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Panelists at Duluth symposium debate wolf hunt

John Lundy

Forum News Service

DULUTH — A debate on hunting and trapping wolves, held Saturday as part of this weekend’s International Wolf Symposium in Duluth, took an almost philosophical turn at times.

"Science doesn’t give us permission to do anything," said Paul Paquet, a Canadian wildlife biologist opposed to what he called recreational killing of wolves. "This is a question of ethics. This is a question of morality."

But Gary Leistico, a St. Cloud, Minn., lawyer and lifelong trapper who represents trapping associations in the state and nationally, disagreed.

"I think it’s important that we don’t let these moral and ethical issues or feelings guide us so much that we don’t look at the science," Leistico said.

Paquet and Leistico were two of four panelists appearing in front of hundreds of attendees Saturday morning at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. The debate, one of the highlights of the three-day event, was moderated by Alistair Bath, an affable Canadian professor whose balding forehead and longish white hair in back won him comparisons to Einstein or, as a jesting Paquet said, Bozo the Clown.

The focus of the debate was the wolf hunting and trapping seasons that opened to protest and litigation last year in Minnesota and Wisconsin and are set to resume this year — beginning Tuesday in Wisconsin.

The audience was respectful and appreciative to all four, although clearly more sympathetic to Paquet and Howard Goldman, the Minnesota director of the Humane Society of the United States and a leading opponent of the wolf hunt.

Leistico and Jim Hammill, a retired wildlife biologist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, were left with the task of defending hunting and trapping wolves. The audience applauded them politely and laughed when they defused tension with humor.

"Paul, I love you, man," Hammill said, grinning impishly down the table at Paquet after the other man offered a particularly impassioned and well-received critique of the wolf hunt.

But the civil veneer was mixed with strong feelings and occasionally harsh words among the panelists.

Almost at the start, Hammill blistered at Goldman’s characterization of wolf hunting as recreational.

"To call it a recreational hunt is an affront to me," Hammill said. "Hunting is my life."

But neither Goldman nor Paquet would back down.

"The primary motivation (of hunting wolves) is gratuitous pleasure," Paquet argued. "Killing for pleasure is highly questionable behavior."

They also clashed over whether the question should be settled by public referenda.

"In my opinion, popular vote is a good way of selecting a Grammy award, not of managing wolves," Hammill said.

Although Hammill and Leistico argued that scientific data support the hunting and trapping seasons, Goldman disagreed.

Audience members, who were ushered into brainstorming sessions of their own following the debate, seemed impressed by the quality of the discussion.

Nathan Varley, 45, a wildlife biologist from Gardiner, Mont., said he sees both sides of the issue. He grew up in a rural area with a strong hunting culture, but he leads tours in Yellowstone National Park with visitors who want to see wolves.

"I’m straddling both sides all the time," Varley said.

He was a little surprised that the hunters in this region seem to love wolves and want them to thrive, he said.

"In my area a lot of hunters are motivated simply by their hatred for wolves," Varley said.

Beckie Prange, 56, an artist from Ely, also described herself as on the fence on the issue. She came to the symposium because she’s interested in wolf research and because it was so close to home, she said.

The debate helped her to see the issues in a different light, she said.

"I think some of the emphasis on ethics and morality hit home with me," Prange said. "It’s not so clear that they should be hunted or trapped for management purposes as it was when I walked in."

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