The promotion of legal, government-backed culls of large carnivores is often touted as a way to balance predator-human conflict. Seemingly paradoxical, the argument goes that if the authorities can give people a chance to legally kill the animals in problem regions (for example, where wild carnivores are eating livestock), then the number of people taking the problem into their own hands and illegally killing the animals will drop. But does this common conservation practice actually work?
This was the question researchers set out to study, focusing on the culling of wolves in the U.S. Their study claims that this commonly used practice doesn’t work, and that in fact the opposite is true. By having legal culls, the rate of poaching actually increases. But the problem is that by its very nature, establishing the rates of poaching is incredibly difficult. Quite unsurprisingly, poachers don’t often keep records, and they certainly don’t publish them.
In order to try and get even a glimpse of how hunting practices might impact poaching, the researchers turned to data sets on legal hunts kept by the states of Wisconsin and Michigan. Whether or not wolves are able to be hunted is decided on a federal level, and states will often yo-yo with their extent of protection of the animals. Over a period from 1995 to 2012, both Wisconsin and Michigan had six periods of legal culling and six periods during which the wolves were under full protection, giving the researchers two equivalent data sets with which they could track how wolf populations were affected by changes in levels of protection.
The researchers say their findings should apply to the legal culling of other large carnivores, such as bears. Vladimir Kogan Michael/Shutterstock
The study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, found that while the overall wolf populations grew, their rate of growth slowed significantly during periods when legal culling was allowed. This drop in population growth, they argue, is not explained by the fact the wolves are being culled as they took this into consideration when calculating the growth rates, and therefore must be explained by unreported illegal killings of the animals instead.
“What we found is that when the government allowed culling, the wolf population grew 25 percent less. And this is due to poaching,” co-author Guillaume Chapron of the University of Agricultural Sciences in Sweden told AFP. He claims that the legal culling of the animals gave the perception to others that the animals were not really endangered, and therefore they were fair game to hunt. It might also give others a sense of security that they may not be prosecuted if caught. While the study was only looking at wolves, Chapron thinks the finds would probably hold for other large carnivores, such as bears, too.
But other researchers have questioned the study. Without directly measuring the levels of poaching, and relying solely on mathematical models, the conclusions drawn from the paper seem a little shaky. What is sure, however, is that the study will ignite a debate over whether or not the notion of hunting animals to aid their conservation is as backward as it sounds, or whether it works.