Study Shows “Government-Sanctioned (Wolf) Culling Actually Results in More Illegal Killings”

 A new study finds that gray wolf culls may lead to more poaching.

 When the Government Kills Wolves, the Public May Follow Suit

A new study looking at two states in the U.S. could weaken the theory that culling some large carnivores can help conserve them.

In 2005 Wisconsin wanted a permit to kill 43 endangered gray wolves. So the federal government granted it. The way it saw things, controlling wolves—which had earned a bad name by preying on livestock and pets—would increase human tolerance for the predators. By letting the state cull them, it would prevent even more wolves from getting shot by frustrated ranchers.

 Wildlife activists disagreed. In a federal lawsuit, they argued that killing the animals ran counter to the Endangered Species Act, a law meant to help conserve endangered and threatened species. The judge agreed, and the federal government was forced to revoke the permit.

Nonetheless, this argument—that legal killing helps stop illegal killing—continues to be made around the world. The United States still asserts it when it comes to grizzly bears. Both Sweden and Finland use it as a justification for controlled wolf hunting. “The philosophy that underpins wolf management is that hunting them makes them more socially acceptable to people,” says Doug Smith, senior wildlife biologist at Yellowstone National Park.

But now a new study examining wolf population growth rates in Michigan and Wisconsin shows that the opposite is true. Government-sanctioned culling actually results in more illegal killings, scientists report this week in the journal Proceedings Royal Society B.

They created this animated video to help break down the results:

 This animation was created by scientists who concluded in a new study that wolf culls result in more illegal killings of wolves.

“The idea that we need to kill to conserve large carnivores—in light of our study, it does not make sense,” says author Guillaume Chapron, an ecologist at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, who teamed up with Adrian Treves, a conservation biologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, to research the topic.

Adding Fire to a Heated Debate

The research will likely inflame the hotly contested debate that has long pitted conservationists and biologists against agricultural and hunting interests. “I suspect there’s going to be a lot of folks weighing in on this from both sides,” says Jason Fisher, a wildlife scientist with Alberta Innovates, a research agency for the government of Alberta, Canada.

Gray wolves were viewed as so destructive to livestock that by the early 20th century they’d nearly been wiped out in most of the U.S. In 1978 the U.S. listed them as endangered in all states but Minnesota. Reintroduced to the American West in the mid-1990s, they’ve been the object of fierce controversy ever since.

In 2003 the U.S. declared that some populations had recovered to the point that wolves could be considered threatened rather than endangered. This meant states would be permitted to trap and shoot wolves when they threatened humans or livestock.

But with disagreements continuing about their recovery status, the issue has bounced in and out of court. Today the species is considered endangered in most states, but in Montana and Idaho wolves can be culled and hunted. And other states can cull them in certain cases.

Does Culling Conserve a Species?

Between 1995 and 2012, wolves in Michigan and Wisconsin experienced six periods of legal culls and six stages of protection, making these states ripe for testing whether cullings help conserve large carnivores.

To test the theory, researchers Chapron and Treves used a complex algorithm to measure population growth over time, taking into account the number of wolves culled. They found that during years when culling was allowed, there was an overwhelming probability that the wolf growth rate would drop.

The researchers concluded that poaching was the only plausible explanation for the decline. They ruled out other potential factors such as wolves migrating out of state and a slowdown in reproductive rates.

So why would people get poaching fever during years that the government OKs wolf culling? It could be that people didn’t think wolves had much value or they felt the government wouldn’t enforce the law during years culling was allowed, the researchers say. Their findings corroborate a 2013 study showing that legal culls don’t reduce the inclination to poach.

Chapron and Treves hope their study will show wildlife management agencies that they need to produce evidence before justifying “leniency in environmental protections,” as they put it. Fisher agrees. “The paper showed very clearly that wolf populations are experiencing added deaths” he says. “Governments all over need a lot more and a lot better information than they currently have about wildlife populations.”

Yellowstone’s Smith says the results are disappointing in that they throw into question long-held beliefs about wolf management. “But I’m not convinced,” he says.

Smith doesn’t think the results should apply to all wolf territories, as attitudes toward wolves might be different in areas where people have always lived alongside the animals, such as Alaska and Canada. Nor is he fully persuaded that poaching accounted for the population growth decline, though he doesn’t question the researchers’ data. Indeed, another study found that less government involvement resulted in decreased poaching.

