The headline read: “Wolf attacks on domestic animals subject of public hearing in state House.”

Commentary: Crying wolfThe context was a pair of bills recently introduced in the Washington Legislature aimed at giving citizens an exemption to kill wolves “in the act of attacking or posing an immediate threat to livestock or pets.”

Rep. Joel Kretz, a Republican member of the Washington House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, told news sources that, “This bill interjects some common sense into this debate and puts in place modest protections for many ranchers and pet owners.”

Added co-sponsor Rep. Shelly Short, the ranking Republican on the Washington House Environment Committee, “Right now, many livestock and pet owners in this state are being held hostage to an unrealistic and unnecessary standard when it comes to wolf predation.”

Sen. John Smith, the sponsor of a parallel Washington Senate measure (S.B. 5187), said that, “The state’s wolf conservation and management plan did not anticipate the extreme concentration of wolves that we see today in northeastern Washington and the resulting catastrophic damage it would render to family farms and rural residents.”

From their comments, and certainly from the news coverage, one might assume that this is another case of ranchers vs. conservationists, another chapter in an ongoing battle between people raising livestock and people who believe wolves have as much right—or more—to occupy the forests and rangelands in the rural Northwest.

That would be inaccurate.

Listen to the comments these legislators made when discussing the subject in-depth:

“What we’re talking about here is when we hear our dog getting snatched off the front porch in the middle of the night and attacked by a gray wolf, we have some recourse to defend our pet,” Kretz said. “Right now, I could catch a wolf in the act of killing a colt or dog in my front yard and not be able to shoot the wolf to protect my animals.”

(Maybe the solution’s to bring Fido inside?)

Or consider the spectacle that unfolded during a House hearing last month, when Twisp, Wash., resident John Stevie testified about a near-fatal wolf attack on his dog Shelby. Stevie brought the injured dog with him to the hearing and news media were quick to publicize photos of the animal, its owner and various legislators posing outside the state capitol building.

Setting a bad precedent

Look, I’ll be the first one to insist that livestock losses as a result of wolf predation ought to be compensated. Ranchers deserve payment for stock they lose to wolves deliberately introduced into a rural region. Despite whatever outcomes are offered up as benefits from a wolf programs, that’s the price that has to be paid: Those who suffer from wolves being wolves must receive compensation. That’s only fair.

But these bills aren’t just about protecting livestock. Those mechanisms are already in place. They’re about giving rural residents—who more likely than not are uninvolved in animal agriculture—the right to gun down a protected species just on their own say-so.

That’s not only a dangerous precedent—in every sense of the d-word—but one that’s counterproductive to the goals of a program designed to restore some of the balance of nature that has been missing across the West for more than a century.

“This bill restores the right to defend one’s home and property against a wolf attack—a natural human instinct and a God-given right,” Sen. Smith said in a statement.

Please. We’re not talking about the early pioneers huddling inside their sod-roofed huts, defending themselves against wild animals with only a hunting rifle and Bowie knife. We’re talking about 21st century citizens who’ve moved into formerly remote areas to take advantage of the solitude and open space and who now want the right to gun down a protected wildlife species just to protect Fido from the remote possibility a wolf might come prowling around one night.

That’s wrong, not to mention counter-productive to the intent of the wolf re-introduction program.

The problem with killing off wolves, bears, panthers and other predators—whatever the rationale—is that, just as happened decades ago, such extermination radically upsets the equilibrium among species that’s critical to a healthy ecosystem. We can forgive our 19th century ancestors for being ignorant of that reality—and doubly so, since they actually were protecting house and home.

However, there’s no excuse for us moderns to pretend that giving ordinary residents carte blanche to kill predators on sight won’t eventually cause bigger problems that a few pets getting chewed on by Canis lupus.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.