Editor's note: After this article appeared in the Jan/Feb issue of All Animals, the White House announced that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will leave his position at the end of the year.
As a draw for tourists from around the world, the wolves in Denali National Park are worth millions of dollars. Visitors travel thousands of miles to central Alaska hoping to glimpse them from buses that drive along the park’s one main road. If even one animal appears, people crane their necks and cameras start to click. The tourists speak in hushed tones. “God, she’s beautiful,” a woman says in a video shared online as a dark wolf lopes by. Or, in another video, a group of visitors watch, transfixed, as three wolves approach a grizzly by the side of a river, then approach again, and again, before the bear finally drives them off. Or another group of tourists happen upon a half dozen wolves playing—jumping on top of each other and rolling in the snow—and laugh at the sight, wondering in whispers if what they are seeing is actually real. They gaze in awe, amazed by their good fortune.
Last year, however, an encounter of a different sort took place just 70 miles east of the park. During a single outing, two hunters shot their legal limit of wolves—10 animals, perhaps an entire pack—in a brutal perversion of “fair chase.” First the hunters rounded up the wolves while riding snowmobiles. Then they dismounted and gunned the animals down. Afterward, one posed for a photo behind a pile of dead wolves. Some of the animals were slung over the seat of his snowmobile and others posed, muzzles forward, on the ground. Blood was caked on the animals’ fur and stained the front of the trophy hunter’s white winter jacket. In his right hand, he held an assault weapon. His left was raised in greeting.
Seeing the picture, distributed to the media and state officials by advocates in April, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game looked into where the men shot the wolves—one area bordering the park had just been temporarily closed to hunting because so many wolves were killed under the state’s 25-year-old policy of “intensive management” of native carnivores. However, the investigation found the hunters followed state rules. They shot the wolves outside the park, reported the killings to state officials and checked in the hides.
“This nonsense is legal, that’s the problem,” said Rick Steiner, a retired University of Alaska professor and board member for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which publicized the photo after someone saw it on social media and emailed it to the group. The Denali ecosystem “is a national treasure and it’s being ripped apart by a small element who derive pleasure from killing predators.”
The men did not eat the wolves. The pack was no threat to people or the ecosystem. If the hunters sold the bullet-riddled pelts, they might have gotten a few thousand dollars.
Like many state governments, Alaska views wolves and other carnivores such as grizzly bears as threats to game populations and suitable targets for trophy hunters, allowing people to kill them with few restrictions. Prior to 2017, the federal government tried to rein in the state. In 2010 and 2014, Denali asked Alaska to forbid hunters to kill wolves in a corridor bordering the park’s northeast corner, because packs that roam there are the ones visitors see from Denali’s main road. The animals draw 500,000 tourists a year and bring an estimated $500 million to gateway communities. In 2015, the National Park Service approved a rule that banned unsportsmanlike hunting methods within Alaska’s national parks and preserves (the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a similar rule for national wildlife refuges in 2016).
But now the federal government is eliminating the few protections that exist for carnivores in Alaska. Congress has overturned federal hunting restrictions in Alaska’s wildlife refuges, and the National Park Service wants to reverse its own rule covering 20 million acres. If the agency’s proposal is approved, killings more horrible than the 10-wolf slaughter could take place in Alaska’s federal preserves—National Park Service lands where sport hunting is permitted. Hunters will be able to bait brown bears—luring them with piles of garbage in order to shoot them from blinds; they will be able to use dogs to hunt black bears; they will be able to kill black bear mothers and cubs and wolf and coyote mothers and pups who are in their own dens.
What’s happening in America’s northernmost state is taking place across the country, as the federal government delists species and eliminates rules, shifting authority to manage native carnivores to the states, many of which for generations have sought to let people kill gray wolves, grizzly bears, black bears, mountain lions and bobcats. States have long encouraged predator killing in an attempt to boost game numbers, satisfy demands from trophy hunters and respond to complaints from ranchers. Today, an entrenched system of federal and state wildlife councils and commissions threatens to further strip protections from these animals, despite mounting evidence that trophy hunting harms ecosystems and does not reduce human-wildlife conflict.
“This administration is pushing to have this extreme group of people run wildlife management on our national wildlife refuges and our national parks,” says Wendy Keefover, native carnivore protection manager for the Humane Society of the United States. “Why is it OK to take these highly sentient animals, animals who have strong bonds with each other, animals who have societies, and trophy hunt them? It feels like states and the federal government are at war with predators.”
