Outdoors Blog

Conservation expert: ‘Wildlife depends on the decisions that human beings make’

A bighorn sheep munches on a blade of grass in Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner, Mont.
A bighorn sheep munches on a blade of grass in Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner, Mont. For The Washington Post

Well-known wildlife researcher, hunter, angler and conservationist Shane Mahoney is the featured speaker Saturday at the Idaho Wild Sheep 31st annual Bighorn Sheep Banquet Fundraiser in Boise. Mahoney lives in Newfoundland, Canada.

I spoke to him this week about the wildlife conservation. Here’s the bulk of that interview:

Q: Where is the balance between hunting and wildlife conservation?

A: “The history of North American conservation is pretty clear that we’ve had a multitude of different kinds of efforts that have been devoted toward conservation, extending from national parks to protected areas and wilderness areas. The underlying process has been the sustainable use of wildlife populations. And the proof of these combined efforts is the abundance of wildlife we see today. Species of wild turkey, Canada geese, whitetail deer, which believe it or not were very much threatened early in the 20th century, are now in the early part of the 21st century considered super-abundant. Hunting’s role in conservation often is considered a contradiction — often by people who haven’t hunted or are opposed to hunting. Institutions around the world that focus on conservation have clearly recognized hunting as a powerful force for conservation.”

Q: What is the biggest role hunters play?

A: “First of all, hunters clearly provide a great deal of the financial support to conservation of wildlife and conservation programs (through taxes, fees and commerce). ... Added to those are many non-governmental organizations — Ducks Unlimited, Rocky Mountain Elk, Wild Sheep, Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever. Collectively, these organizations raise huge amounts of money for conservation of wildlife and protection of habitat. ... There’s a huge amount of volunteerism that emanates from hunting and angling.”

Q: Is there a specific reason you’re speaking in Idaho and about sheep?

A: “The Wild Sheep organization writ large and the chapter in Idaho itself have been heavily, heavily engaged for decades in trying to improve circumstances for the wild sheep populations, examining issues of disease, the transfer of disease between domestic sheep and wild sheep, and finding ways that can be managed to the benefit of everyone. They’ve done tremendous work for the establishment and recovery of the wild sheep population throughout the continent.”

Q: What is the current state of the wild sheep population?

A: “They’re not back to where sheep levels were at the turn of the 20th century but they’re definitely doing better than the lowest points in the mid- to late 20th century. The challenges are the habitat itself must be there for them. The balance between predators and prey has to be there, especially to allow a fledgling population to survive. We’re trying to identify those places where wild sheep can be secure and we can forestall disease transfer. Like grizzly bears or wolves or many other species all around the world now, wildlife depends on the decisions that human beings make. It’s no longer a question that they can simply exist as they did without our interference. Every decision we make or fail to make or are indifferent to has some effect on wildlife population somewhere in the world. With 7.2 billion of us on our way to 8 billion, you can only expect those circumstances are going to worsen.”

Q: Are wolves a problem for sheep?

A: “Wolves can be a factor. In many cases, mountain lions can be even more of a factor They can be incredibly effective in hampering and come close to preventing successful reintroduction of sheep. ... One has to remember the mountain lion and the wolf and the bear, they’re doing what they do as carnivores. The questions is not whether to have them. The question is to try to find a way that there’s a relationship between them and prey species such as wild sheep that allows both to exist. These are challenges for every state.”

Q: Idaho kills wolves to protect elk. What are your thoughts on that trade-off?

A: “In some cases the arrival or reintroduction of wolves has met with quite significant declines in game species, including elk. In other cases, the impact or the changes have not been as dramatic. It also has to be borne in mind that in many cases the areas that have been wolf-free for a very long time, free of what is the most effective, broad-based predator we had on the continent, those places had a real abundance of prey species because the big predator, the big dog, was gone. Naturally, when he comes back there will be a natural adjustment in that ratio. What that set up is a really intense dynamic between users of one resource and those who espouse the other. In the main, the majority of hunters and non-hunters agree in seeing a valuable animal, a wonderful and magnificent creature on the landscape. On the other hand, many programs that involve shooting or culling of wolves are done in recognition that wolf populations can increase at a very, very fast rate. As a result of that, it’s predictable that wolf populations can become quite large. This leads to conflicts. ... Legally harvesting wolves when they reach a healthy number, I personally do not see anything wrong with that. When we have to get into full culling and controlling circumstances such as we see in some areas, it’s far better for us not to have to get to that stage if we can. The critical truth is it can be very, very difficult to manage wolf populations to a desired level just through recreational hunting. Wolves are so mobile, so intelligent, such amazing creatures that it’s just not that easy to hunt them. ... We have many competing interests and the issues of big carnivores — mountain lions, wolves, black and grizzly bears — these pose very special and contentious problems to wildlife managers and society at large. I don’t think it’s reasonable in this day and age to believe we can have these big, dangerous carnivores everywhere. On the other hand, the fact that we still have in North America abundant populations of mountain lions, of wolves, of black bears and in some regions of grizzly bears, I think this is one of the truly great success stories of North American conservation. ... While we sometimes become overwhelmed with the contentious aspect of these problems, the fact we have the problems is one of the best metrics of measuring the success of conservation.”