But the current study could provide more grist for pro-wolf groups who have criticized wildlife management agencies for basing decisions on politics rather than science. Wildlife Services, a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that specializes in killing predators that put livestock at risk, in particular has faced criticism that its lethal control programs are not based on sound science.

And research from 2014 found that killing wolves to protect sheep and cattle actually caused the predators to kill even more livestock, contrary to a common justification for culling some large carnivores.

Chapron and Treves think their research should help guide management decisions for many large carnivores, such as grizzly bears, which could soon lose protections under U.S. law. In the meantime, the debate swirling around wolves will likely continue. “The study is going to be hugely controversial,” Fisher says.

This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation, and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to


Posted in: gray wolves,  Wolf Wars, Wolf Poaching

Photo: Courtesy Tim Fitzharris, Minden Pictures/National Geographic

Tags: evils of wolf hunting, killing wolves, poaching, culling  National Geographic, blood does not buy goodwill

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15 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Killing wolves to “placate” an irrational, wolf-hating public? Going by that “logic,” the killing will never stop since people have been demonizing and hating wolves, as well as killing them, for centuries.

    How about trying something different, such as not catering to the haters and those who profit from that hate. Stop allowing ranchers grazing rights to public lands near wilderness areas. Stop listening to the demands of hunters, gun manufacturers, and outdoor sports equipment manufacturers. Stop the state departments of fish and wildlife from making money selling hunting licenses.

    Start making poaching a real crime worthy of real punishment. If poachers had to lose their jobs to do jail time and take out a second mortgage or lose their homes to pay fines, poaching would not be so tempting.

    But, hey, all that would upset the money makers who are driving all the killing and culling of not only wolves but bison, cougars, and “trash” animals as well. As long as they’re in control, the body count goes up.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This tragedy I believe is going to come to a rational end. The Country is in such an upheaval and wasting billions of dollars basically wiping out entire Species is not going to stand. The white Republican men are the MINORITY. That means the entire Republican Party who wants to regulate which animals to kill, which rest room people should use and other horrific ‘Dark Ages’ thinking will be overcome. The ‘Haters’ time has come and it has reached the expiration date.


    • It must come to a rational end. Thank goodness for impartial scientists.

      “produce evidence before justifying “leniency in environmental protections,” ”

      Well put! Those entrusted to protect our wildlife, and even the interests of the public, have been much too lenient. I do believe the government is infested with outside interests and corruption. Their data cannot be trusted any longer. I was reading last evening that some involved in the grizzly bear decision have connections to Safari Club International!


      • Well, looking at Audubon and the society evolved from his shoot-stuff-paint (he also took great pleasure in “sport” hunting of birds), we see an image of slow societal change.

        The US gun culture is somehow associated with lethal response – I attribute this to both the Euro-history I mentioned below and to the present massive overpopulation and consequent antisocial response shown in other social animals. (after all, wolves themselves, have differing social interaction in saturated populations, than in unsaturated. There are some neurobehavioral responses too difficult to talk about in comment, but wolves are individuals also subject to crowing responses for very good reasons)

        The basic problem, boils, again, down to human overpopulation, mixed with human overexploitation for marketing/NONsubsistence culture.

        The answer scientists have promoted, is to try to establish large permanently protected areas – protected from human exploitation, meaning unfortunately so far, just large-scale activities like mining, massive logging, farming intrusion. Since disputing with gunfreaks arouses violent response, they are so far avoiding the idea of complete banning of guns outside of National Parks.
        Parks, of course, have been shown to be far too small, and safe connection for genetic maintenance (heterozygosity) is also understood as necessary.

        You all should be working to create these two goals: large, 67% of land surface, protected unexploited land mass of the earth, AND safe connectivity of ALL ecosystems.

        It appears that ending the gun lobby is necessary, so that the public ownership and use of guns can be ended – anyone owning a gun, again, uses the same excuse of fear and right. In the 1600s, Euroamericans with muzzle-loading guns gathered in circles up to 200 miles, and slowly closed toward the centers over days and weeks, ending up killing everything desperate in the center. Your history has such relatively unreported evil, and this method of extinguishing animal lives was more popular than presently known.
        The trains making inroads across the west in the late 1860s, held masses of gunowners on flatbed cars, just shooting everything for pleasure.

