Legal Culls Are Not Doing Wolves Any Favors

May 12, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

The endangered grey wolf, Canis lupis
Photo credit: Hollingsworth John and Karen, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Allowing legal culling of a species in order to discourage illegal poaching may seem to be counter-productive — and a study has confirmed just that.

Researchers took advantage of shifting wildlife management policies in Wisconsin and Michigan, USA over a 15-year period to track the effects of legalized culling on wolf populations. A clear pattern emerged from their analysis — wolf numbers declined even beyond the number legally killed whenever culling was permitted.

"What we found is that when the government allowed culling, the wolf population grew 25 percent less," said Guillaume Chapron, a professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural and first author of the study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society Bin a press release.

Poaching was inferred to be the most likely reason for the population drops. Other potential explanations were carefully considered, but eventually ruled out. For instance, sometimes populations of carnivores, which require a large area to hunt, hit a maximum density beyond which the population can no longer continue to grow. However, this explanation would predict declining reproduction, which was not found to be the case.

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Another possibility was that the methods used for culling were disturbing the packs, indirectly leading to death of non-culled wolves. However, this was unlikely as the culling was carried out through trapping, rather than hunt chasing or other methods that might be expected disrupt the entire pack.

"What remained — the only other plausible explanation — was illegal killing, or poaching," Chapron said.

The authors suggested that legalizing culling sends out a negative message about the value of individual wolves and their need for protection, which leads to more poaching. "Maybe the poacher is thinking, 'OK, now the state is killing wolves, so why can't I do it myself?'," Chapron said.

However, Chapron acknowledges that understanding the real reason why people might feel more inclined to kill endangered species when culling is allowed is a question for social psychologists.

For decades, authorities in Europe and the US have authorised the controlled killing of wolves, bears, big cats, and other endangered species as a conservation tool. Just this year, the US Fish and Wildlife Service argued that its proposal to remove federal protections for grizzlies in Yellowstone Park would help conservation efforts “by minimizing illegal killing of bears and promoting tolerance of grizzly bears.”

Perhaps it is time to re-think this already-controversial wildlife management practice.

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