News stories are ricocheting across the country about Salmon's "Wolf Derby," which, beginning this weekend, offers cash prizes for the biggest killed wolf. Many have scratched their heads at this unintended marketing of Idaho to the rest of the nation.
What has even more folks scratching their heads is the Idaho Department of Fish and Game's hiring of a professional trapper to eradicate two wolf packs deep in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and the Forest Service's permission to host the trapper in a U.S. Forest Service cabin.
Proponents of the Wolf Derby in Salmon aren't shy about the purpose of their event. Fish and Game and the Forest Service seem to be trying to slip their event under the radar.
Wolf issues in Idaho can be pretty emotional. Many of us who care deeply about Idaho's outdoors are reluctant to wade into such a polarized topic. Scientists talk about carrying capacity for wildlife. There is also a social carrying capacity for critters like wolves, finding a level of protection that Idaho citizens will support. The Idaho Conservation League supports state management of wolves because we believe that finding the social balance requires state leadership. ICL supports a hunting season for wolves, but ICL also supports the role wolves play in the backcountry. Wolves are part of Idaho's outdoors.
It is one thing to have sportsmen control numbers of this big game species. It is another to hire an exterminator to eradicate entire packs deep in the largest protected wilderness in the lower 48 states. If wolves can't live in relative peace in one of the nation's premier wilderness landscapes, where can they? What kind of precedent does this set for more accessible areas?
Fish and Game recently hosted a wildlife summit in which the key message was that Idaho's wildlife belongs to all of us. A summit conclusion was that both sportsmen and wildlife enthusiasts have an important voice and that together we should support wildlife management efforts. This action deep in the wilderness suggests certain interests have a lot more power than others.
The Forest Service and Fish and Game regularly use each other's facilities, but the Forest Service Manual directs the agency to consider how this use will impact wilderness characteristics: "Discourage measures for direct control (other than normal harvest) of wildlife and fish populations; ... consider the benefits of a predator species in the ecosystem before approving control actions." (Forest Service Manual 2320).
To be fair, Fish and Game is responsible for wildlife management. Cow elk numbers in the Middle Fork Zone are down, and wolves have undoubtedly played a role. When faced with complex issues such as this, both the Forest Service and Fish and Game must use the best available science and seek input from the public. This eradication effort was approved without public review. And the elk management and predator control plans that Fish and Game are using to justify these efforts are still in their draft forms.
Fish and Game and the Forest Service should suspend this operation and involve the public in an open and transparent discussion. The Idaho Conservation League is taking steps to facilitate this.
These lands and wildlife belong to all of us. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Forest Service can do better. Wilderness and wildlife management can coexist but this takes forethought, care and an informed citizenry.
Rick Johnson is executive director of the Idaho Conservation League