By JAMES GORMAN
Once again, science, religion and politics have become entwined in a thorny public policy debate. This time, however, the discussion is not about abortion, birth control or health insurance mandates.
It’s about wolves.
Specifically, a bill in the Wisconsin Legislature to authorize a hunting season on wolves. The State Senate has approved it, and the Assembly is set to consider the bill on Tuesday.
Hunters approve of the season, and Republicans are all for it, as are some Democrats. Wildlife biologists have a number of criticisms and suggestions about the bill involving how, when and how many wolves should be killed.
But the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Game Commission, which represents 11 tribes of the Ojibwe (also known as the Chippewa, or Anishinaabe) in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan, opposes the hunt on the basis of religious principle and tradition.
In written testimony presented to both legislative houses, James Zorn, the executive administrator of the commission, said, “In the Anishinaabe creation story we are taught that Ma’iingan (wolf) is a brother to Original man.” He continued, “The health and survival of the Anishinaabe people is tied to that of Ma’iingan.” For that reason the tribes are opposed to a public hunt.
Joe Rose Sr., a professor emeritus of Native American studies at Northland College in Ashland, Wis., and an elder of the Bad River Band, said in an interview that he saw a collision of world views. “We don’t have stories like Little Red Riding Hood, or the Three Little Pigs, or the werewolves of Transylvania,” he said. Wolf, or Ma’iingan, is a sacred creature, and so even keeping the population of wolves to minimum levels runs counter to traditional beliefs.
The opposition of the Ojibwe to the hunt may not swing a vote, but it is not a small matter. The Ojibwe have significant rights in lands that were once theirs, lands that, in Wisconsin, amount to about the northern third of the state. That, of course, is where most of Wisconsin’s wolves live.
Peter David, a conservation biologist with the Indian Fish and Game Commission, said that court settlements on treaty rights mean that the tribes must be consulted about decisions like the wolf hunt, and they were not. Also, he said, “the tribes can legally lay claim to half of the biological harvest.” What that could mean for a wolf hunt that the tribes oppose is not clear.
What is clear is that the opposition of the Ojibwe is more like objections to funding for abortions or birth control than it is the calculations of scientists, not in political tone, but in its essence.
All the other arguments center on numbers, practicality and consequences. How much damage do wolves do to livestock? How effective is this kind of hunt in reducing those depredations? How many wolves should be killed?
The original goal, set once it was clear that wolves were coming back in the state, on their own, was 350 wolves. With protection, the wolf population has grown to about 800. Adrian Treves, an associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says that the carrying capacity of the state is probably about 1,000.
Dr. Treves has also testified about the bill. He would like to see fixes — for instance, ruling out hunting with dogs. But he sees the issue as one of wildlife management.
Mr. Zorn said in his testimony that for the Ojibwe, “wolf recovery does not hinge primarily upon some minimum number of animals comprising the current wolf population.” Rather, he said, the goal is “the healthiest and most abundant future for our brother and ourselves.”
Mr. Rose put it this way: “We see the wolf as a predictor of our future. And what happens to wolf happens to Anishinaabe.” And, he said, “whether other people see it or not, the same will happen to them.”