Robert Ehlert: The tricky business of managing wolves

rehlert@idahostatesman.comJanuary 15, 2014 

Robert Ehlert

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Yes, this column and this entire page are about wolves, but before you go any further, let me warn you that I will not lead you to any meadow or mountaintop of solutions for management of them in Idaho.

I will abandon you in the same polarized forest of conflict and controversy where we started. You have been warned.

The job of “managing” wildlife — and, in this case, wolves — is an honorable but vexing endeavor, especially in Idaho, where present conditions are so optimum that the wolf population has thrived since a 1995 federal government reintroduction into the Northern Rockies.

I must confess to being fascinated by wolves, but I am not trying to make a living in livestock that is affected by the estimated 700 wolves who share the wilderness and rangelands.

I haven’t joined the ranks of elk hunters who, in recent years, find themselves competing with wolves for their elk trophies.

But here’s what I know. Not quite 25 years ago, I spent some time with a world renowned wolf biologist, L. David Mech, as I prepared a lengthy story on my favorite carnivore for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Mech, who will turn 77 on Saturday, has been a key figure in the reintroduction of wolves across the U.S.

Besides being associated with a number of federal wildlife agencies over the years, he is an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota and the founder of the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn. He’s a scientist known for trying to increase the populations of some species, but he has been a lifelong trapper.

I am not qualified or familiar enough to assign a “love” for wolves to such a scientist, but with Mech I witnessed an undying and dedicated fascination. He’s traveled all over North America (including the Arctic) to observe and document the activity of wolves.

Not having followed every step of his career since our time tracking radio-collared wolves in northern Minnesota in 1988-1989, I took a tour through his website and other writings about him to see what his feelings are about managing wolves now that they are doing so well.

I found this statement from him in November 2012:

“Now that wolf populations have recovered and have been delisted from the U.S. Endangered Species List in the Upper Midwest and the Northern Rockies, wolf management has reverted to the states in those regions. Thus, I believe that the way wolves should be managed is however each state decides.

“Individual citizens have individual opinions about wolf management. State legislatures and Departments of Natural Resources must balance all these many conflicting views while ensuring that their wolf populations survive but conflict minimally with humans. As long as the wolf is no longer endangered in a particular state, I support that state’s approach to managing its wolves.”

Now, I don’t know whether this includes the extreme of the state of Idaho hiring someone to go into the wilderness to hunt down two packs of wolves.

What a state does is reflective of its values — the same way a state seal is reflective of its values.

You’ve heard about the golden bears of California, right? There is a grizzly bear on the California state seal. But the last of the California grizzlies was hunted down and killed sometime in the 1920s.

Idaho has a prominent elk on its state seal, but no wolves that we can see with our magnifying glass.

It’s a complicated and uneven business championing one species over another, demonizing one at the expense of another. But there is livestock and there are livelihoods at stake. I get that.

Maybe this is naive, but here’s hoping that the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Gov. Butch Otter and his wolf management initiative, and all of the concerned conservationists can talk this one through.

I’d rather live in a state where wolves “conflict minimally” with me than one that disrespects a creature that has a role in the bigger picture.

How about you?

Robert Ehlert is the Statesman’s editorial page editor. Contact him at 377-6437, or on Twitter @IDS_HelloIdaho.

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