In response, the HSUS and other animal protection groups are fighting to stop the advance of trophy hunting and preserve carnivores who for centuries have defined America’s wild landscape. It’s a battle being waged on many fronts at the federal and state levels. A recent major victory came in September, when a federal judge placed Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzlies back under the protection of the Endangered Species Act in response to lawsuits filed by the HSUS and other advocates against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which delisted the bears in 2017. The ruling stopped scheduled hunts in Wyoming and Idaho that would have allowed up to 23 bears to be killed.
The very next day, though, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) tried to reverse the ruling and bar future lawsuits challenging the removal of these bears from the protection of the ESA. Her amendment to a House bill was rejected for procedural reasons, but the House Committee on Natural Resources went on to approve a measure, later passed by the full House of Representatives, that would strip gray wolves of ESA protections in the lower 48 states and ban court challenges to the delisting.
“This legislation is not meant to manage gray wolves,” committee member Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said during the hearing. “It represents an all-out assault on the species.”
The Humane Society of the United States has turned back congressional, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state attempts to delist wolves scores of times and in November was mobilizing to block the latest proposal as it went to the Senate. One of the biggest successes: In August 2017, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling in a lawsuit brought by the HSUS and other conservation groups, saying that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could not single out gray wolves in the Western Great Lakes region of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin to delist while the rest of the species remained threatened.
For predators without federal protection, the pressure to allow hunting is even more intense. Since 2017, the HSUS has blocked bear hunts in Florida and Connecticut and helped freeze proposals in Indiana and Ohio to allow hunting and trapping of bobcats. It has joined with other groups to bring a lawsuit to stop a misguided U.S. Fish and Wildlife plan to kill black bears and mountain lions to increase the number of mule deer in habitat damaged by oil and gas drilling.
A consensus exists among many researchers—those not employed by state fish and game agencies—that trophy hunting is the wrong way to manage carnivores. Killing predators does not increase the number of game animals such as deer and moose long term, because their populations are limited by the amount of available food and habitat, not predators. Also, any reduction in carnivore numbers is usually short-lived. Predator numbers will rebound as new immigrants move into territories where animals have been killed. Smaller, more resilient mesopredators such as coyotes will actually have more offspring and reproduce at younger ages as part of a biological response to both a sudden drop in numbers and more available food. Their offspring will be better-fed and likelier to survive.
Killing predators also harms ecosystems because carnivore populations are self-regulating—they increase or decrease according to the abundance of prey—and predators, particularly keystone species such as wolves, play important environmental roles, preying on the old and sick, preventing herbivores from multiplying past the land’s carrying capacity, keeping populations of smaller predators in check, providing carrion that scavengers feed off and, in the case of bears, dispersing the seeds of fruit they eat. At the same time, hunting disrupts predator social groups, leading to increased attacks on livestock and conflicts with humans.
And, argues Chris Darimont, a conservation scientist at the University of Victoria (British Columbia), trophy hunting is just plain wrong. Killing animals for no reason other than to take their body parts for display is immoral. It’s a pursuit driven by the basest motives: irrational hatred (of predators) and unchecked vanity.
“These animals are not being hunted to feed anyone’s family, they’re being hunted to feed a guy’s ego,” says Darimont. “This behavior evolved in our ancestral environment as a means of signaling that you were a big hunter who can kill large and dangerous prey. For people from the suburbs who eat from the grocery store, it’s just absurd.”
Despite this, 43 states allow hunting of wolves, grizzly bears, mountain lions and/or bobcats (see map below). How could this be? Because state policies aren’t necessarily based on ethics, the public good or sound science.
A recent review of wildlife management programs in Canada and the United States discovered that 60 percent contained fewer than half of 11 hallmarks of scientific research, indicating measurable objectives, evidence, transparency and independent review.
Another 2018 study found heavy bias in wildlife management research, with scientists employed by state agencies more than seven times as likely as those employed by universities to recommend that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bears be delisted from protection under the ESA. Jeremy Bruskotter of Ohio State University, a member of the HSUS large carnivore advisory group, writes in the paper, “Scientists who work for governmental agencies can face strong ‘top down’ pressure from within their organizations … to reach particular decisions.” On the other hand, he writes, “Academics that work within universities are at least partially shielded from these pressures by tenure.”
