Consider this loaded question: Should grizzly bears, wolves and cougars be hunted for sport? Worldwide, given their rarity and declining numbers, should lions, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars and tigers?

If so, why?

Across North America we find ourselves in another big game hunting season. For many the harvest is as much about putting meat in the freezer — a form of modern subsistence — as it is about the profoundly personal act of communing with nature.

From an early age, a lot of us were taught two guiding ethical principles: Don’t take the life of an animal unless you intend to eat it, and, if you do kill, there ought to be a good reason.

As states sanction hunts of iconic predators (grizzlies and black bears, wolves, mountain lions and coyotes), there remains a fact: People will eat little of those animals that they kill.

The search for a rationale in targeting predators must necessarily speak to reasoning beyond the simplistic argument advanced by fish and game departments that selling hunting tags generates revenue.

The issue of whether there’s an underlying moral — and compelling biological — justification for killing predators is taken up by two university professors in a new thought-provoking scientific analysis, “Wolf Hunting and the Ethics of Predator Control,” soon to be included in a new book, “The Oxford Handbook of Animal Studies.”

Author John Vucetich is a well-known Midwest wolf researcher and conservation biologist at Michigan Tech University; Michael P. Nelson is on the faculty at Oregon State University. In their paper they examine why large carnivores — which possess undeniable ecological value — are hunted.

Before we proceed let it be clear that Vucetich and Nelson did not write the paper to advance an anti-hunting agenda. They wanted to determine if any “good reason” for hunting predators exists.

“What counts as an adequate reason to kill a sentient creature?” they ask. “The hunting community has long recognized the value of this question to understanding the conditions under which various kinds of hunting is appropriate.”

Vucetich and Nelson consider the spectrum of societal attitudes toward predator hunting as expressed by trophy hunters, government wildlife managers, those who hunt for food, those who eat no meat and animal rights advocates.

They dissect the premise that predators must be controlled to ensure healthy populations of elk, deer, moose and pronghorn — and even, as is sometimes asserted, to protect people. They test the assertion that the best way of promoting conservation of a species is to place a value on its head and hunt it.

They also scrutinize the attitudes of so-called “wolf haters,” pointing out that unlike hunters of edible big game, whose pursuit seems to make humans more respectful of the animal, many who kill wolves are actually driven by a lack of empathy.

In a statement certain to spark debate, they charge: “Many instances of wolf poaching … are wrong because they are primarily motivated by a hatred of wolves. These instances of poaching qualify as wrongful deaths, if not hate crimes.

“To legalize such killing does not make them any less wrong. Moreover, people who threaten to poach wolves unless wolf killing is legalized are engaging in a kind of ecological blackmail … .”

Vucetich and Nelson also share thoughts about trapping: “A trophy is a kind of prize, memento or symbol of some kind of success. To kill a sentient creature for the purpose of using its body or part of it as a trophy is essentially killing it for fun or as a celebration of violence.

“And although there was once a time when trapping wolves for their pelts might have been a respectable means of making a living because wolf pelts were then a reasonable way to make warm clothing,” they state, “we no longer live in that time.”

Ultimately Vucetich and Nelson conclude that killing predators for sport isn’t justified biologically or on moral and ethical grounds.

They take government agencies and universities to task for not brokering honest discussions about such controversial issues as wolf management and predator control with citizens and students.

So often we do things in our society, they suggest, without bothering to provide the “good reason” for why.

Readers can judge for themselves. A copy of the analysis is attached to the online version of this story.

Todd Wilkinson has been writing his column here every week for 25 years. He is author of the critically acclaimed book “Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet.”

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(10) comments

Nanci Nydegger

Back in the days when people hunted Wolfs, Bears, Mountain Lions Ect..... for their fur to make cloths was a time when there was more than half the population of people in the world as we have today. It is a PERFECT COMBINATION to place Livestock in the Wilderness and to kill all the Wolves, Bears, Mountain Lions Ect.. to PROMOTE the tart of very deadly Diseases by the hundreds within the Human Race. Of course something like this will not happen for many years to come and most of us will be Dead & Gone by the time anything happens. However, without these carnivore Wildlife Predators like the Wolves, Bears, Mountain Lions ect... to weed out & destroy the diseased Elf, Deer, Big Horn Sheep ect.... the Livestock that is placed out in the wilderness will be in contact & infected with the diseased Elk, Deer, Big Horn Sheep ect.... Thus the Ranchers as well as Innocent Hunters will bring Diseased Meat to feed the millions of family & people without knowing it until it is too late and hundreds of people begin to become sick with Viruses (Like Ebola & Mad Cow ). Millions of People will be infecting millions of other people. Medical Science will not be able to find the cure for the hundreds of viruses & diseases no less try to find a way to stop the fasting spreading PLAGUE's amoung the Human Race. Many of you may think I am just dreaming Up a silly story, but think about what the future will be for your children's Grandchildren by the year 2035. they will be the ones who will suffer the consequences of slow & painful Death's from diseases for hunters delight & Government Profit today. The Truth is............The Trophy Hunters & The American Government are making money & Greed on our future Children's Lives. I consider this as criminal acts of murdering Mankind as we all know on the face of the Earth.

Ryan O'Hara

I don't hunt, but I'm not opposed to it and I do fish, so I am a sportsman.

