by Whit Gibbons

February 18, 2007

I heard someone use the term "anticonservation" last week in reference to two newspaper articles. One included the sentence "anything that helps round up a few more rattlers is OK with me." The other was an appeal for "hunters to kill" all but about 100 gray wolves in Idaho, with the implication that the wolves were going to destroy the hunting industry by killing elk and other game species.

The rattlesnake statement was made by columnist Harris Blackwood in the Times (Gainesville, Ga.). The remark about removing native wolves was voiced by Governor Otter of Idaho, according to an Associated Press article by Jesse Harlan Alderman.

Anyone can express an opinion about how we should treat our wildlife and other natural resources. Other people, likewise, have license to criticize what they consider wrongheaded opinions. Catching rattlesnakes and hunting wolves are not, in my opinion, inherently bad activities, though they should be managed with consideration for potential impacts on the natural environment or on the species themselves. I am, however, opposed to comments that promote fear and ignorance about groups of animals--particularly ones like snakes and wolves that are already held in unreasonable contempt by many people.

Erroneous profiling does not help fill the ignorance vacuum already surrounding these much-maligned animals. For example, referring to snakes as creatures that "could either bite you and send a deadly poison venom running through your body or could crush you and have you for dinner" is overstatement bordering on the absurd. Most snakes are not venomous; most, in fact, are completely harmless to humans; some are actually beneficial. And the chances of your encountering a constrictor that eats you are about as likely as your next trip to the sun. Let's not encourage people to think that snakes are "bad" and need to be removed from the environment.

Likewise with the wolf hype by the governor. Again, nothing wrong with hunting or hunters, but portraying wolves as "bad," is just not twenty-first century. Attitudes reminiscent of the Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood are out of date. Wolves will never eat all of the elk. They may reduce herd numbers so that we keep the "sport" in sports hunting, but when elk populations decline, western wolves shift their diet to buffalo or other prey.

Wolves are on the federal endangered species list, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to remove them from protection in Idaho. I spoke to a state official with Idaho Fish and Game (IFG) who said the state has 650 wolves, 71 different wolf packs, and 41 breeding pairs. The governor was promoting a plan to reduce them to 10 breeding pairs. The IFG spokesperson pointed out that the governor can say what he wants, but IFG will maintain at least 15 breeding pairs and keep the overall wolf populations at much higher levels than the 100 the governor wants. The IFG almost certainly knows a lot more about managing wildlife in Idaho than the governor does. Being able to shoot a gun doesn't mean you know how to set up a hunting management plan for wolves.

I believe that the negative views expressed about snakes and wolves in the aforementioned articles are counter to prudent conservation. But a glimmer of environmental hope shines through. Despite perpetuating misinformation about an already misunderstood group of animals, the snake column did include the following comment: "I don't like snakes [but] I have a great appreciation of their contribution to the ecosystem." That is at least a step toward environmental sensibility. Meanwhile, the Idaho governor may shoot from the hip when he portrays wolves as evildoers that need to be exterminated, but the people who run the state game management programs understand the larger picture. As the game official said, "Idaho has a mandate to preserve all wildlife and to manage all big game properly."

Opinions can be offered by anyone. Indeed, that is a fundamental right in our society. But as Thomas Jefferson once said, "Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it." Neither snakes nor wolves nor any other group of animals are intrinsically "bad," and no one should facilitate the foolish beliefs of some people that they are.

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