In Shirley Jackson’s classic short story, “The Lottery,” the villagers of a small town randomly choose one of their own to stone to death, for no ostensible purpose other than the cathartic thrill of the kill.
A similarly macabre lottery was recently conducted in Wisconsin. Following the Trump administration’s controversial removal of the gray wolf from the endangered species list, days before the former president left office, 2,380 hunters, randomly selected from a pool of 27,151 applicants, “won” the lottery, along with the privilege of purchasing licenses, to kill 119 wolves in the state over a seven-day period..
The hunt was cut short Wednesday when the quota was exceeded, and 182 wolves were wiped out in just three days, likely because wolves were more vulnerable with heavy snow cover, according to George Meyer of the Wilderness Wildlife Federation.
Why did 27,000 people vie for the chance to shoot a gray wolf? It’s certainly not for food. As one might expect of this apex predator, gamey-smelling wolf meat consists mostly of muscle and is widely considered inedible.
A market may exist for wolf hides in some states, with a pelt fetching an average price of $210, according to Alaska Fish and Wildlife News. But when you add travel and hunting expenses to the cost of a tag for a single wolf, any gunman in it for the fur is more likely to end up in the red.
And when Luke Hilgemann, president of Hunter Nation, the out-of-state organization that filed a lawsuit to force the DNR to stage the hunt without delay, explained that wolves needed to be exterminated to protect livestock and pets, even hunters had to smile. Official statistics available from 2018, for example, show that under provisions of the Endangered Species Act, $144,509 in compensation was paid to Wisconsin farmers and pet owners who lost a total of 33 cattle and 19 hunting dogs to wolf predation. That’s 33 cattle fatalities out of the state’s estimated herd of 3.45 million head, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Important to note, in view of hyperbolic wolf legends and lore, there has been only one human fatality (in rural Alaska) in the U.S. from a wolf attack since 1900. And only 32 attacks since 1782, according to the Field and Stream edition published June 22, 2018.
Whereas, Farley Mowat in his 1963 classic memoir “Never Cry Wolf,” documented the beneficial role that wolf packs (complex, extended families dedicated to the care and feeding of their young) play in ecosystems, such as keeping healthy the Arctic's caribou herd — and, arguably, doing the same for Wisconsin’s deer population today.
Hilgemann was more candid, however, when he added that another reason for his organization’s lawsuit was to protect “hunting traditions.” Which, if he’s honest, amounts to stalking and shooting wolves for fun.
I confess, as a fisherman, that this rationale is one I relate to. Anglers take to the water, partly to harvest and eat fish, but mostly for sport, in escapist immersion in nature and the outdoors for recreation and pleasure. The difference is that they release, unharmed, most fish they don’t eat. Whereas, the wolves trapped or hunted this past week were shot where they stood, or finished off while tangled in a trap, never to see another day.
In President Donald Trump’s last month in office, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted the wolf, citing its recovery over the last few decades. But the former administration has a record of a wholesale loosening or eliminating of environmental restrictions and ceding power over wildlife and resources to private industry or state governments, as it has apparently done with regulatory control of wolves. While Republican Wisconsin state legislators, still smarting from President Joe Biden’s electoral upset in their state, made known their fervent desire that the DNR fast track a wolf hunt before the new administration could restore protections.
Environmental groups including Earthjustice are also suing to restore federal protections, maintaining that the wolf recovery is a fiction, insofar as they remain extinct in 80% of their former habitat. Wisconsin’s current wolf population of approximately 1,000, was cut by 15% in this week’s deadly shootaround.
Years ago, on a foggy summer morning, I came face to face with a wolf on the edge of the Chequamegon National Forest. I had been walking with my dog on Barker Lake Road, where we had a lake cabin 30 miles east of Hayward.
Our black lab, accustomed to chasing everything that moved, halted suddenly, its back hair standing up like porcupine needles.
A gray wolf stood on the high bank on the right side of the road, looking down. Though it was the first I had ever seen, it was unmistakable for its considerable size (100 pounds), its legs splayed wide, head slightly declined, its amber eyes intently focused on the two of us.
A single moment of silence, of fear and reverence, of holding my breath, before its head visibly relaxed, and it turned and vanished into the pines.
There is a chance that the individual I saw was among this past week’s victims. And though it has inspired frustration and even hate in some, and awe and inspiration in others, it’s a disgrace and a shame and a crime, if it was shot to death for political vindication. Or for fun.
David McGrath is a former Hayward resident, an emeritus English professor at the College of DuPage in Illinois, the author of "South Siders," and a frequent contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page. He can be reached at email@example.com.