The term “wolf denning” sounds kind of warm and fuzzy, doesn’t it? It conjures up images of a wolf mom with various members of the pack nurturing new pups that do nothing but sleep, eat, and play in the den.
But I recently learned that “wolf denning” refers to the killing of wolf pups in or near their dens.
In many parts of the U.S., wolves are still protected by the federal endangered species act, but in certain area,s where reintroduction efforts in the mid-1990s have been successful, the animals are fair game.
According to Defenders of Wildlife’s John Motsinger, since October 2012 Wyoming has allowed wolves to be killed year-round, without a license and by almost any means, across 85 percent of the state—the so-called “predator zone.”
Fortunately, most wolves live in the protected areas of the state. Unfortunately, wolf denning is practiced illegally in places where it’s prohibited.
These days, the usual method of culling pups involves shooting them in the head, execution style. A few years ago, the Department of Fish and Game in Alaska reportedly offed two litters of pups this way during an operation to protect a caribou herd whose numbers were in rapid decline. The pups were about four weeks old, and barely walking, according to the Juneau Empire. The article also said the officials had targeted the parents, and thought it more humane to shoot their offspring than to leave them to starve.
Suzanne Stone, top wolf expert at Defenders of Wildlife, says government officials have also killed pups in their dens in Idaho and Wyoming.
If a shot to the head sounds bad, Amaroq Weiss, West Coast Wolf Organizer for the Center for Biological Diversity, assured me that the history of wolf denning was worse.
“The techniques are all utterly abysmal. They include gassing dens, setting fire in dens, burying the dens with pups alive in them, crawling into dens and pulling pups out to shoot them or club them in the head, and using baits that contain poison or fishing hooks hidden inside the baits to be swallowed.
“In some instances, all but one of a litter of pups would be killed, and the live one would then be staked by a collar and chain as bait to draw the parents in to be killed, as well. In other cases, all pups were killed and their scent glands removed and used as bait to draw the parents in to be killed, as well,” says Weiss.
And they say wolves are big and bad.
By these methods and others, wolves were nearly exterminated in the U.S. in the 19th century. And it seems like we could be headed back in that direction. The Defenders of Wildlife website describes a bill that just cleared committee in Montana:
If [the bill] passes…a number of horrific practices will be made legal, including neck snares, and the practice of using dead wolves as bait. It will be legal to choke a wolf to death and then leave its body out as bait to try to kill more wolves in its pack.
I understand ranchers may be smarting from the losses or potential losses of some of their stock. But neck snares? Wolves as bait? Killing pups in their dens? Looks like the dark ages of wolf relations are back in full force.
“Wolf denning is abhorrent. It shouldn’t be legal anywhere,” says Linda Saunders, Director of Conservation at Wolf Haven International. Saunders says that instead of wolf denning fading away, it may be on the increase. “There have been rumblings about making it legal next year in Idaho,” she says. “It’s going the opposite direction it should.”
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Maria Goodavage is author of The New York Times bestselling book Soldier Dogs. She has been a staff writer at USA Today and the San Francisco Chronicle, and is a regular contributor at Dogster online magazine. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, daughter, and a big dog.