        Since it is doubtful that you will change the general human psyche (look to beer, sportswatching, and other examples of mass cultural aberration. Try to change humans from addiction to poisons and attempt to associate with high social status – you will fail),,

        Ending guns is the quickest answer to cultural change. No hunting preserves (so popular with gunners that canned hunting occurs in every state – makes money, this pleasure-killing and bonding with other sociopathic psychopaths) can be maintained anywhere.

        Good news: Alaska human population has fallen in the past two years> they use all technology to successfully kill animals – airplanes helicopters, guns, gps, atv’s, trail cameras with satellite and cell uplinks & immediate messaging, snowmobiles.

        Another important focus of limiting human death-dealing for pleasure:
        All of these technologies should be eliminated – merely because it was invented is NO reason for its being allowed to be used.

        If human mobility and pubic technology can be brought down to a sane level, wildlife will have far vaster area to recover; without it, you will see the trend to extinction continue and accelerate.


      • TYpo: I meant crowDing, not crowing.


  3. Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it. -Milan Kundera, novelist, playwright, and poet (b. 1 Apr 1929)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. please do not smoke screen anything that is centered around the wolves…period!


  5. Why in the hell don’t they listen to the People! We voted them in and we can vote them out! They are there for us, not big money!


  6. I am not surprised. I have been aware of the ptoblem, since 2003. I’ve watched it happen
    right in front of me. It makes me very sad, because I couldn’t do anything! Has anyone noticed the killing is ALWAYS during the breeding and birthing season?
    I do not understand, and I cannot comprehend the human desire to kill.


  7. have you seen this yet! Trump jr will kill all predators like wolves who prey on game animals like elk! 😦


  8. While highly vocal criticism has already appeared, direct interaction with hunters by one who studies behavior and cognition (me, in this case) told me this long ago.

    When you look in the psychosocial literature on humans and wolves, you find that

    1. Humans who have been long separated from wolves have greater fear.

    2. Europeans have greater fear (India is another area).

    3. People who own guns have greater fear of all predators, than do those who do not – even correcting for urban/rural.

    4. THe societal European lethal response appears to come from the medieval plague times, when crowded Europe had so many die that they could not and would not remove dead humans. Unfortunately at that time, there came gunpowder, and the feudal culture also created popular (remember, peasants constituted 95% or so) poaching of the privatized lands of nobles. Shortly thereafter, the long-warring Spanish “conquered” the “new” world with war-dogs, horses, armor, and guns evolved greater lethality in time.

    5. Notice also how the lower classes who largely emigrated here retained that poaching and hatred of social authority; this easily led to the excoriation of government limitation of market hunting, leaving “sport’ which is an older word, from disport, meaning personal satisfaction-behavior, in imitation of the feudal nobility they had escaped from. The concept of widespread private property only came about in the latter 1600s, btw.

    6. Herding societies, Like the nomadic Hebiru, later hebrew, traditionally vilified wolves, whereas hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies did not. The Kazakhs and other south Asians still hunt wolves, among the livestock-keeping societies.

    7. Snaring of animals was an ancient method used by humans to obtain all animals, slower and less agile as we are.

    8. I have not studied the history of poisoning before the Euroamericans(including Canadian wolfers) who used the method due to the intelligence of wolves concerning avoidance of humans. I’ll probably try very soon, but the poisoning culture seems to be European.

    In other disciplines, like the human behavioral ones, we find that people do as their parents modeled (with some divergence in many during adolescence). We also prize what our particular society prizes, as well as parent role modelers.

    Human fighting tends to trend toward shallow and thus “political” thinking. So we find that fighting merely perpetuates disagreement. The ancient Qin worked out how to end fighting – they killed all their opponents and their opponents’ families. It worked – the most populous nation with relatively little infighting until modern times is China.
    So public fighting will not succeed in saving the wolf.

    Education leads to social change, and this is the tool used most by pro-wolf orgs, I’ve put out feelers about someone doing a wolf film festival, as this is an educational method which is most emotionally appealing to many. It is more exciting than other educational forms.

