The Perils of Wolf Management

In early July of 2006, Suzanne Stone and her daughter, Sierra, drove to the Sawtooth National Forest to search for an orphaned group of eight-week-old wolf pups. The Stone’s drove there after learning that an arm of the US federal government had killed the parents – a male and female from the Big Water Pack in the Soldier Mountains – and left the pups to die from starvation or predation. The agency responsible for this was Wildlife Services, formerly known as Animal Damage Control.

I have known Stone a long time, and she is neither stranger nor opponent of lethal ‘wolf control’. As the Northern Rockies representative of the non-profit organization Defenders of Wildlife, she works with citizens, scientists, the livestock industry, and government officials to manage the growing wolf populations of the western US. Part of her work involves administering two funds, one that compensates ranchers for livestock or working dogs lost to confirmed wolf depredation, and another that subsidizes proactive measures to avoid or mitigate conflicts between wolves and people. She is a sympathetic voice for ranchers and rural communities in wolf country, and realizes that killing wolves is at times an unfortunate necessity. I should note that I agree with her. And still, she was disturbed enough to search throughout the day and into the night for the pups. Stone never found the pups. Neither did Wildlife Services, which hoping to take the edge off a public relations disaster, also went looking.

An interesting contrast to Stone’s actions was the attitude of Steven Nadeau of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. He authorized the killing of this wolf pack because they were believed to have preyed on livestock. In comments to National Public Radio he said, ‘the regrettable loss of a few pups does not have any real biological impact on the recovery or long-term viability of this population [of wolves]’.

Nadeau is almost certainly right about the biological effect from the loss of these pups. Pups have always been particularly vulnerable to disease and predation, and the reproductive cycle of wolves is adapted to high pup mortality. The loss of a few pups will have little if any impact on the population biology of wolves in Idaho. But I do not think this is why the story made the news. Rather it was the contrast between the admirable care on Stone’s part, and the apparent indifference on Nadeau’s that captured the attention of the public in the US and Canada.

At root, wolf management involves questions of how one monitors and intervenes in the lives of wolves whether for scientific research or for the administration of wildlife policies. And in the contrast between Stone and Nadeau’s approaches, there is much we can learn about the ethics of managing wolves.

Now in any discussion of predator management, you are likely to hear quite a bit about ‘sound science’. Sound science is supposed to be the evidentiary, theory-rich baseline for managing wildlife and making public policy. Yet when science is substituted for ethics, our moral compass fails and we are likely to be led astray. Wolf management provides a particularly powerful example of the moral controversies that can arise from a seemingly technical subject.

The techniques used to study and manage wolves are frequently intensive and intrusive. Wolves are radio-collared, monitored, tranquilized, assessed, captured, incarcerated and killed on a regular basis. We still have much to learn about wolves, and there are undoubtedly legitimate scientific reasons to study them using such techniques. Managing wolves in this way may also be required to meet certain goals of wolf recovery. It is, for instance, a necessity in the Red wolf recovery program, where monitoring and managing wolf pairings helps prevent hybridization with coyotes. Even so, the use of these techniques is not a sustainable model for long-term recovery. They are expensive propositions in terms of time and labour, and a burden on under-funded and under-staffed organizations, as well as an annoyance to individuals and communities. As noted before, with sufficient food and space, wolves will flourish. Over time, they will establish their own population levels and distribution in dynamic relationship to the habitat and other resources they need for survival.

There is another more insidious reason for conducting intensive wolf management, namely to appease vested human interests that oppose our coexistence with wolves. This kind of management is not undertaken for the benefit of science, much less for the well-being of wolves. Although sometimes justified as maintaining the ‘social carrying capacity’ of wolves, intensive management in this context involves killing or removing wolves with little attention to other proactive measures for mitigating human-wolf conflicts. This approach is also behind the artificially low population goals in some wolf management plans, the designation of certain wolf populations as expendable, and land-use planning that effectively creates wolf-free zones. Wolf recovery and conservation may be the stated goals. The reality of this type of management is quite different; it amounts to an institutionalized system of species cleansing that tries to exclude wolves from the vast majority of the landscape.

Vested interests that distort wolf management are ethically problematic in their own right. Equally disturbing is employing lethal and other blunt-force techniques with little apparent concern for the well-being of individual wolves or their packs. For wolves, the social disruption of intrusive management can be severe. Pups without parents starve or are preyed upon. The loss of adult members that teach younger wolves how to survive in the wild as well as around humans, can lead to heightened mortality and further conflict with people. Wolf packs that are exterminated are replaced by new packs, which may be even less familiar then its predecessor with how to avoid the danger of particular humans on the landscape. What we have here is the makings of a vicious cycle that, from an ethical point of view, we should try to break.

A growing number of voices are objecting to wolves being relegated to a gulag of isolated habitats, surrounded by exclusion and free-fire zones, and subjected to routine and invasive management. From an ethical perspective, managing wolves for the wrong reason and with little concern for their individual well-being is wrong. Those of you who care about the non-human world and raise your voice in defense of animals and the rest of nature are in the right. Keep it up.

Cheers, Bill

Portions of this column are excerpted from my ‘Wolf Recovery’ article in Marc Bekoff’s Encyclopedia of Human-Animal Relations (Greenwood Press, 2007). For more information on this groundbreaking work, see

You can hear Elizabeth Shogren’s report, Orphaned Wolves Lost in Idaho, on National Public Radio,


Bill Lynn is the founder and Senior Ethics Advisor of Practical Ethics (, and a professor at the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University (

Image: Tracy Brooks, 2003, Reflection.

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2 Responses to The Perils of Wolf Management

  1. Mark Nielsen says:

    Thanks, Bill. A very good analysis.

    Two things:
    1) I did a blog entry this week on VP candidate Sarah Palin, specifically citing some of her record on wolf management. You might appreciate it:
    2) I noted the absence of the International Wolf Center in Ely, MN on your wolf resources list. Any reason for that?

  2. AndrewR says:

    “Wolves are radio-collared, monitored, tranquilized, assessed, captured, incarcerated and killed on a regular basis.”

    I clearly disagree with such methods. Reason? Now many humans want to be studied like this? This is important point, where ethics can lose grounds and fall into usual justification. Be higher!

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