Nez Perce natural resources director calls Lolo wolf-killing ‘arrogant’

Wildlife Services said a handy helicopter and good weather presented the right opportunity; Fish and Game says the action shouldn’t be a surprise.

rbarker@idahostatesman.comMarch 4, 2014 

Wolf Nation

This undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows a gray wolf. Tens of thousands of gray wolves would be returned to the woods of New England, the mountains of California, the wide open Great Plains and the desert West under a scientific petition filed with the federal government Tuesday, July 20, 2010. (AP Photo/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Serv

AP

The first time Nez Perce Tribal Natural Resources Director Aaron Miles heard that the federal government and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game were killing wolves in his backyard was late Friday.

Lewiston Tribune reporter Eric Barker called him and told him that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services had killed 23 wolves in the North Fork of the Clearwater River watershed under contract for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. The tribe gets federal funds to monitor wolves and was the primary manager of the wolves in the early years of reintroduction. It didn’t get a courtesy call, Miles said Monday.

“It took me by surprise,” he said. “It’s bold and it’s arrogant.”

Fish and Game Wildlife Bureau Chief Jeff Gould said his agency coordinates annually with the Nez Perce and had made it clear it would continue to aggressively reduce wolf numbers in the Lolo zone to boost elk populations.

“It’s no surprise,” Gould said. “It’s an area where we have a problem.”

The wolf-killing comes as the Idaho Legislature is considering whether to create a new wolf control board to collect funds from ranchers and hunters annually — with a one-time $2 million influx of cash from taxpayers — to kill wolves. Supporters argue the funds are needed to keep today’s wolf population of about 650 from rising again.

Under an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the tribe and the state were co-managers of Idaho wolves until Congress ordered them delisted in 2011. The state has moved ahead with aggressive control of wolves to increase elk numbers over the objections of the tribe.

“There’s still questions for big game that have to deal with habitat, not wolves,” Miles said. “Those things need to be fully vetted before you start shooting wolves.”

Since 2009, Fish and Game has worked with Wildlife Services to shoot wolves from aircraft in the Lolo Zone near the Montana border in north-central Idaho, which includes part of the Nez Perce reservation and lands the tribe ceded to the United States under treaty.

The wolves were killed Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday by Wildlife Services staff using its own helicopter. Todd Grimm, Idaho director of the federal agency, said the action had not been planned; Fish and Game had asked them to watch for the right opportunity.

“The helicopter was available and the weather was right,” he said.

He estimated the cost at about $30,000, far less than past actions when a private helicopter was rented.

Fish and Game officials said they don’t announce wolf-control actions because it could draw other people in aircraft, such as the media.

“In any kind of low-altitude missions, our primary concern is operational safety,” Gould said.

WORKING TOGETHER?

Forest Service officials were not contacted, said Joyce Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Clearwater-Nez Perce National Forest. Fish and Game usually gives the agency a heads up as a courtesy, she said, but it is under no obligation to do so.

Wolves are an important part of Nez Perce tribal culture, as are the diverse species that lived in the area when Lewis and Clark passed through in 1805, Miles said.

“There’s a way to be able to blend our view and our culture with sportsmen and whoever lives on this land,” Miles said.

But if the state won’t work with them, the tribe will push its goals through the Forest Service planning process when the Clearwater-Nez Perce national forests plan is revised, he said.

Fish and Game said in its press release Friday that killing the 23 wolves is consistent with Idaho’s predation-management plan for the Lolo elk zone. Predation is the major reason elk population numbers are below its own management objectives, the agency said.

Since it began in 2010, Fish and Game and Wildlife Services have done six wolf-killing campaigns in the Lolo zone, killing 25 wolves before last week’s 23.

Hunters and trappers took 17 wolves in the mountainous region during the 2013-14 season. The trapping season ends March 31; hunting season ends June 30.

The agency estimates the Lolo zone had 75 to 100 wolves at the start of the 2013 hunting season, with additional animals crossing between Idaho and Montana and other Idaho elk zones.

Fish and Game’s goal is to reduce the Lolo zone wolf population by 70 percent.

ELK’S HEYDAY

The Lolo elk herd’s 16,000 animals was once the state’s most valuable, attracting hunters from around the world. As the forest grew after fires in the 1930s, the quality of the elk habitat dropped. By 2010, the elk population had dropped to roughly 2,100.

Idaho Fish and Game biologists said the population will not rise unless wolf, black bear and mountain lion predation is reduced. The tribe believes that poor habitat, not predators, is the primary problem, Miles said.

“We’ve always stood by the best available science and that we do things properly,” Miles said.

Fish and Game’s own predation plan says programs to aid elk and deer by reducing predators can’t be temporary: “Wolf populations tend to compensate for low removal rates, potentially within a year,” the National Research Council said in a report included in the plan.

“Where higher levels of removal occur and wolf populations decline, the wolf population would be expected to return to pre-removal levels rapidly once removals end. ... Consequently, after a wolf population is reduced to a desired level, it is necessary to sustain a removal level during subsequent years to maintain reduced wolf abundance.”

Gould said Fish and Game has placed radio collars on elk, moose and wolves as a part of a five-year research project to determine how their predator management is helping hunters.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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