“One of the great dreams of man must be to find some place between the extremes of nature and civilization where it is possible to live without regret.”

     —Barry Lopez

We live in a time of profit management of wildlife in the once-wild West. Several fish and game agencies have deserted the guiding principle of stewardship for fish, wildlife and our quality of life. Instead, steered by legislatures, they have made it their mission to eradicate predators and make money from them at the same time to placate ranchers, to provide he-man killing opportunities and to provide plenty of trophy elk and deer for profiteering outfitters.

As wolves recover from annihilation a century ago, several states are targeting this social, intelligent, self-regulating species for a new round of persecution and extirpation. In Montana, Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) just signed laws that will expand trapping season, the snaring of wolves, the hunting of them at night with artificial light, and will grant one license that lets the bearer trap as many wolves as possible — with bounties. Now, wolves are the new trophy, a real profit-maker. Outfitters can trap wolves with bait and call clients to come and shoot the animals for a fee — $5,000 to start. This is illegal, but that is glossed over by having both names on the trap’s I.D. tag, a quick cover, even though even that is illegal. This is exactly what Gianforte did when he illegally shot a collared Yellowstone wolf known as Max. His proclaimed mentor Matt Lumley, a trapper with a well-known outlaw reputation, trapped the wolf for him to shoot on a private ranch owned by Robert E. Smith, director of the conservative Sinclair Broadcasting Group, who contributed thousands of dollars to Gianforte's 2017 congressional campaign.

Gianforte also didn’t have the required certificate to trap and kill a wolf. He said it was just a mistake. He stumbled in press releases, revealing that Lumley (illegally) trapped the wolf for him. Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) gave him a warning for not having the required certificate to trap and kill a wolf. He did not lose hunting and trapping privileges, as would normally happen. He did not have to pay the $1,000 restitution for illegally killing a wolf, and the carcass was not confiscated — also not usual procedure — so he could mount it for his living room. Now FWP has put out a statement that the governor legally killed the wolf. 

So it goes with “wildlife management” in the West.

Next door in Idaho, the legislature passed a bill requiring the killing of 1,000 wolves, two-thirds of the population. Supposedly to protect cattle, this act will mean year-round trapping on private property, hunting at night, unlimited killing on one license and hiring contract killers to kill wolves in places like the Frank Church Wilderness where cattle are not allowed. This will trash decades of work and tens of millions of taxpayer dollars spent to recover wolves and to restore the land from a century of overgrazing and desertification caused by ungulates grazing on shrubs, trees and grasses along riverbanks. Wolves keep game animals on the move and healthy. But now they can be shot from helicopters and fixed wing planes and run over with ATVs and snowmobiles, with bounty incentives. 

Publicly owned wildlife is deferred to the states from the federal government. The genesis of this dates from the turn of the last century when wildlife was imperiled by commercial over-hunting, trapping and poison. Sportsmen’s organizations of the time pushed for the creation of state agencies to manage wildlife to stop the slaughter. This birthed the North American Wildlife Model of Wildlife Conservation, which was crafted for public hunters as opposed to commercial, or “pot” hunters. State fish and wildlife agencies are a rubber stamp for hunters and trappers. Even the beaver, wiped out by 1840 for hats in London, a keystone species that has taken more than a century to recover, valued for cleansing and replenishing our water supply in the dry West, is now a target for unlimited trapping. Incredible, isn’t it?

In 1937, the Pittman-Robertson Act was passed, which placed an 11 percent tax on ammunition and guns to be distributed to all state fish and wildlife agencies for wildlife management. In 1960, the Dingell-Johnson Act enacted a fee on boats and fishing gear to increase funding for fish and game agencies.

Now these same agencies use cherry-picked science or none at all to make decisions that support trophy hunting and trapping interests, while ignoring the vast majority of nonconsumptive users who enjoy wildlife viewing and recreation. Efforts to allow broader interests to contribute to agencies have been back-seated repeatedly in order to maintain the status quo control over wildlife.

Agencies like Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks are often stacked with employees who trophy hunt and trap. They work hand in hand with trapper and trophy-hunting organizations.

It is not uncommon for a species to be trapped out in an area, such as the pine marten in Montana’s Little Belt Mountains. A small furbearer, “a pine marten is the most beautiful animal in the forest” wrote a trapper recently on his Facebook page, with a photo of a dead one in a trap, after boasting of trapping 67 this past winter. With much self-adulation for the work to reintroduce these creatures into the Little Belts, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, in vicious irony, commended trappers for helping trap pine marten elsewhere to relocate them so they can once again be trapped in the Little Belts. That was the only reason for the relocation, even though pine marten are key to a balanced ecosystem. 

These agencies trumpet their management successes. In Montana, chronic wasting disease (CWD), a very contagious, always fatal neurological disease that impacts deer, elk and moose, has reached epidemic proportions. Wolves are the only known way to contain CWD, yet the Montana legislature has passed bill after bill to kill wolves, knowing that they can detect the disease in deer, elk and moose and take them out. In this new science-ignoring management plan driven by the governor and carried out by the agency, more than 1,000 wolves can be killed in Montana this coming year, basically eliminating the species from the wild. Wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone in 1995 and taken off the endangered species list in 2011 at the behest of Montana Sen. Jon Tester (D), who was facing reelection and needed the vote of hunters and ranchers. Trappers have been hugely successful at threatening hunters with the false narrative that if trapping is banned, hunting will be next. 

