The photos are hard to resist, as is the inherent good news: Panda production is up, at least in captive breeding programs. So what will happen if the efforts to save the endangered species succeed in the wild?

Well, if what we’ve done to the gray wolf is any indicator, goodbye, pandas.

National Public Radio ran a Christmas Eve piece on the laudable success of captive breeding programs for pandas, reporting that the 42 black-and-white balls of fuzz born this year are a record.

The Chinese government’s last survey of pandas puts the wild population at roughly 1,600 animals. A new survey is expected to be released next year.

Jonathan Ballou, population manager at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the National Zoo, worries that the remaining panda habitat is fragmented, so pandas cannot roam from one forest to another.

“It’s not 1,600 animals in some big huge forest,” he explains. “It’s 1,600 animals that are spread among a dozen or so forests, and some of them have very few animals. So there is going to be inbreeding and there are going to be catastrophes like landslides, which destroy the habitat.”

Ballou’s focus now is on preserving as much genetic diversity as possible in the captive population, with the aim of breeding pandas that, as a group, are hardier and less vulnerable to disease. The ultimate goal is to return that genetic diversity to the wild.

Conservationists have already had success in reintroducing other near-extinct animals into the wild, notably gray wolves. In fact, it’s been so successful, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service is recommending the gray wolf be dropped from the endangered species list. And in some places, the animals are already being hunted — which, of course, is one of the primary reasons they became endangered in the first place. The wild wolf population declined 16 percent in the northern Rockies from 2011 to 2012 — a direct result of hunting.

In Idaho next week, the wolves will be the subject — or, rather, target — of as distasteful a program as one can imagine, a killing derby for young hunters. From Boise State Public Radio:

Idaho for Wildlife’s organized hunt is December 28 and 29. The event is focused on young hunters. Sponsors have put up two $1,000 prizes for teams that kill the biggest wolf and the most coyotes.

The contest has once again highlighted the divide between wolf hunters and wolf advocates.

Christine Gertschen is a wildlife advocate in Sun Valley. She says she’s been a critic of hunting derbies in the past.

“Then when this one came up, I just kind of lost it,” she says. “I started writing Fish and Game, and the commissioners. It sends such a poor message of how we feel about wildlife. That we just throw their carcasses in a pile and count them?”

The event has drawn sharp criticism from all across the country. A petition to stop the derby had 12,500 signatures as of Friday morning.

That signature total was just over 16,000 as of Thursday morning. And yes, pandas in China and gray wolves in the U.S. might seem like apples and oranges, but that we laud the one and allow the sport shooting of the other comes down to one constant: hypocrisy.

—Posted by Scott Martelle.

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