    I have long been wary of pet activists, though, as they suffer from violent bias against predators. Humans have generally shielded themselves from predators and thinking about their own deaths and danger. This is an aberrance of large cultures, and is a basic problem in societal change. Some of us have seen predators kill, and I have quite close up in wolves. We moralize about this species when we should not.

    I do not have an answer for a society that pretends that humans live after death so they can kill one another, but regard killing by any other species as evil or competition for prey. The truth is, we are an animal, like any other, and certainly NOT predators-that is, until the invention of the gun, which artificially made snarers, fishers, insect-eaters into top predators. Our type of sociality also made us mass killers.

    The scientific literature shows that there is NO such thing as surplus killing by other animals (with some small momentary exceptions Orcas, a huge brained predator for instance), with wolves able to extend stockpiling through the cold spring due to their sociality, intelligence, and memory. Yet we are STILL looking at human claims about wolves being thoughtless hordes of pleasure-killers in comments in hunting sites , after scientists attempted to explain to media about the elk event two months ago.
    Moralizing when we are the only pleasure-killers. Wolves come back and eat, while humans fill walls with heads and taxidermies, and shout that killing the few big species left leads to conservation – farming animals.

    Wolves existed in up to several million coexisting with ungulate species of every type in North America all of which existed at tens of millions.

    Only humans wipe out animals, and thus entire varied rich and persistent ecosystems, replacing them with a few domestics and the empty land we now see. This is the culture with which you differ (I pretty much don’t like your society, and even prefer several other species to yours).

    Expect more on the findings, from psychologist and wolf-human scholar Jeremy Bruskotter He needs more press and attention.
    Trebes by the way just lasst year expressed support for lethal wolf management. I have followed his work for years, and The UW predator science dept is an interesting study itself. Wolf scientists, with the exception of Trapper Mech going the other way, are trending toward maintenance of fuller protections.


    • “We moralize about this species when we should not.”

      It always flabbergasts me that we do and say this; we are hardly in any position to do so. We’re the worst killers on the planet, and predators of children, especially of our own kind. The biggest warmongers, and destroyers, and I don’t think any other animal is capable of our greed and ability to deceive. With the exception of a rare few throughout history.

      An example is the fires up in Ft. McMurray – I started to read something to the effect that the tar sands company Suncor is flying out ‘animals’ killed in the blaze (which there is no proof of, and fires have been part of nature since the beginning of time). It basically is people’s pets only. What else would you expect them to do but help their employees and the community in a disaster? Do they really deserve kudos for it for doing the natural thing?

      And how many animals are killed for this tar sands project, including wolves from the air, and from the ugly assault on the land and contributions to climate change?. What a PR move, and how can anybody with a functioning brain fall for it.

      I cannot abide human hypocrisy.


      • Sorry, that should read saving and flying out animals that survived the blaze. The underlying message was that ‘maybe, possibly, speculatively’ many wild animals died in it. Animals and plants have learned to adapt to fire for millennia – and that is part of nature. But of course, no mention of the animals that are willfully and deliberately killed by humans for the tar sand project, ranching, and other unnatural human needs that outrank animals’. Wolves are only trying to ‘feed their families’ too.

        And the other correction is ‘with the exception of a few humans throughout history.


  9. Here’s the latest from Treves:
    It’s a short article attempting to elicit research of evolved human cognition/behaviors toward wolves, called:
    Humanity’s Dual Response to Dogs and Wolves.

    Since Treves has encountered such hard response to wolf protection he posits that the human behaviors might be highly conserved heritable responses (I happen to believe that they are cultural, rather than individually heritable, but I hope they find something).

    I happen to be studying the issue of evolution of behaviors right now, and hope that a big batch of researchers will go after it with loads of info from neurobiology and evolutionary psych-type disciplines. Such ideas will take a lot of cost and collaboration – a very large University.

    As you see, I used Sci-Hub, as Elsevier and Cell blocked access even though my institution subscribes to the Journals. Like many, I am getting tired of Elsevier’s crass policies.
    SciHub is that site (3 sites, one closed by Elsevier) that seeks to provide students with access without going broke or into deep debt. This article, tiny as it is, cost near $40 just to read if you don’t go to SciHub. Deal with a few, and you will pay hundreds to thousands for every small paper you write as you must research and cite.


  10. The myth that wolves are dangerous predators seems to be still going strong. Or am I wrong?


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