Now the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which oversees Wildlife Services, a secretive program with a long history of killing predators by traps, guns and M-44 cyanide explosives, will receive $5.6 million for state and tribal governments to “further develop and implement CWD Management in wild and farmed cervids.” Rather than allow wolves to support a healthy environment — the reason they were reintroduced — right-wing political leaders foment a culture war where wolves are the scapegoat for every perceived problem: too few elk in a small area in western Montana, killing of cattle, even overreach of the federal government. In fact, when wolves were reintroduced, Montana had 109,500 elk. Today there are 175,000 elk, 65 percent over objective, and such a problem that the season extensions for hunting elk are almost year-round. Also, in 2019 wolves killed 69 cows out of 2.5 million in the state, amounting to 0.0027 percent of cattle. Weather and terrain kill more cattle than anything else, but you can’t shoot a flood or trap a cliff. 

Key national organizations whipping up lethal management of predators include the National Rifle Association (NRA), Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Safari Club, the Republican Party and groups that were created to kill wolves and other keystone predators such as Big Game Forever — which the state of Utah paid more than $5.1 million to remove wolves from federal protection in unison with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources — and the Foundation for Wildlife Management, which is a pass-through for funding from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. This nonprofit trophy-hunting organization has been paying bounties for killing wolves in Idaho for several years. Now the Idaho Fish and Game Department is putting taxpayer money into the slaughter. In Montana, recent bills signed into law by Gianforte will allow the Foundation for Wildlife Management to pay trappers up to $1,000 for every wolf killed in the state. Republicans are boasting that this effort will not cost taxpayers a dime. To many, this smacks of new commercialization and privatization of wildlife. The leaders of the Foundation for Wildlife Management have recently been called out for helping themselves personally from donations, as NRA top leaders were caught doing. 

Famed environmental writer Farley Mowat stated, “We have doomed the wolf not for what it is, but for what we deliberately and mistakenly perceive it to be –the mythologized epitome of a savage ruthless killer – which is, in reality, no more than a reflected image of ourself.”

Recent Republican-controlled legislatures in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming are showing an increased interest in privatizing wildlife. New bills signed by Gianforte will pay private landowners up to $25,000 for hunters’ access, as well as allowing them to use vehicles to herd deer and elk on to their lands for hunting. This essentially creates private game farms for trophy hunting and lowers costs for out-of-state hunters to come and trap or shoot wildlife, with outfitters profiting mightily, while the public is increasingly cut out. Montanans passed a ballot initiative outlawing game farms in 2003. This is a sneaky way around that.

The goal of this obsessive need for domination over wildlife is driven by sadistic pleasure, bragging rights and profit. What we have seen in history and in recent years, from elephants to hippos, from bears to wolves, is the need to kill and trap species for the human ego. We are in the sixth great extinction of species, partly caused by, and perhaps causing, the new killing frenzy akin to massacres on the Great Plains in the height of Manifest Destiny, when passenger pigeons went extinct and buffalo were shot down from 40 million to less than 300 animals. In ignorance and lust for killing, humans destroyed not only our American Serengeti but the peoples who called those lands home.

Aldo Leopold, the famous 20th century conservationist, pointed out that “Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.” 

If we are to preserve wildlife and find true co-existence, it’s urgent to begin a much more serious process of managing the human population, not wildlife. This means closing large areas to roads, creating more wilderness and protecting large tracts of ocean from commercial fishing. It means ending recreational trapping across our nation, period. We must strictly regulate hunting and create more national parks that provide real sanctuaries for species. We must demand elected officials stop the vanity of culture wars that are killing off our very sustenance. When the animals are gone, the land dies too. Wildlife overpasses and linkage of lands, especially in areas of critical wildlife habitat, are now critical. To survive, grizzly bears must be able to expand their range in safety, with the Forest Service closing roads, not building more. Beavers, essential in decelerating global warming, must be allowed to thrive for us to survive.

Agencies like Montana's FWP urgently need to evolve into true conservation-based agencies, ones that value wildlife and are funded by the state’s General Fund, not by trophy sportsmen and trappers. It does not mean ending hunting; that will not happen, but coyote killing contests, running down wolves with snowmobiles, indiscriminate trapping and snaring all must go. That these activities are common and even legal is breathtaking. New technologies for easier killing must be restricted to “guntry clubs” or outlawed. Fair chase is not a past ethic, it’s the only ethic. 

California has led a renaissance. Trapping is outlawed and species are no longer managed strictly for consumptive use. Instead, California now manages holistically, for the ecosystem and all species, including humans. In a complete overhaul, the “Mission of the Department of Fish and Wildlife is to manage California's diverse fish, wildlife, and plant resources, and the habitats upon which they depend, for their ecological values and for their use and enjoyment by the public.”

This is coming to other western states. It has to. Everyone sees it, and perhaps this is the reason for the last great slaughter, before the great majority of people who need, love and respect wildlife overwhelm the profiteering, bloodlust killers, sending them back to their dark underworld of human depravity.

It comes down to values, to respect. Wildlife the world over is essential for all life. Wild animals feed, teach and inspire us. Wolves are the symbol of Rome because according to tradition, a she-wolf suckled and raised the orphans Romulus and Remus, founders of the great empire. There is a reason; Romans respected wolves as intelligent survivors, key to the health of our lands and waters and to our own survival. Today wolves are strictly protected in Europe, and even protected in China. It will happen in Montana, even in Idaho. It will take all of us, but it will happen. 

Stephen Capra is the executive director of Footloose Montana, a nonprofit dedicated to ending trapping on public lands in Montana. He formerly was executive director of New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, where he worked to create two national monuments and three wilderness areas and started the Mexican Wolf Coalition. 

Published on May 14, 2021