A lot of the "hunting" of predators is not sportsmanlike and thus is not hunting.
If you've (1) used dogs to tree or corner something before taking it or (2) 'hunted' in a fenced-in camp, then you weren't hunting. You killed something. Big difference.
And people do it because they like killing things and posing over it - what they're proud of, I don't know. Having the strength to real in a swordfish is an accomplishment. Shooting a treed cougar is not.

I've played football and even boxed on and off as a kid, so I understand the primal fun of physically dominating an opponent, but not taking lives...especially the life of an unwilling participant...especially an endangered species....especially in an unsportsmanlike manor.

And anyone who says they do it b/c the money they spend on it helps conservation is lying. If they were really concerned with conservation, they'd just donate without needed to shoot something in return.

Lastly, God is watching you participate in the decimation of His creatures. Remember that.

Sharon Anderson

I believe wolves are most intelligent beings on Earth. They only kill game for food for survival. They have been misunderstood and mistreated ever since man encroached on their territory and lands. Wolves retreated yet man continues to push them back and corner them to almost complete extinction. Their short comeback is still threatened every day of their lives. They have so many obstacles and hardships to overcome. If man would STOP hunting and killing them it would be a great blessing and relief. Hunting is really unnecessary unless you live in the wild, within nature, with no job, no modern conveniences of any kind, and live off the land. Then you can hunt rabbit or deer or elk, strictly for food for survival. But must live within the local laws and hunt in season and by the limits of game you take. But shooting/killing wolves is off limits always. They are not food, nor or they harmful to man. All other hunting is unnecessary unless you love violence, destruction, joy of killing for greed, trophy, showing off or sadistic in nature. But wolves need to be left alone to live in peace.

Jim Stark

"So often we do things in our society, they suggest, without bothering to provide the “good reason” for why."
Interesting...wonder who gets to judge is the reason is "good"? I believe that there are many reasons why people hunt predators. One reason is to participate with nature. Sure, one can go on a hike and observe nature, like watching basketball on tv. It is totally different to grab a ball and actually play the game. Another reason is the challenge. Predators are, for the most part, very wary animals and tough to hunt. All one has to do is look at the number of wolf tags issued vs. tags filled. Finally, it is something intrinsic that most predators, including man, does naturally. Think about it... Why do coyotes kill fox? Why do wolves kill coyotes? It has been documented in Yellowstone that a pack of wolves dragged a hibernating grizzle out of its den and killed it.
Yes, wolves do self regulate their populations....so? Think about it, what animal does not self regulate their populations? The land can only hold so many animals and once that point is reached, disease, starvation, and the like reduce the population. Only the naïve still believe in the fantasy of "the balance of nature" for it does not exist naturally. It is nothing but a game of "boom" and "bust" when it comes to the predator/prey relationship.

Christine Oliver

Matt, I know this doesn't answer all concerns about population control (given that there are plenty of people who want a lower population than what could naturally occur), but a 13 year Yellowstone research project was released this spring, with the findings that wolves actually self regulate their own population- in other words, the "predator pit" theory for wolves was refuted. One of the main researchers was Dan McNulty from Utah State University, here's some of what he said:
"For those concerned about wolf populations, even when you have super abundant prey like in Yellowstone, there are limits to wolf population growth. There is an intrinsic limit to the number of wolves that occupy a given space...What this paper does say is, though there is this notion that wolves will increase like a locust without any sort of natural limit, that idea is not supported by the data." (Quote taken from a news story by KSL.com, in Utah).

Bob Ferris

Great piece and this has particular relevance as we look at this wrong-headed predator derby that was just permitted for 5 years on federal public lands in Idaho. Many groups including mine are suing over this for many of the reasons outlined in this article, but also there is an inherent logical and ethical disconnect when federal public lands are used in a manner that creates a profit for an organization bent on pushing bad science and outdated notions of predator hatred. Thanks for this piece,

Jericho Mills

Thanks for another great and informative article. (see also: Scientific facts belie...nov 5). I'm friends with many hunters and ranchers and it seems that those with respect and an understanding for wildlife, biodiversity, eco-systems and ethical hunting practices are often passed down from fathers and grandfathers, just as ignorance, hatred, racism and cowardly acts of extirpation are. Accurate information, soul-searching and thought, apart from tradition and stupidity can do great good. No offense grandpas and progeny but it's time to take responsibility for the damage done and being done.
Thanks again Todd. Well done.

Christine Oliver

While I'm not a hunter myself, I have many relatives and friends who are. I think this piece- and the research it cites- is so spot on: there is genuinely a difference between the type of hunting most hunters do, which includes a great deal of respect for the animal that is giving its life for us to eat, and the "sport" of most predator kills. Hunting motivated by anger and not respect is an entirely different thing.
Hunting predators for sport typically doesn't protect livestock (for example, with wolves, destabilized packs are actually more likely to be problems for livestock owners), and runs the risk of turning a lot of people (many of whom probably haven't been exposed to the principles of ethical hunting) against hunting in general. A couple of the hunters I know have started speaking out on this, I hope others will too.

Patti Celovsky

Hopefully the tables are turning on what constitutes 'management'...it can't happen soon enough. Thank you for an excellent assessment..looking forward to reading the entire report.

Julie Gallegos

I can say why: 1. Bragging rights 2. A way to show dissatisfaction with the status quo (whatever the status quo is perceived to be) 3. Rage (see 2) at having a black President 4. A need to justify being out in nature 5. Lack of knowing anything better to do 6. Compulsion to "manage" what doesn't need, or respond to, this form of "management"

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