Sports A Field

Ballot-Box Biology

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California’s Proposition 117, a ban on mountain lion hunting, passed in 1990 and inspired similar anti-hunting ballot initiatives in other states. Photo by

Wildlife management decisions must be based on the best available science–not on the whims of public opinion.

I was browsing the craft booths at a summer festival in my Colorado town when a young woman bounded after me with a clipboard.

“You look like a nature lover! Don’t you love wolves?” she asked.

At first I looked at her blankly, and then I saw the sign on her booth: The Rocky Mountain Wolf Project. She wanted me to sign a petition that would place a measure on the statewide ballot in 2020 forcing Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW) to reintroduce gray wolves to the state. I declined–politely but firmly–and moved on.

But the encounter stuck with me. Not so much because of the particular issue, but because it was the perfect example of a decision that should be made by wildlife managers after extensive study–not decided by voters, most of whom are well-meaning but have little knowledge about the issues involved or the ultimate effects of their vote.

In this particular instance, the issue of wolf reintroduction was studied in detail several years ago by CPW, which determined it was not a good idea for a number of compelling reasons–including, believe it or not, the potentially devastating effects gray wolves could have on a fragile population of reintroduced Mexican wolves to the south. (The wolf-loving petition-promoter returned my blank stare when I mentioned this to her.) The ballot measure aims to force CPW to go ahead with wolf reintroduction anyway, overruling the scientific consensus.

Ballot initiatives that meddle with scientific wildlife management are nothing new, of course. They have been tried–with varying success–in many states. The trend really started in 1990 with California’s Proposition 117, when voters put in place a ban on mountain lion hunting that still stands. Emboldened by that success, anti-hunting groups led the charge on many other public initiatives in various states, most of them focused on restricting predator hunting and trapping. Maine has twice voted down a proposition to ban baiting and hound hunting for bears, first in 2004 and again in 2014.

Wildlife and habitat management decisions are not supposed to be made this way. They should be made by professionals using sound, supportable, peer-reviewed, published science. This is one of the seven core tenets of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, and in this age of diverging opinions and social change, it is one of the most crucial. Each state has its own agency, staffed with professional biologists, charged with managing its wildlife. While these agencies are far from perfect, they have, historically, done a good job studying, understanding, and balancing wildlife issues in an increasingly complex world.

The other side of the coin is that hunters, too, have an obligation to abide by the science, even when we don’t like what it tells us. For example, if studies show certain harvest regulations are having a detrimental effect on a species, hunters should be supporting appropriate changes to those regulations.

Hunters and non-hunters alike need to agree that wildlife management decisions must always be based on the best available science. Spread the word that ballots are not the right venue for making these determinations. At the same time, support the efforts of state wildlife agencies and their biologists, and examine the research behind their decisions, keeping in mind what is best for the resource. In the end, both hunting and wildlife will be on the losing end if we allow the scientific process to be bypassed by public opinion and ballot-box biology.


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