The change in classification by federal authorities worries Native American groups that consider the wolf a sacred animal.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week announced plans to open wolf hunting season throughout the nation, raising concern among biodiversity advocates and the Native American community, which considers the wolf key to their religion.
“The Fond du Lac Band is glad that the population is healthy enough that it can be delisted. Our current objections to hunting are based on our cultural tradition and the fact that the wolf is considered our brother,” Karen Diver, chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, told Mint Press News. “Our oral history tells us that the fate of our brother is our fate.”
The wolf plays a key role in the Ojibwe creation story, serving not only as a guide but a brother to man. According to the story, the fate of the wolf is also the fate of man — a warning from the Great Spirit to always protect the wolf.
States in the Midwest, like Minnesota, have been a battleground over the wolf hunting issue, with Native Americans and the Department of Natural Resources disagreeing on the way wolves should be managed.
And while this is a fight for Minnesota tribes, it’s one felt by all Native Americans throughout the country.
Meanwhile, the hunting and sporting industry is cheering the decision to lift the ban, saying wolf hunting is “necessary and inevitable.”
One website, HuntWolves.com, includes its own suggestion for protecting the wolf population: “Help preserve wolves … take one to a taxidermist.”
Native Americans and the struggle for inclusion
Native Americans throughout the country are worried that their state could succumb to the same fate in the wake of the recent announcement. In Minnesota, tribal leaders say Native Americans were left out of the management plan altogether, representing a violation of their indigenous rights.
“Our cultural traditions in our homeland should be honored as one of the basic tenets within the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous people,” Diver said.
Wolves in the Great Lakes region — including those in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, specifically — were removed from the endangered species list in December 2011, paving the way for states to take over management of the species.
In the fall of 2012, wolves in Minnesota became fair game for area hunters after the state was granted the authority to manage the wolf population.
The DNR’s move was seen a surprise for wildlife advocacy groups, as the species had for 4 decades remained on the federal endangered species protection list, keeping hunting and trapping off limits.
Yet it wasn’t just the animals’ removal from the endangered species list that frustrated Native American organizations — it was the way in which the state DNR left the Native population out of the equation.
In an interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Steve Mortenson, a member of the Leech Lake Band’s Division of Resource Management, said that management of the wolf population should have involved a partnership between the state and Native American tribes.
Mortenson said tribes were left out.
“How can you ignore governments that have co-management authority of much of the wolf range and come up with a plan without their input?” Mortenson asked.
The move sparked protests throughout the state, as Native Americans mourned what they say is a step backwards for their community and spiritual way of life — and a slap in the face for state and tribal relations.
“Many Ojibwe believe the fate of the wolf is closely tied to the fate of all the Ojibwe. For these reasons the Fond du Lac Band feels the hunting and trapping of wolves is inappropriate,” Diver stated in her letter.
In a Change.org petition addressed to President Barack Obama, Linda Camac, an animal rights advocate, explained the concerns related to the open hunting season on wolves. She claims states that manage wildlife have done so without regard to those who oppose or have issues with hunting.
“It also cannot be overstated that Native Americans were ignored on the wolf killing issue, which many consider the wolf to be their brethren, therefore wolf hunting is in conflict with their religious/spiritual, and cultural beliefs,” her petition states.
“We recognize and respect those cultural views, but when it comes to managing wildlife, under these treaties and rights that were conveyed, all we can deal with are issues of conservation, public safety and public health,” Ed Boggess of the DNR’s fish and wildlife division told the Star Tribune. “Many tribal members feel that wolves are their brothers and they should be respected as such.”
Yet Diver claims that their cultural views haven’t been respected, even near Native-owned land.
Wolf hunting is prohibited on tribal land, based on Native American spirituality. Yet Diver says the hunting movement has come too close for comfort.
“We have tried to work with the state commissioner of the DNR to respect our traditions, as well as the governor (Mark Dayton), but they are not willing to consider our cultural traditions and close the exterior border of the Fond du Lac reservation to hunting for non-Indian hunters,” she said.
A conflict of understanding
In the meantime, wildlife experts are urging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to halt its proposal to open hunting seasons throughout the U.S., highlighting the vast amount of work that has been carried out in the last 40 years, when the wolf was hunted to near extinction.
“This is like kicking a patient out of the hospital when they’re still attached to life support,” Noah Greenwald, endangered species director with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a press release. “Wolves cling to a sliver of their historic habitat in the lower 48, and now the Obama administration wants to arbitrarily declare victory and move on.
Wolves were removed altogether from the endangered species list in 2012 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, following the removal of smaller portions of the wolf population.
More than 530 wolves have been killed in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
While states like Minnesota cap the number of wolves that can be killed at 400, biodiversity experts claim more needs to be done to protect the animals, noting that the ban was lifted when the species hit the 4,000 population mark.
“They need to finish the job that Americans expect, not walk away the first chance they get,” Greenwald said. “This proposal is a national disgrace. Our wildlife deserve better.”
In April 2011, Congress removed gray wolves from the endangered species list specifically for the northern Rockies. An Earth Island Journal report published in November 2011 indicated that Idaho and Montana sold 37,000 wolf tags for the fall hunting season.
In March, the debate over whether too many wolves were being killed in the Rockies raged on, as the number of wolves killed in the northern Rockies that season grew to 553. Wildlife service management killed another 216 wolves, a move done to tackle issues relating to wolves and livestock, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The ongoing hunting season for wolves is angering wildlife habitat groups specific to that area, including the Wolves of the Rockies organization of Montana.
“Is that a healthy number? No, that’s persecution at an incredible level,” the organization’s spokesperson Marc Cooke told the Times.
In a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, a group of leading conservation biologists expressed their concern with moves to roll back hunting regulations, claiming the process to bring the wolf population back to life is not over.
“The gray wolf has barely begun to recover or is absent from significant portions of its former range where substantial suitable habitat remains,” the letter states. “The (U.S. Fish and Wildlife) Service’s draft rule fails to consider science identifying extensive suitable habitat in the Pacific Northwest, California and the southern Rocky Mountains and the Northeast. It also fails to consider the importance of these areas to the long-term survival and recovery of wolves, or the importance of wolves to the ecosystems of these regions.”
Moving ahead in the face of what seems to be a climate poised to continue the hunt, Diver and other advocacy organizations aren’t willing to give up the fight. In a letter sent to Jewell on behalf of leading conservation biologists, the writers expressed hope that their concerns would be heard.
“Given the importance of wolves and the fact that they only have just begun to recover in some regions and not all in others, we hope you will reconsider the Service’s proposal to remove protections across most of the United States,” the letter states.