Top 50 Stories: 1995 - Return of the wolves

Their release in Idaho set off controversy that’s still going strong

rbarker@idahostatesman.comJune 22, 2014 

Five wolves that had been captured in Canada and cooped up in small metal crates for 74 hours ran free into the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness on Jan. 14, 1995.

Ken Miller, a reporter for the Idaho Statesman and Gannett News Service, joined Statesman photographer Katherine Jones on the icy surface at the end of the Salmon River Road to record what has been called one of the great conservation successes of the 20th century.

Ranchers and local officials who were at the release site were not celebrating. They had just lost a last-ditch legal effort to stop the reintroduction of the predators, which had been in the works for more than a decade.

Miller’s story and Jones’ photographs showed the radio-collared wolves reluctant to leave the metal crates — thus beginning one of the defining stories of modern Idaho.

It’s a clash between people who love and want to protect the state’s wild heart and those who seek to make a living off the land ranching, logging, mining and hunting.

For two decades, this story has affected nearly all Idahoans. The Statesman has chronicled how wolves thrived in the 22 million acres of wilderness and roadless national forest in Central Idaho; covered the challenges ranchers faced from wolf attacks on livestock; and described how residents in Stanley and Ketchum delighted in the regular appearances of wolf packs on the edges of their communities.

And we followed the often-volatile debate over the effects of growing wolf numbers on Idaho’s elk population and hunting.

Along the way, we have often stopped to look more deeply at the animals and the people whose lives they changed. In 2004, we told the story of the life and death of one of the five wolves released at Corn Creek. The wolf was known as B2 — or Chat Chaaht, as named by Nez Perce schoolchildren.

“B2 helped Idaho’s Nez Perce Tribe reconnect with its spiritual past, ate a cow owned by the president of the Idaho Cattle Association and inspired wolf supporters around the world. Like thousands of newcomers who came to Idaho in the 1990s, B2 and the other wolves helped ignite a debate over changing Western values,” a Statesman story read.

“You may find meaning in B2’s mournful search for his dead mate. You may find hope in his remarkable survival. You may see in his story one more example of an arrogant federal government forcing its will on Westerners.

“Or you may wish he and the 34 other Canadians who augmented Idaho’s struggling native wolf population would have gone back to where they came from.”

B2 died in 2004 next to a young bull elk, his final kill at age 14.

NUMBERS GROW, THEN DECLINE

Wolf numbers jumped to more than 150 in 2001, and hunters began complaining about the effects on game populations.

Wolves were first removed from the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act in 2009. But wildlife advocates successfully overturned the Obama administration’s decision and returned the wolf to the list.

In April 2011, I was in Washington, D.C., to cover the vote by Congress to delist the wolf again in the Northern Rockies, an unprecedented political move in the history of the Endangered Species Act.

Idaho’s wolf population peaked in 2009 at an estimated 850.

Wolf hunting, which began in Idaho in 2009, reduced the population to around 540 when the breeding season began in late March of this year. That same month, Gov. Butch Otter signed a bill to create an Idaho Wolf Depredation Control Board to reduce the wolf population further.

This raised the ire of wolf and wildlife supporters worldwide, as did a wolf-hunting derby in 2013 and a decision by Idaho Fish and Game to send a government hunter to kill wolves in the Frank Church Wilderness.

But biologists are confident that wolves are prolific enough to offset anything except a poisoning campaign like the one that killed them off in the century before.

Such a campaign is unlikely, managers say.

Idahoans are learning to live with wolves. But for some, the presence of wolves remains a bitter pill.

Republican Rep. JoAn Wood, of Rigby, who fought hard in the 1990s to keep Fish and Game from doing anything to help bring wolves from Canada to Idaho, has been skeptical about making hunters and ranchers pay to kill wolves.

“We never wanted our sportsmen or livestock growers to pay for shoving them down our throats,” Wood said in February.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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