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Opinion: Trophy hunters have Yellowstone’s wolves in their crosshairs

As September reached its halfway point, trophy hunters were let loose across Montana—including on the edges of Yellowstone National Park—to hunt for some of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem’s most iconic and ecologically charismatic species: wolves.

Restraints that had formerly limited the kill to one wolf in this hunting zone, to reduce the likelihood of harming Yellowstone’s wolves and ecosystems, had recently been wiped away by Montana officials.

Within a few days, hunters shot three wolves dead in the zone bordering America’s first national park. We do not yet know if the wolves were adventurous, young males out on their own or if they were critical members of a family of Yellowstone wolves—perhaps even alpha females or males.

Montana’s cruel 2021 wolf hunt is championed not by the state’s wildlife management agency, but by wolf-hating forces in the Montana legislature.

The methods sanctioned by the legislature and signed into law by Montana’s wolf-killing Governor Greg Gianforte, include hunting with night vision scopes, strangulating snares, baiting of wolves, and bounties. These brutal means of slaughtering wolves harken back to another era, when wolves were eradicated from the landscape of the American West.

As the six-month wolf hunting season turns from fall to winter, the death toll will certainly rise as this catastrophe plays out. If the state of Montana fulfills its ambitions, the wolf killings won’t stop until the body count reaches 450—half of Montana’s entire wolf population. If a similar plan fueled by wolf hostility in Idaho meets its goal, 90% of the state’s wolves will be eradicated and the body count in the Northern Rockies could reach into the thousands.

I don’t like writing these words, but they are painfully true. I am sickened and heartbroken.

These wolf killings are not meant to remedy problems or to feed the hungry. They are intended to feed a culture war in which wolves are mere pawns and where the powerful exploit the vulnerable.

The hunts glorify cruelty, but they also reinforce a narrative built on lies. Montana and Idaho’s legislators lied to get these measures passed. They lied about wolves reducing opportunities to hunt deer and elk. They lied about the impact of wolves on animal agriculture. And they used their biggest lie of all, that wolves threaten children and people, to create and reinforce fear.

For years the rallying cry of hunters, so vehemently and violently opposed to wolves in the Northern Rockies, has been to ‘smoke a pack a day.’ That means they intend to use their high-powered rifles to kill an entire pack of wolves in one day.

That’s not just a cruel slogan—now, it’s public policy in Montana and Idaho.

There’s only one conclusion for the rational or compassionate among us. For iconic, charismatic species like wolves, who roam across state boundaries and even international borders, the states shouldn’t be calling the shots. Wolves are not only intrinsically valuable, they are part of a public trust that serves and benefits all Americans.

At our nation’s founding, the states were intended to be laboratories of the best form of governance. Instead, at their worst, they’ve become incubators for hate and violence that’s often built on a foundation of lies.

A brief ray of hope came on the same day the Montana hunt began, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said, in response to Endangered Species Act listing petitions from my organization and others, that wolves in the American West may warrant federal protections.

But that reprieve won’t come in time for countless wolves that will die this year. That’s why there needs to be a deeper reckoning amongst the wildlife profession and its leaders. There is something profoundly wrong when entire packs of Yellowstone wolves can be slaughtered a few feet outside Yellowstone National Park.

When hunters shot the first wolves of the Montana hunting season, there was individual glory. But I am almost certain that wolves howled in grief. I have heard these howls before on the nights after some of Yellowstone’s most iconic wolves lost alpha members to hunter’s bullets.

Though trophy hunters claim glory, I know millions of Americans will also collectively grieve for the loss of America’s wolves.  We must use that grief to fuel our push to secure the protections that wolves now so desperately need.

John Horning is the Executive Director of WildEarth Guardians. Learn more at www.WildEarthGuardians.org.