The influence of trophy hunters and their allies—the gun and ammunition industry, ranchers who believe removing predators from the landscape will prevent livestock losses, sportsmen’s groups that believe killing carnivores makes game more abundant—starts at the very top, in the federal government. Safari Club International, an Arizona-based group that promotes trophy hunting, steers money to congressional candidates through a Political Action Committee called the Hunter Defense Fund. The National Rifle Association wields enormous clout in Washington, D.C., through endorsements that deliver the votes of its millions of members. The Farm Bureau, with 50 state affiliates, spends large sums lobbying members of Congress from agricultural districts, more than $4 million in 2017.
Since 2017, trophy hunters have also had an ally running the department that houses the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a former Republican House member from Montana who received SCI campaign contributions in 2016 ($10,000) and during his first year as secretary had dinner in Anchorage with the vice president of SCI and the president of the Alaska Professional Hunters Association. Zinke has created the Hunting and Shooting Sports Conservation Council, composed mostly of representatives of hunting organizations and of the hunting, agriculture and ranching industries. In July, on the same day he was appointed by Zinke as acting assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, Todd Willens issued memos ordering the acting directors of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service to begin a process of reconsidering each of their rules. In September, Zinke issued a secretarial order outlining a policy to shift more power over wildlife management to the states. This order is being used as one of the bases for rolling back the National Park Service’s 2015 protections for Alaskan wildlife.
At the state level, decisions about wildlife are typically made by hunter-dominated commissions appointed by governors and approved by legislators. There is barely anyone to argue for the interests of the animals. All seven seats on Alaska’s Board of Game, for example, are occupied by hunters and trappers, wildlife biologists who work for the state Department of Fish and Game and people with ties to the NRA and other pro-hunting groups.
“It’s a totally corrupted, undemocratic process,” says Keefover. “They always select from a very narrow group of people. They have to have so many people who are sportsmen and so many from ag. In Colorado, for instance, there’s one person for conservation.”
Fish and game agencies, for their part, focus on the interests of trophy hunters and those who want to cull carnivores, because hunting license fees fund their budgets. Hunting guides and outfitters exert great influence, as do anti-predator sportsmen’s groups. The Alaska Outdoor Council, which endorses state legislative and gubernatorial candidates, invited Zinke’s senior adviser to its 2018 annual banquet and is calling for members to support the elimination of the National Park Service rules.
Edward Schmitt, president of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, says besides these groups, pressure to lift rules comes from the oil and gas industry, which wants to eliminate restrictions on its activities on federal lands. Schmitt sees no hope of protecting predators from the extreme fringe of hunters absent a change in state government, including Sam Cotton, the head of the board of game.
“He’s sponsored by Safari Club International—he introduces himself as a representative of SCI,” says Schmitt, a former Colorado surgeon and rancher and hunter who retired to Alaska. The ties are close and openly displayed. Cotton’s Department of Fish and Game webpage features a video paid for by the Alaska chapter of SCI. Last March, Cotton and the president of the SCI Alaska chapter presented the Alaska Trappers Association president with the “Governor’s Conservationist of the Year Award.”
Only a tiny minority of people in the United States are trophy hunters who want to shoot predators for their heads, pelts or paws. A U.S. government census released in May found that fewer than 200,000 people trophy hunted bears, the most commonly hunted large native carnivores (by contrast the census counted 11.5 million hunters overall and 86 million wildlife watchers). Most people, instead, value the opportunity to see large carnivores alive in the wild. They want to “hunt” such animals with cameras. To them, predators are worth far more alive (see below). But stepping forward as a champion for native carnivores remains hazardous for wildlife biologists, even tenured university professors.
Rob Wielgus is one of the nation’s top predator scientists and perhaps the most outspoken (and another member of the HSUS’s large carnivore advisory board). He and graduate students in his lab at Washington State University published groundbreaking research on predators, beginning with studies that showed trophy hunting of adult male mountain lions actually increases the number of mountain lions and the number of attacks on livestock. The research helped block expansion of mountain lion hunting in Washington. It was not popular with certain legislators, including Joel Kretz, an influential representative and a trophy hunter from rural northeastern Washington. Kretz was elected to his seat in 2004 after campaigning to kill mountain lions. Most of the state’s wolves live in his district.
