group of retired federal, state, and tribal wildlife managers wrote a letter to the Governor opposing the bill, citing wolves as responsible for killing under 1% of cattle and 3% of sheep in the state. The Western Livestock Journal also reported that wolf depredation of livestock in FY 2020 was down to 84 confirmed cases from the 156 confirmed cases in FY 2019.
Department of Fish and Game Director Ed Schriever stated that the legislation would erode the state’s authority to manage wildlife responsibly. The bill gives the authority of wildlife management decision making to politicians rather than to the commission’s experts.
Why Do the Wolves of Yellowstone Matter?
The wolves of Yellowstone taught us a powerful lesson about the importance of wolves to the ecosystems in which they live.
Grey wolves were eradicated from Yellowstone National Park by 1926. Because of their absence, the decades-long imbalance led the Yellowstone ecosystem to the brink of collapse. As a prey without a predator, the elk stopped moving around. They began overgrazing fields and at rivers. Tree and shrub health declined. Less trees meant less songbirds to nest in them. Beavers had to build colonies elsewhere. Riverbed erosion increased, leading to the decline of fish population. Bears had less food to eat that was imperative to their survival.
What happened when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone?
Once wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995, the ecosystem experiences a trophic cascade that even surprised scientists. Some of the many changes appeared counterintuitive, and will take scientists decades to fully understand.
We learned from this that wolves are a keystone species. Essentially, they’re like the glue of the ecosystem. When you remove the glue, everything else falls apart.
Yellowstone is a perfect example of “you don’t know whatcha got ’til it’s gone”. It taught us the interconnectedness of life. Who would have thought that the presence of wolves and riverbed erosion or tree health were connected?
It taught us about the delicate balance of ecosystems. Unfortunately, sometimes we don’t understand or appreciate that balance until we experience the negative effects of disrupting the balance.
Outside of the benefits to the ecosystem, there were human benefits to the reintroduction of the wolves. Tourism to Yellowstone National Park increased that is estimated to boost local economies by $5 million per year. Residents of Billings, Montana benefitted from cleaner drinking water due to the wolf’s impact of reducing river erosion.
We have learned that, without a doubt, wolves are critically important to the ecosystems they inhabit. Without wolves, a delicate balance is lost. While we understand this, scientists are still learning how delicate that balance can be.
While the newly signed law addresses the (valid) concerns of livestock owners, it’s also an example of rushed, ill-informed policy decision making.
It’s not just wildlife that benefits from the presence of wolves, humans benefit too. That’s why it’s crucial to understand the importance of wolf populations, while also addressing the concerns of farmers and ranchers.
When the importance of wolves are understood, necessary deliberation in the legislative process can take place. Input from experts and wildlife management officials can help address concerns about wolves, while also helping provide nonlethal solutions that research has shown are effective.
When the importance of wolves to the ecosystems they inhabit is not understood, we have to face the negative consequences of rash policymaking decisions. Take Wisconsin for example. In February, Wisconsin courts ordered a week-long wolf hunt with an approved quota of 119 wolves. The hunt was shut down after 3 days when hunters killed 216 wolves, far exceeding the quota.
The mismanagement of the ordered wolf hunt reasonably caused outcry. Hunters trampled on tribal rights of the Ojibwe tribe, who regard wolves as sacred. Wisconsin’s Green Fire released a preliminary assessment on the hunt, finding the hunted wolves were primarily removed from core habitats instead of where human-wolf conflicts are rare, there is an estimated 24–40% expected loss in wolf reproduction, and the state’s failure to meet consultation responsibilities with the Ojibwe Tribes has damaged the relationship between the tribes and the state.
It is an example of negligent wildlife management and the consequences of the lack of input from a diverse group of voices. These consequences could have been easily avoided with proper consultation with all stakeholders in wolf population management and input from experts.
Quality policy is well-informed policy. This isn’t just for wildlife conservation policy — it goes for all policy.
Ecosystems require balance to be maintained. Nature is characterized by interconnections. In a way, effective policymaking is also characterized by interconnections. When addressing concerns of constituents, it’s important for elected representatives to take time to understand the interconnections to the problem being addressed. That way, there can be collaboration to create the most effective legislative solution. Otherwise, you face the potential collapse of the lawmaking ecosystem.
The Representative sponsoring the bill stated that it was a bill crafted by farmers, for farmers. While the bill represented the interests of his constituency, all other voices on the matter were neglected to be heard.
I’m not saying that the policy isn’t addressing valid concerns — because it is. The ranchers and farmers whose livestock gets killed by wolves don’t just lose their livestock, they may be losing their livelihoods. It’s valid and necessary for your representatives to address those concerns.
However, fundamental to effective policymaking is addressing and weighing stakeholder concerns. This means all stakeholders. It includes the farmers, wildlife management officials, environmental scientists, and input from citizens. In this case, it also includes input from those who speak for the stakeholders that cannot speak the language of humans.
While well-informed policy can be challenging to craft, it’s crucial. Policy makers need to weigh all input, and implement lessons that have been learned from the past. This includes lessons from the wolves of Yellowstone, and the lessons learned from other state’s policy pitfalls, such as in Wisconsin.
“We’ll be remembered more for what we destroy than what we create.” — Chuck Palahniuk
In the spirit of policy making being a collaborative process, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic!