The Biology Thing

It’s no secret that the collective imagination has a deep-rooted fear of wolves. Our legends and fairy tales are populated with powerful wolves getting up to all manner of naughtiness, from pretending to be something they aren’t (whether dressed as Grandmother or sheep), to reflecting our animal sides in the form of werewolves, to simply eating things we’d rather they didn’t.

Gray wolf Image: Womaneko/Deviantart

Gray wolf
Image: Womaneko/Deviantart

The gray wolf was hunted to near extinction in the United States, and was then listed as protected under the Endangered Species Act. It’s been making a steady comeback over the years, although by comparison to the real success stories of the ESA, the wolf is nowhere near truly recovered as a species. It’s out of the ICU, but still stuck on life support.

Nonetheless, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) moved to delist the gray wolf on a federal level in 2013 and turn wolf management over to the state level. It has already been allowed to be delisted in several individual states, and the effect on the wolf population through hunting and trapping has been devastating. Years of conservation work has been undone.

The room to make comments on the USFWS proposal, which had been closed, has now been reopened due to an outcry among conservationists that the USFWS had not used the best available science to reach their delisting recommendation. Comments can now be made here until March 27.

Group of gray wolves (Canus lupus)

Group of gray wolves (Canus lupus)

According to Lance Richardson of Slate, the premature delisting of the gray wolf is due to a confluence of a certain complacency about the protected status of the wolf together with “the residual anger towards wolves in the rural West, where influential ranchers have long fought wolves for depredating livestock. Merge that in with the whole Tea Party fervor against [the federal] government, and what you end up with in the state legislatures is this race to the bottom to see who can be more anti-wolf. The biology of the thing gets thrown right out the window.”

Well, the biology. Apex predators play such an important role in ecosystems, above and beyond controlling the population of prey animals. I’m including a concise summary (four minutes long) of just how important wolves have been to the recovery of the Yellowstone Park ecosystem here:

But the ‘biology of the thing’ is also what allows us to keep fearing wolves even if, since we’ve the means to outrun, outgun and outmaneuver them, they’ve had more to fear from us than we’ve had to fear from them. Big predators have been scaring us for millennia, and it appears that all the scientific understanding in the world can’t do away with that in just a couple of generations.

Unfortunately, if the wolf is delisted by the USFWS, the object of our fear may end up truly being only a creature of fairy tales.

Please take a moment to visit Eripe Lupus, a site that is promoting Twitter storm today in support of comments for the USFWS proposal, to learn more.

From: Old French Fairy Tales by  Comtesse de Ségur /

From: Old French Fairy Tales by Comtesse de Ségur /

Precedent Setting

Update below.

At its 2014 convention, the Dallas Safari Club will be auctioning off the rare chance to kill an adult rhinoceros in Namibia and the even rarer chance to bring the trophy parts back home. The organizers say they can expect up to $750,000 dollars, and that every penny will go to the ‘Conservation Trust Fund for Namibia’’s Black Rhino’.

The hunt would be carried out with the permission of both the Namibian government and of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to import parts of the black rhino. These animal parts are otherwise highly controlled and illegal, as there are only an estimated 5000 black rhinos left in the world and they are both protected under the Endangered Species Act, and heavily poached for their horns.

The DSC 2014 convention banner

The DSC 2014 convention banner

This notion of high profile hunting as a means of conservation is nothing new, and hunters have often been aligned with conservationists when it comes to protecting land and species.

However, not one article I have read on this has mentioned the background to the strange approval of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

Earlier this year, the USFWS set a precedent by issuing a permit allowing the import of a black rhino trophy. The permit was the first USFWS permit ever allowing parts of an endangered species hunted abroad to be brought into the United States.

It was approved  following an import application filed by the hunter himself, with the assistance of lawyer John J. Jackson III, who runs Conservation Force, a Louisiana-based conservation non-profit organization.

David K. Reinke poses with the black rhino he shot in 2009. The work of Conservation Force means he was able to bring the horn back to the U.S. Photo: Thormählen & Cochran Safaris

David K. Reinke poses with the black rhino he shot in 2009.
The advocacy work of Conservation Force helped him bring the horn back to the U.S.
Photo: Thormählen & Cochran Safaris

For insight into the Conservation Force strategy, reading the group’s Updates and Alerts page is enlightening.

Most entries deal with overturning the endangered status of various listed species (lions, polar bears, etc.); legal attempts to reduce or eliminate restrictions on the importation of restricted animal parts; and finally, an update on the Dallas Safari Club’s award to John and Chrissie Jackson of Conservation Force for their “tireless advocacy of hunting as an integral part of wildlife conservation.”

