I am a hunter's daughter who grew up eating the sweet, lean meat of wild game. In our U.S. Forest Service cabin in the High Sierra, we grew strong on elk and venison. Every meal we said grace to God, not the animals whose bodies fed us. I assumed that God, like my father, must be a hunter. I have deep respect for the skilled hunter who has a keen knowledge of nature; who can track, patiently wait, and sustainably hunt for his family.
But today in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, many hunters and the state officials they have in their bags, are acting out of a long-time prejudice and hatred. In our regard for these fellow top predators, we are a species in conflict with ourselves. On one hand we restore, on the other, we revert to our fears and mass killing.
Wild wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995 and have been a steady source of tourist income and devotion. People now recognize these much-studied wild wolves by their individual names and packs. Schoolchildren adopt wolf packs for science projects. The U.S. reintroduction of wolves is a model for other countries. When a well-known wolf is shot -- like the alpha female of the Lamar Canyon pack, nicknamed, "06" -- she is mourned worldwide. And yet the wolf hunts go on, without thought for the future or the science that well documents how wolves help restore ecosystems.
In Idaho's Frank Church Wilderness Area this winter, the U.S. Forest Service hired a bounty hunter to destroy two entire wolf packs. After massive protests and successful lawsuits from Earthjustice and other environmental watchdogs, the Idaho Fish and Game Department called their hired gun out of the wilderness area -- but not before he had successfully trapped and gunned down the entire Golden Creek and Monumental Creek wolf packs. This is not ethical hunting; this is extermination. This is not wildlife management; this is wildlife persecution.
And this is not the Forest Service I grew up in, where many wildlife managers were also honorable hunters and proud members of the Boone and Crockett Club. It is one of the country's oldest conservation organizations, started by Teddy Roosevelt. They have a Fair Chase Ethic and have been known for expelling or disciplining members who violate that ethic. The Boone and Crockett Club website clearly emphasizes the "shared use of natural resources to protect multiple options for use and enjoyment, and especially to protect and preserve wildlife populations."
How are wolf hunts sharing our wilderness with other non-hunters -- like the 3 million wolf-watchers who visit Yellowstone every year? How do these wolf hunts protect and preserve wildlife populations? These state plans are single-mindedly meant to eliminate wolves to boost elk numbers for hunters. But a recent NPR report, "Wolves at the Door," cites a study on the Montana-Idaho border in the Bitterroot Valley, which discovered that wolves are not the primary killers of elk. Wolves are responsible for only 5 percent of elk predation.
Since the federal government has proposed delisting of all gray wolves and already allowed many Western states to take over lethal management of wolves, there have been over 2,500 wolves killed since 2011. These wolf hunts are happening even amidst evidence that wolves are self-limiting their own populations.
In Yellowstone, Montana Public Radio reports that wolves are "coming into balance with their environment." Since 2007, the wolf population has dropped 50 percent. Climate change is also a major factor in declining elk populations. So why are wolves still the favorite target of wildlife managers and hunters? How do they justify their endless war against the wolves to the majority of us -- one million strong who denounce these wolf hunts? And justify, the States must. Because we all share these public lands.
Some hunters are even beginning to speak out against these hunts. National Wolf Watcher Coalition gives voice hunters who oppose killing wolves in a Special Hunters' Edition. Here hunters across the country explain why they oppose wolf hunting. A hunting family from Pennsylvania submits a photo of their sign: "REAL HUNTERS DON'T KILL WOLVES." They write: "Hunting wolves is wrong and immoral... my family was brought up to respect life." Another hunter from Wisconsin says, "Wolves and deer can co-exist, as we've observed firsthand." She posts a photo of herself in camouflage proudly standing with a deer she shot with a bow. Another who has been hunting for 50 years notes, "Large predators like wolves play an extremely important role in maintaining the health of natural ecosystems." In New York, a hunter believes, "the wolf encounter provides a connection. Such reverence both ways is impossible to experience in a predatory relationship."
A connection, a bond, that is what we as top predators share with the wild wolf. The predator-prey relationship must be honorable, ethical, and most of all, sustainable.
I still eat game. Just this week I happily enjoyed a wild boar burger that reminded me of my childhood when mother served mooseghetti and sent us to school with venison salami sandwiches. My father, who was taught by his father to "hunt, fish, and vote the Republican ticket," often has wild game in his freezer. He was the one who taught me about the Boone and Crockett Club Hunter Ethics guidelines that advise hunters to: "Behave in a way that will bring no dishonor to either the hunter, the hunted, or the environment."
"The wolf is a good hunter," my father once told me with a grave note of respect.
It's time for hunters to speak out about the dishonor these wolf hunts bring to both the hunter and the hunted -- and our natural world. Speak out about ethics and conservation and making sure our next generations are also privileged to hear wild wolves howling and sustaining our shared lands.
Brenda Peterson is a National Geographic author who has written about wolf issues since reintroduction for the Seattle Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and in her memoir, Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals. www.BrendaPetersonBooks.com