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Graphic photograph of legally trapped wolf sparks heated debate

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Graphic photograph of legally trapped wolf sparks heated debate

By Tina Page, This Dish Is Veg
April 2012

wolf, wolves, leghold, trap

The above photo now gone viral on the Internet of a smiling man in front of a dying black wolf caught in a foothold trap surrounded by blood-soaked snow has fueled a maelstrom of emotional debate about wolf reintroduction.

The photo was originally posted on Trapperman.com by U.S. Forest Service employee Josh Bransford, who had trapped the animal in northern Idaho and posed for the photo shoot. The website described how passersby had taken gun shots at the wolf from a nearby road and injured the animal.

wolf, wolves, leghold, trap

An anti-trapping organization, Footloose Montana, posted the photo on its website to demonstrate the cruelty inherent in trapping and received more than 1,000 comments in the first few days.

Footloose Montana soon received an emailed death threat: “I would like to donate [sic] a gun to your childs [sic] head to make sure you can watch it die slowly so I can have my picture taken with it’s [sic] bleeding dying screaming for mercy body.” It went on to threaten the lives of the staff.

Footloose Montana removed the photo but it had already become widely circulated around the Internet on sites on both sides of the debate.

Scientists estimate that more than 2 million wolves once roamed the United States -- a number that was drastically reduced after the U.S. government put a bounty on wolf kills and declared an all out war on large predators in the country, decimating wolves to close to extinction. When the carnage was realized in the 1960s, wolves were declared an endangered species and protected under a precursor to the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

wolf, wolves, leghold, trap
Once-protected: In Idaho and Montana, hundreds of the animals have been killed - mostly through hunting - less than a year after being removed from the U.S. endangered species list.

After 50 years of protections under the ESA, wolves had recovered to about 5,000 roaming close to five percent of their historic range. Then, in 2011, wolves in Montana and Idaho, as well as portions of Washington, Oregon and Utah, were left without ESA protections after congress attached a rider to a budget bill delisting the species in those areas.

This was first time politics dictated the science behind reestablishing a keystone species as part of a comprehensive approach to restoring the last remaining wild places. Politicians gave in to pressure from ranchers, hunters and anti-government groups who see the reintroduction as the federal government imposing its will on the states.

Ranchers complain of wolves preying on their animals and hunters see the wolf as competition for elk and deer kills.

“Federal statistics report that of Montana’s roughly 2.5 million head of cattle, wolves killed 97 in 2009 and 87 in 2010. Wolves killed 202 of Montana’s 250,000 sheep in 2009 and 64 in 2010,” according to an Earth Island Journal article, making it clear that wolves are not impacting livestock production.

Statistics have shown that since wolf reintroduction, the elk populations statewide have actually increased since wolves have been reintroduced. And hunters fail to protest the effect livestock has on competition for food and land with elk.

It did not take long after ESA protections were rescinded for the states to open hunting season on the struggling populations of gray wolves in the Northern Rockies. This season, 377 wolves in Idaho, and 166 in Montana have been reported hunted or trapped.

The now-infamous photo of the trapped and bloody gray wolf has given a face to the realities of the hunt and the people who obviously enjoy them, and pitched two opposing camps – the pro- and anti-wolf groups – into an all-out comment, social media and e-mail war on the Internet.

The incident comes at a time when wolves may be facing the greatest threat to their survival since the 1940s extermination policy came close to erasing the species from the United States.

On March 1, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended that all gray wolves be removed from the Endangered Species list, not just those surviving in the Northern Rockies. This would mean the anti-wolf hysteria fueled by ranching and hunting interests in Idaho and Montana would be unleashed to burn freely throughout the United States, killing not only the wolves biologists have dedicated so much time to restoring, but also the hope for a truly ecologically balanced wilderness.

“Wolves are a keystone species that have shaped North American landscapes for eons,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, which has worked for decades to restore wolves. “They restore natural balance and in the process benefit a host of species. If we want to keep any part of America wild, we need to keep our wolves.”