Through a variety of strategies including tourism and rural development, Namibia has been very successful – far more so than its neighbor South Africa – in preventing poaching and promoting the recovery of the black rhino population without the assistance and funds of high end foreign hunters. So I am not sure what kind of value this new trend (if two cases can be called a trend) is supposed to add to conservation.


Credit: Planet Save

Credit: Planet Save

I am not fully versed in the value of hunting individual animals from a small genetic pool of an endangered species like the black rhino (Diceros bicornis); perhaps it’s a useful method.

I also don’t know much about the ‘Conservation Trust Fund for Namibia’’s Black Rhino’, the fund to which the Dallas Safari Club intends to donate the auction amount from the black rhino hunt – I was unable to find any listings online which mentioned this trust fund, but for all I know it could be part of one of Namibia’s many long-standing legitimate conservation groups.

I can’t claim agreement with the argument that promoting the hunting of endangered species, putting a high monetary value the hunt and on the very parts for which these animals are being poached into extinction, is a viable path towards saving these animals – not only for our future generations, but for theirs.

What I do know is that the Conservation Force’s determined efforts over many years to establish an endangered species import precedent succeeded this year with the USFWS permit.

I am also quite sure that this first trophy hunt auction, which would not have been possible without that precedent, will almost certainly not be the last of its kind.


UPDATE: 21 May 2015. The rhino auctioned for hunting was shot dead on 20 May 2015 by Corey Knowlton, the Texas hunter who won the auction bid.

From the AFP: Knowlton stated, “I think people have a problem just with the fact that I like to hunt… I want to see the black rhino as abundant as it can be. I believe in the survival of the species.”

Since 2012, Namibia has sold five licences each year to kill individual rhinos, saying the money is essential to fund conservation projects and anti-poaching protection. The only rhinos selected for the hunts are old ones that no longer breed and that pose a threat to younger rhinos.

Sorry, I just don’t agree. This is no different from countries selling off illegal rhino horn or elephant ivory seized from traders.

As long as the animals are worth more dead than they are alive, for any reason, poaching and the trade in illegal animal parts will be encouraged.


Wolf Trap

I was sitting in a very inviting pub the other day, The Rusty Bike, enjoying a plate of locally caught fish and a glass of wine, when the conversation at the next table turned to the real differences between wolves and dogs. What was interesting about the conversation wasn’t its conclusions – because there weren’t any – but the manner of the discourse itself.

The point under dispute was this: While dogs and wolves might be almost genetically identical, are they fundamentally different due to thousands of years of domestication? Two people at the table said yes, dogs are different; one man said no, it’s all just a matter of early training (i.e., given a pup at an early age, any canine can be domesticated).

What struck me was that the fellow arguing for no major differences between wolves and dogs wasn’t interested in real answers – he was interested in winning, nothing more. It didn’t matter that others had excellent arguments, a few verifiable facts at their fingertips, and a willingness to discuss. (And, in fact, they were correct. A longish but fun article on the topic here.)

And so to the current U.S. administration moves to delist the gray wolf as an endangered species in the United States.

After three decades of protection under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has decided to turn the management of wolf protection over to state authorities. In areas where wolves have lost some of their federal protection over recent years, there have been drastic reductions in the wolf population due to widespread hunting. In particular, alpha wolves are prized targets, thus putting entire packs at risk.

An apt illustration of a wolf and its ecosystem.
Image: Anna Emilia via Wolfeyebrows

Another aspect of this is the key role top predators play in ecosystems as a whole. Their elimination tends to have wide and negative ripple effects.

I can’t claim to understand the source and motivation of current anti-wolf sentiment. According to several articles I’ve read, the USFWS intentionally excluded the participation of several wolf specialists – even those who had done most of the federal research on wolf conservation – because none of these scientists agreed that wolves were recovered enough as a species to be de-listed as endangered.

Nonetheless, this plan is moving forward.

Because for whatever reason, this doesn’t seem to be about the facts. It seems to be about winning, and winning only. At least, for those in favor of wolf hunting.

To end this post on a happier note, if you’re ever in Exeter, UK, check out the charming and unpretentious Rusty Bike ‘gastropub’ – a place I’d visit on the regular if I lived anywhere nearby.


Over on Summit County Voice, Bob Berwyn has written a number of excellent articles on the issue of wolf protection and de-listing.

If you want to take action, there will be public hearings held on this issue in three U.S. cities – you can find the dates and locations here.

Any de-listing proposal allows a period of public comment. This has been extended until 11:59 p.m. on 28 October, 2013. Comments can be submitted here. Other comments can be sent here.

Finally, think about taking a minute and signing a petition in support of continuing one of the potential success stories of the Endangered Species Act.