Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Shooting Our Way In

I keep hoping that Fish and Game Departments and associated government agencies will show they really understand wildlife management, but I am continuously disappointed. Instead, they tend to demonstrate that they truly are bureaucracies, and their true purposes for existence have more to do with political and economic ends rather than the grandiose purposes their charters often state.

It was our government, albeit the federal one, that carried out the predator eradication programs of the early 1900’s that so decimated mountain lion populations in this country. Today, these programs continue. This is despite the fact that there is scientific data that shows it is a failed policy. But the programs give the appearance of being successful in a small area, and therefore keep the local constituents happy. They make the governments look like they are doing their jobs.

Too many state wildlife agencies are run as state “hunting promotion” agencies. Since much of their revenue is derived from the sale of hunting licenses and tags, they have a vested interest in ensuring that hunting continues to bring in the dollars they need. Additionally, since many politicians are into guns and hunting, these agencies aren’t about to let anything get in their way since they know who butters their bread. There is less altruism to the wildlife management ideal than and more attention paid to their economic and political machines. The only thing they really have to do with wildlife is pay attention to the ones running their own agencies.

When I was participating in my second mountain lion expedition in southern Idaho, I happened to be there during a bighorn sheep reintroduction effort. I videotaped the release and listened to the conversations about it between John Laundre, our team’s leader and biologist, and Ken Jafek, the lead houndsman. Ken had been the driving force behind the bighorn program. He and John talked about the possibility that a mountain lion could take some sheep; John said he just hoped the cats behaved themselves. That struck me as a nervous statement, and that John knew more about what would happen then than he was saying.

Near the end of the week, Ken dropped by to tell John that one of the radio collared sheep had not moved in twenty-four hours. That meant it was more than likely dead. A day or so later, the group of us took the tracking dogs and climbed up a small hill topped by an outcrop of rock in the middle of a large, grassy plain to look for a trail that a mountain lion might have left behind. The dogs split into two groups and so did we; the other group cornered a male mountain lion a couple of hours later. It was a hundred and fifty pound young male we named “Fritz”.

When I got there, Fritz was asleep, knocked out by a drug combination that let us freely handle him. After taking data and photos, we loaded Fritz into the back of a pickup truck and drove away, hoping to relocate him to an area where the sheep were not. I was one of the last to pile in with him; and, as a result, I wound up sitting over the cat, my legs touching him lightly as they arched over his sleeping body. You can believe I got on the radio and hollered at John that we needed to stop soon when I felt the cat moving under me and starting to wake up. John, in true mountain man fashion, said for me to keep my britches on, we were almost there.

Crossing open plains but still on dirt roads, we got only twenty miles or so away from our original location before we stopped. John dragged Fritz out of the truck, and I walked with the cat a bit to keep him moving as the effects of the drugs wore over. (They tend to want to go back to sleep, and that is counterproductive and dangerous since it exposes them to hunters or other predators.) Our expedition ended a day or so later, and I left only to hear later that Fritz had returned to the area and the Fish and Game folks had taken him out.

What gave the bighorn more rights than the mountain lion who was already established there?

Now, I can actually understand taking out a cat or any other predator to help a reintroduction effort. Still, the practice leaves me always with mixed feelings. In the case of the mountain lion, because it is a predator and none too popular among most human political constituents, it is all too easy to kill the animals off without regard to any damage that such efforts might inflict on the “unpopular” population. To regulate animal populations by what is popular or economical smacks of the same kind of self-centered and somewhat childish approaches that engendered the animal genocide programs of the early twentieth century. Lest I leave you thinking that Arizona is the only villain executing this type of thing, I will tell you that in addition to the kill I have personal knowledge of in Idaho, a well-known mountain lion expert told me that California and New Mexico also engage in the practice. I have no doubt that Texas does, too.

The whole point of a reintroduction effort is to restore a natural balance that man has somehow disrupted. While we’re doing that, let’s not become our own worst enemy. Otherwise, by doing it the way we are, we’re simply proving in a different way we haven’t learned a thing.


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