Unintended Consequences- Again

Personally, as a big-game hunter and long-time financial contributor to the protection of game animals, I feel naked and vulnerable.  Suddenly, populations of priceless animals such as bighorn sheep and elk are under attack from two sides.

On the one side are the so-called conservationists who have been the prime movers in re-establishing the timber wolf in areas where it was long ago eradicated.  On the other side are that traditional enemy, ranchers who graze sheep and cattle on public land.

The other day, a court in Nevada threw out charges against a rancher for, among other things, grazing his cattle on public land.  This called into question the entire issue of ranchers paying grazing fees and abiding by limits on the number of livestock allowed to graze.

Although it is probably not the intention of either the ranchers or the do-gooders to endanger wild sheep, elk, mule deer and other species, that is definitely the result.

In 1995, when the first wolf transplants were made in Yellowstone Park with animals acquired from Canada, one reason given was that they would help control burgeoning numbers of elk, which are big, aggressive, fertile and prone to eat themselves out of house and home.  A few years after that transplant, an article appeared entitled “How the Wolves Saved Yellowstone,” or words to that effect.  Today, the wolves have multiplied, spread far outside the park, all but wiped out the Shiras moose in some areas, and are taking their toll on elk populations hundreds of miles from Yellowstone.

In Sweden, where wolf lovers in urban Stockholm were instrumental in having wolves transplanted from the north of the country to the southern moose ranges, moose numbers have declined dramatically.  I am told that Norma cancelled its annual moose hunt last year because there are just no longer moose numbers to support it.

Self-proclaimed conservationists who revere wolves seem to give no thought whatever to other species, other than to mutter self-righteously about “letting nature take its course.”  Unfortunately, the balance of species in the west that allowed the wolves to play a vital part in the grand scheme of things, back in the days when there were 40 million bison and 60 million pronghorns, simply no longer exists.  This is not nature taking its course, it’s one more example of well-meaning mankind meddling in a way that is not only dangerous but may ultimately be fatal for species like the Shiras moose.

The issue of over-grazing is less subtle but probably more dangerous.  As long ago as 1950, hunting writers such as Jack O’Connor criticized ranchers for allowing sheep and cattle to destroy pasture on public land that had provided winter range for deer, elk, and particularly, bighorns.  Not only did they eat the grass down to nothing, the domestic sheep passed along diseases against which wild sheep were defenseless.  That is a continuing problem in attempts either to re-establish bighorn populations or preserve those that survive.

Having grown up in Arizona, and lived his later life in Idaho, O’Connor was a born-and-bred westerner and saw it all first hand.  He was scathing in his criticism, not only of the ranchers, but of the federal officials (“in the pockets of the cattle interests”) who allowed ranchers to get away with destroying public pasture land and winter range.

Ironically, all the ranchers I know personally are hunters, many of whom travel far and hunt a lot. Yet many of our conversations revolve around the constant government interference in their lives, and their rights as all-American rugged individualists.  No one expects rational thought or behavior from wolf lovers in city skyscrapers, but one does from ranchers who run a business and live close to the land.

A pregnant female tsetse fly.Credit Geoffrey M. Attardo

These conversations remind me of a story I was told by an African professional hunter.  He was guiding an American who had been to Africa often and was loud in his love for its wild country and animals.  At the same time, he bragged about the wonderful work his daughter was doing in tsetse-fly eradication.  When the contradiction was drawn to his attention — tsetse flies being widely regarded as the best game rangers — he just couldn’t see it.  Therein lies our problem.–Terry Wieland


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