Good management starts with science

Should decisions on wildlife be made at the ballot box — or by experts?


Dave Stalling is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of NewTowncarShare News. He is a hunter, angler and writer living in Missoula, Montana, and past president and field organizer for the Montana Wildlife Federation.

Last year, a group of Montanans, including wildlife biologists and hunters, launched a ballot initiative that would have banned trapping on public lands. They called trapping barbaric because people’s pets, as well as threatened and endangered wildlife, inadvertently get killed in traps. 

Trappers responded with outrageous claims, charging that the initiative was backed by “out-of-state animal-rights extremists,” who were “uninformed about wildlife.” Opponents of trapping, they claimed, were “trying to destroy our way of life.” And this was just the beginning: “Once they stop trapping, they will come after hunting, and fishing, and ranching, and logging.” Many of my fellow hunters also defended trapping, repeating the same arguments.

When it comes to predators like wolves or bears, it’s all black-and-white to some people. You’re either “one of us” or “one of them,” and there is little room for rational discussion; if you don’t agree with them, they attack with fervor.

A sea otter researcher with USGS tracks a radio-tagged sea otter near Morro Bay in California.

During the trapping debate, hunting organizations dusted off the “ballot-box biology” defense, saying that such decisions should be made by wildlife professionals whose opinions are based on science, not by citizens who are acting out of emotion. We hunters love to claim that our approach to wildlife management is based on science. And, of course, it should be, but too often it’s not.

The Idaho Fish and Game Department conducts aerial shooting of wolves and sends bounty hunters into wilderness areas to eliminate wolf packs despite what we know about wolf behavior, ecology and biology. That’s not management based on science.

Throughout the West, we continue to carry out a war on coyotes and wolves despite overwhelming scientific evidence that such actions disrupt the social and breeding behavior of these animals and can, ironically, result in even larger numbers of coyotes and wolves. That’s not management based on science.

Colorado proposed a ban on the baiting of bears, based on scientific evidence that the baiting of bears was having negative impacts by habituating bears to human handouts and changing their natural habits. The state’s chief bear biologist penned a piece in support of the baiting ban for Outdoor Life. Before it was published (and before anyone even read it) hunters and hunting organizations rallied against Outdoor Life and successfully prevented the publication of the piece. Two editors left their jobs over the incident. That’s not management based on science.

Wildlife management decisions are often based on public needs and desires, and that should be part of the process. But sometimes those needs and desires go against science. Trappers, hunters and the agricultural industry have a lot of power over state legislatures and wildlife management. One consequence is that other citizens feel left out of the decision-making, and are often ridiculed and attacked by hunters and trappers. Our system, with all its tremendous achievements, has flaws, and those flaws can lead us closer to animal husbandry than science-based wildlife management.

A report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about the flaws of the North American model of wildlife management summed it up this way: “Wildlife management conducted in the interest of hunters can lead to an overabundance of animals that people like to hunt, such as deer, and the extermination of predators that also provide a vital balance to the ecosystem.” 

I recently heard a hunter who makes hunting videos criticize the “animal rights extremists” who file lawsuits to protect wolves, claiming such lawsuits go against “sound, scientific management” and our “North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.” Those citizens filed those lawsuits in response to states doing things such as gunning down wolves from helicopters and sending in bounty hunters to eliminate packs in wilderness areas. That’s not management based on science.

The executive director of a large, influential hunting organization has repeatedly called wolves “the worst ecological disaster since the decimation of bison,” and claims wolves and grizzly bears are “annihilating” our elk herds. That’s also not promoting management based on science.

That leads me to think that some of these ballot initiatives are, indeed, “ballot-box biology,” in the sense that they defend and demand good science when state wildlife agencies won’t.

Hunters and trappers are their own worst enemies. When they defend the indefensible — the deaths of family pets and threatened and endangered species from traps set on public lands — and attack other citizens for having legitimate concerns, they just the way lead to more ballot-box biology.  

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of NewTowncarShare News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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