Idaho Fish and Game turns to hired hunter

In the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, a wolf researcher and filmmaker sees a step back in the animal's recovery process.

rbarker@idahostatesman.comDecember 17, 2013 

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Gus Thoreson, a hunter hired by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, rides into Cabin Creek from Flying B Ranch on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in December 2013.

PROVIDED BY ISAAC BABCOCK / HOBBIT HILL FILMS

Idaho's Department of Fish and Game has hired a hunter to eliminate two wolf packs.

The agency previously hired hunter-trappers to kill wolves in the Panhandle Region and the Lolo area in north-central Idaho. But this is the first time it has hired someone to reduce wolf numbers in the land encompassing the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

The decision has a prominent backcountry filmmaker and wolf researcher raising questions about why federal resources are employed to promote predator control in the wilderness.

"I can understand a reasonable hunting season on wolves, they are considered a game animal in Idaho," said Isaac Babcock, of McCall. "But when Fish and Game hires a bounty hunter to go live in designated wilderness in a Forest Service cabin with the goal of eliminating entire wolf packs — something seems terribly wrong with that."

The killing is necessary because wolves and other predators are eating too many elk calves, and the population has not recovered to the agency's goals, said Jeff Gould, Idaho Fish and Game wildlife bureau chief.

Sport hunters have a hard time getting into the area, Gould said. They hired hunter-trapper Gus Thoreson, of Salmon, to see if he can be a cost-effective method of population control.

"The whole goal is to alleviate some of the impacts wolves are having on the elk herds," Gould said.

Fish and Game has an official memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Forest Service to use each other's facilities in the wilderness when carrying out their missions. So, Fish and Game asked for permission for Thoreson to use the Cabin Creek administrative site and airstrip on Big Creek in the Payette National Forest. The University of Idaho turned down a similar request for use of its airstrip at Taylor Ranch because that facility is used only for research and education, a U of I spokesman said.

District Ranger Anthony Botello Krassel said he authorized the use of the Forest Service sites "strictly for the purposes of managing wildlife."

"All of their management has to abide by wilderness management rules like we do," he said. "Usually we don't get involved in the management of wildlife, that's up to them."

Thoreson arrived there late last week — flying into the airstrip on Cabin Creek, then flying into the Flying B, where he picked up a horse and three mules to ride into Cabin Creek. Babcock, who was caretaking at Taylor Ranch on Big Creek, met him and rode part of the way to Cabin Creek with him.

Thoreson told Babcock he was to focus on the Golden Pack that lives in the lower Big Creek/Middle Fork area, as well as the Monumental Pack that lives 11 miles upstream from Cabin Creek, Babcock said.

Babcock was a biologist for the Nez Perce tribe for 13 years, spending much of that time in Idaho's wilderness as he monitored and collared wolves. He and his wife, Bjornen, were featured in a 2012 PBS Nature program called "River of No Return," which they filmed and produced.

"I've followed these wolves through the re-introduction, delisting and becoming a game animal — and now I'm watching us step back 100 years to see wolves viewed as vermin predators," he said.

Fish and Game paid $22,500 for aerial killing in 2012 in the Lolo area that resulted in the killing of 14 wolves. Gould did not know offhand Monday how much the agency would eventually pay for Thoreson's salary and expenses.

Fish and Game prefers that sport hunters kill enough wolves to allow the elk population to be productive.

"If you're looking for cost benefits you remove an entire pack," Gould said. "It's going to have a longer-term benefit than removing members of the pack."

"We're trying to stabilize the trend here with the long-term goal of (elk) recovery," he said.

In January, Fish and Game estimated Idaho's wolf population at 683, an 11 percent drop from the year before. The highest was in 2009 when it estimated 859 wolves were in the state, also the highest in the northern Rockies.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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