As his lab also focused on wolves, Wielgus began to face pressure from university administrators over complaints from Kretz and other legislators who control the school’s funding. Wielgus’ research showed that wolves rarely attack livestock and that killing them can lead to more attacks. Officials questioned the findings. Then in 2017, wolves in one of Wielgus’ radio-collared research packs preyed on cattle who had inadvertently been set to graze immediately around the wolves’ den. Most of the pack was killed by state officials. Wielgus publicly criticized the rancher, and university administrators started to force him out. (Both sides had received death threats.) In June 2018, facing the loss of money for his lab and research, Wielgus reached a settlement and retired early.
“The only way I could have survived would have been to stop publishing and stop talking,” he says. “There was no way I could have done my job and kept my job.”
For now, says Wielgus, trophy hunting supporters have the upper hand. Scientists are afraid to challenge them. But over time, more new wildlife biologists will be entering the field. Wielgus predicts these researchers, including his students, will overturn the traditional approach. “For about five years now, the scientific data has been in; the answers are clear,” he says. “It’s time to change.”
Until the next generation takes over, the HSUS and animal advocates will fight—for an end to trophy hunting, for a science-based approach to wildlife, for wolves and bears and mountain lions and bobcats, and for everyone’s chance to see them in the wild.
Worth more alive than dead
- Kill a bobcat and the animal can generate a few hundred dollars—the $185 or so the trapper gets for the pelt and the $130 the state of Wyoming receives in license fees. Keep a bobcat alive in Yellowstone National Park and the animal’s value can reach a thousand times that: A study published in 2017 in the journal Biodiversity Conservation found that a particular bobcat sought out by tourists and photographers generated $308,105 in revenues during a single winter. Over many seasons, the value of that single bobcat could rise to more than $1 million.
Similar economic arguments can be made for wolves, mountain lions, black bears and grizzly bears. Animal advocates are beginning to use this information to make the case that predators in the United States and Canada should be protected, not hunted for trophies.
The Coastal First Nations, an alliance of nine indigenous groups in British Columbia, has long argued against trophy hunting in the Great Bear Rainforest on these grounds, saying the grizzly bears and black bears there are far too valuable culturally, spiritually, ecologically and economically to hunt. Starting in 2005, the Raincoast Conservation Foundation began to buy the licenses for guide outfitter territories—the rights to operate businesses guiding trophy hunters. Since about half the tags for grizzlies and other rare species were reserved for these outfitter territories, that protected about half the bears and other animals. Today, the Coastal First Nations and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation work in partnership to continue to buy guide outfitter territories. Together, they have bought the licenses for more than 30,000 square kilometers of land, and a thriving tourism business has developed based on bear viewing.
In 2012, Coastal First Nations banned trophy hunting in its territories. The provincial government continued to issue permits to trophy hunters, though, offering protection only to a rare group of 500 or fewer black bears born with white fur because of a recessive gene found nowhere else on Earth. Indigenous groups call them “spirit” or “ghost” bears.
As the number of trophy hunters fell, the number of ecotourists rose. A 2014 Center for Responsible Travel study found bear viewing brought in 12 times as much money as trophy hunting.
The Coastal First Nations produced a documentary called Bear Witness about a trophy hunter killing a grizzly. The bear was named Cheeky, because of the way he approached people—crawling in the grass, popping his head up and sticking out his tongue. The hunter ended the grizzly’s life with three shots. In the film, Jason Moody of the Nuxalk Nation reacts to the bear’s death: “The idea of trophy hunting, I really don’t understand it. Searching for these majestic bears that are nowhere else in the world, just to shoot them.”
Finally, in 2017, the provincial government banned trophy hunting of grizzlies.
We’re collecting letters to share with the administration urging continued protections for gray wolves and grizzly bears. Use the example below or write your own, then mail it to us at:
All Animals magazine
The Humane Society of the United States
1255 23rd Street NW, Suite 450
Washington, DC 20037
Dear Secretary of the Interior: Although gray wolves and grizzly bears have made a comeback after near extermination, neither are recovered. Each species lives in a tiny fraction of its former range and populations in the lower 48 are cut off from each other. Yet, the American public highly values them. Wildlife-watching tourism is the fastest growing sector of wildlife recreation, and these pursuits bring millions of dollars annually to local economies. Please ensure that wolves and grizzly bears maintain their Endangered Species Act protections to conserve them for future generations.