Wolf-killing plan complicates balancing act

Pragmatic conservationists say they can support wolf hunting, but not treating the restored species like vermin, especially in the wilderness.

rbarker@idahostatesman.comJanuary 14, 2014 

Golden Creek Pack alpha male and alpha female along Big Creek in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

ISAAC BABCOCK — Hobbit Hill Films

  • WEIGH IN ON THE WILDERNESS WOLF PACK ISSUE

    The Idaho Fish and Game Commission will vote Jan. 16 on the state elk management plan that includes the Middle Fork of the Salmon River zone and calls for hiring a hunter-trapper to eliminate two of six packs of wolves.

    A public hearing is set for 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Washington Group Plaza at 720 Park Blvd.

    Idaho Wolves and Elk

    Æ 1995-96: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced 35 wolves into Idaho, augmenting several lone wolves living in the state.

    Æ 2002: Idaho had 300 wolves and the number was growing; the Legislature approved a state management plan.

    Æ 2011: Congress removed wolves in Idaho, Montana, eastern Oregon, eastern Washington and northern Utah from the threatened species list.

    Æ 2012: Idaho Fish and Game sold 80,577 elk tags, and hunters killed 16,418 elk — a 20 percent success rate. In 1996, 100,527 hunters had a 25 percent success rate.

Director Virgil Moore’s two goals for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game — to bring hunters and other wildlife advocates together and to increase elk numbers — have collided in the middle of the largest wilderness in the lower 48 states.

His agency’s hiring of a hunter-trapper to exterminate two packs of wolves in the 2.4 million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness has angered many of the people who had previously stayed out of the polarizing wolf debate. It’s also alienating some of the people who are critical to Moore’s efforts to expand funding for his department.

Gov. Butch Otter has proposed spending $2 million to create a separate Wolf Control Board, taking more money from declining license revenues to kill more wolves that prey on livestock and the elk Moore wants to grow.

Moore has been director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game since 2011. In 2012, he hosted a wildlife summit designed to bring together hunters and nonhunters to support their common love of the elk, deer, bears, birds and other critters. And throughout his term he has sought to rebuild elk populations that have declined in some areas where elk habitat has diminished.

In both cases, the polarization sparked by the 1995 reintroduction of wolves into the Northern Rockies has blocked his way.

Wolf advocates in Idaho and nationally are angry with Idaho’s aggressive efforts to reduce wolf numbers. But many conservation groups had supported Moore and the department, hopeful that he can bring the same respect to state wolf management that Fish and Game brought to mountain lions in the early 1970s.

Deciding to hire staff to eliminate entire packs of wolves is more than they can tolerate.

“It’s a product of not respecting the existence of that creature,” said Jim Akenson, a wildlife biologist and hunter who spent 18 of the past 29 years at the University of Idaho’s Taylor Ranch in the wilderness residents affectionately call “the Frank.” “It’s the same thing Maurice Hornocker encountered when he pushed to protect cougars as game animals.”

Hornocker, a legendary wildlife biologist who lives in Hailey, did the research on lions 50 years ago in the same area where Fish and Game’s hunter is seeking to kill wolves. His research was the foundation for the agency policy that elevated cougars from varmint to trophy animals.

MORE THAN NUMBERS

Moore has stressed that the department doesn’t want to eliminate wolves, just manage their numbers — like it does cougars. Idaho has more than 700 wolves and about 100 packs or breeding pairs.

As much as it is about numbers of wolves, for conservationists the issue also is how they are treated. A hired gun in the wilderness goes beyond Fish and Game’s traditional means of reducing trophy animal numbers through public hunting and trapping.

For Moore, however, the issue is numbers. Elk populations have dropped in the Middle Fork of the Salmon River drainage as hunters and six packs of wolves have killed enough elk to keep the population from responding to the growth of new food sources after 20 years of fire. Hunter elk harvests have dropped in recent years, but wolf predation remains high.

Hunting wolves is a method that Akenson and other conservationists can accept. But because “the Frank” is remote and hard to get to, hunters have not been a factor in reducing wolf numbers.

Fish and Game’s draft elk plan calls for culling two of the six wolf packs, Moore said, and hiring a hunter-trapper to do it is the only tool the agency has.

“This is more a philosophical and social issue, not a biological issue,” Moore said. “I think we’re going to have to sit down and take some time and have some dialogue on it.”

WHERE CAN THEY LIVE?

The Idaho Conservation League is one of the conservation groups that has stayed away from the polarizing edge of the wolf debate. It is not among the groups that sued in U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge’s court to halt the extermination of the two packs in the Middle Fork drainage. Executive Director Rick Johnson said he’s heard from many members disappointed that the Idaho group hasn’t fought harder against wolf killings.

But other ICL members, including hunters, support its middle-of-the-road approach.

ICL staff helped write the Idaho wolf management plan in 2002, a plan that allowed wolves to expand in areas where they don’t cause problems. It set goals for 10 to 15 packs statewide. Today, that seems low; at the time, the plan met the federal expectations for recovering the species, 150 wolves.

“We certainly recognize that success for wolf recovery means state management and we believe it’s a success,” Johnson said.

The carrying capacity for wolves and elk is not simply biological numbers, he said. There is a social carrying capacity as well.

“I get that, in the front country, there is going to be robust management for a bunch of different reasons,” Johnson said. “One of them is it keeps the wolves focused on the real backcountry.

“If they can’t live there,” he asks, “where can they live?”

POLITICS AND PREDATORS

Fish and Game’s own agency culture more closely aligns with this pragmatic conservationist view that supports hunting but also values wildlife such as wolves, bluebirds and otters, said John Freemuth, a political science professor at Boise State University who follows wildlife and federal management issues. But Idaho’s political structure places elk and deer, along with livestock, above predators.

“Virgil is walking a balance beam here,” Freemuth said. “He’s much more attuned, and his agency is culturally, to moving to other wildlife concerns, but they are constantly yanked back by the politicians.”

Among the most prominent voices calling for more wolf control is Republican Sen. Jeff Siddoway, a sheep grower from Terreton. He is Otter’s main legislative supporter for the Wolf Control Board, which he said needs to focus on reducing the wolf population that has cost sheep businesses such as his. He said he’s had $30,000 to $50,000 in losses annually over the past eight years.

State records show that 337 sheep were killed in 2012, the latest number available, compared to 147 in 2011. Cattle ranchers lost about 90 head in both years.

But already some legislators are skeptical about spending $2 million to kill wolves. With a total population of about 700 wolves, that’s $2,800 for every wolf in Idaho, living or dead.

Rep. Lawerence Denney, chairman of the House Resources and Conservation Committee, said Fish and Game needs to be free to do its job, protecting the game animals that encourage hunters to buy licenses.

“It’s impacting their bottom line as well, because there’s not the game populations there once was and they’re trying to protect their major base,” Denney said.

STATEWIDE TENSION

Polls by Boise State University through the 1990s showed a plurality or a majority of Idahoans support having wolves in Idaho when the animals are in the wilderness or the state’s roadless areas. That support is why this issue remains a source of tension.

“I’d rather have some wolves around and see a few less elk so I can hear some wolves, and I think there’s a lot of silent hunters in Idaho who share that view,” said Akenson, who now lives in Enterprise, Ore.

Siddoway, a former Idaho Fish and Game commissioner, worries about the effect of wolves on elk and deer as well as livestock. But he’s as tired of the polarization as anyone.

He doesn’t think this is the year the two sides can find common ground, especially about a control board. But he thinks ranchers, hunters and wolf advocates are going to have to sit down and talk eventually.

“We’ve got to find agreement,” Siddoway said.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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