The news that the government of Zimbabwe elected not to charge long-time Safari Club International member Walter Palmer with any impropriety for slaying Cecil the lion reached me as I was taking part in a conference on the protection of carnivores in North America. Cecil’s grisly killing cast a long shadow over the conference, held at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., with many people lamenting the carnage meted out by the trophy-hunting fraternity but also heartened by the public’s harsh and unforgiving reaction to this gratuitous act of killing. Many people believe it was a tipping point on the long-debated subject of trophy hunting of the largest and often highly vulnerable predators in Africa and throughout other parts of the world.
The takeaway from “Living Large – Wolves, Bears, Cougars and Humans in North America,” organized by the Humane Society Institute of Science and Policy, is that our concerns are, more than ever, so strongly rooted on ethical, economic, and ecological principles. We’ve got an incredible case to make for a new paradigm of wildlife management, and the public is ready for our message. While not being naïve or overly optimistic about our chances for turning things around, it occurred to me that the old way of viewing carnivores as trophies-in-the-waiting is on borrowed time. There is tremendous brainpower arrayed on the side of the animals now, in the fields of ethology, population biology, and social psychology, to name just a few of the best represented disciplines at “Living Large.” One of my favorite presentations came from acclaimed photographer Tom Mangelson and journalist Todd Wilkinson, authors of a new work, Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek; An Intimate Portrait of 399, a striking chronicle of the life of Greater Yellowstone’s most famous grizzly bear and her family.
As conference attendees learned, grizzly 399 and her family may never escape peril. A proposal to remove federal protections for grizzlies looms, and then it won’t be long before Wyoming and Montana seek to open trophy hunting seasons. It was The Fund for Animals, now an affiliate of The HSUS, that blocked a trophy hunting season from starting in 1991, and the animals have been spared this human-caused risk since that time, thanks to that legal intervention.
We’ve seen some meaningful progress in the protection of carnivores in recent years. California prohibits the trophy hunting of mountain lions, the commercial trapping of bobcats, and the hounding of bears and bobcats. Half a dozen states ban or severely restrict the use of body-gripping traps for carnivores and other animals trapped for their fur. Two states ban the use of poisoning as a predator control tool. I’ve written numerous times about our successful campaign to protect wolves in Michigan, highlighted by our commanding wins on the ballot there to stop any trophy hunting or commercial trapping of wolves. In the federal courts, we’ve won protections for wolves in all of the Great Lakes states and also in Wyoming, forestalling trophy hunting and trapping seasons in 2014 and 2015 and, we hope, beyond. We are working with localities throughout the nation, including New Castle, New York, to adopt humane coyote management plans.
Yet, there are setbacks, too. In August, New Mexico game commissioners approved a plan to allow hunters to snare cougars on nine million acres of state trust lands. It is permissible to hunt mountain lions with hounding in a number of western states. Idaho and Montana are pummeling wolves with guns and traps. Florida has opened its first black bear hunting season in more than two decades. In Maine last year, voters narrowly rejected a ban on ban bear baiting, hounding, and trapping. Illinois legalized the sport hunting of bobcats, and did so by the narrowest of margins in the state legislature. On top of that, a federal agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services, kills 100,000 coyotes a year, mostly on western lands, to make public-land grazing safer for sheep and cows.
It’s clear to me that we’re in for a long and hard fight to shield predators from human persecution. It’s a hot war, too. In the wake of the killing of Cecil the lion, we’ve helped to persuade more than 40 airlines to stop shipping trophies taken from any of the Africa Big Five (lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, and Cape buffalo). We are anxiously awaiting a final rule-making action for African lions to list them as endangered. Wolves are reclaiming their native lands in Washington, Oregon, and most recently, California, and we are determined to continue to protect them, while at the same time working to fend off a Congressional delisting of all wolf populations.
We humans have never shown much of an ability to handle large predators with tolerance and understanding. We fear them, we resent their predation on wildlife we want to kill for our purposes, we get livid when they occasionally kill our cattle and sheep. But a proportional response is the best way to handle the rare conflicts, and we should not be driven by mythology or hatred. Rational thinking and a keen understanding of these animals’ critical place in our ecological systems should ultimately triumph, but it takes resolve and engagement. That’s what we’ll need to win protections for these battered animals in the years ahead.