There used to be a popular bumper sticker that read “Idaho: The wilderness state.”
I want to change the slogan to “Idaho: The wildness state.”
I love wilderness and Idaho certainly has a lot. With the passage of Rep. Mike Simpson’s Boulder-White Clouds wilderness bill, Idaho’s total wilderness jumped to 4,792,969 acres, placing it third in the nation behind Alaska and California.
But only Alaska and perhaps Montana and Wyoming can compete with Idaho for wildness. These are the only states where an archery hunter can head into the hills hoping to get an elk and get bitten by an angry mother grizzly.
How about a place where you can paddle into the heart of the Frank Church-River of No Return through Class 4 rapids, past bighorn sheep, moose and rattlesnakes, only to emerge into an active forest fire burning on both sides of the Salmon River it jumped across? How about a state where you can walk out of its largest city into the hills and cross as few as nine roads before reaching the Canadian border (without a wall) 400 miles to the north?
All this and the howl of the wolf, the dance of the sage grouse and the remarkable journey of wild salmon.
The wildness state.
Idaho can certainly protect more of its incredible roadless resources as wilderness, and I expect it will. But we have already restored some of the wildness that we lost.
The wolf story is well known. We reintroduced wolves into Idaho 20 years ago and we have been fighting about them ever since. But slowly we are reaching an acceptance level about the wolves we now manage ourselves. How many and where we tolerate them or celebrate them are things still in play.
The grizzly bear story is really interesting, and this summer shows how far we have come from only 30 years ago, when biologists couldn’t find a single grizzly sow with cubs. Now Island Park is crawling with bears. Still, the federal government hasn’t been able to remove them from the federal threatened species list, even though it is clear they have recovered.
Idahoans went from complaining about the return of grizzly bears in the 1990s to sharing their wild communities with them. People in Island Park in particular have learned to live with grizzly bears, much like folks in Montana always have.
Take the archery hunter who was attacked by a sow with three cubs Monday near Sawtelle Peak. He knew there were grizzlies there so he brought bear spray along. He even brought a .44. When the bear grabbed his left arm, he used his free right hand to fire the pistol five times.
Idaho Department of Fish and Game officials could not find a trace of the bear, so the hunter wasn’t charged with shooting an endangered species, which he shouldn’t have been. Nor should the sow with cubs be killed since she was doing what any mother would, protecting her young.
Earlier in August, Fish and Game killed a 25-year-old male grizzly that had broken into the kitchen at Elk Creek Ranch. The toothless bear couldn’t hunt for himself, and if he was your pet, you probably would have put him down yourself.
Ann Anthony, editor of the Island Park News, said the reason people are seeing so many bears in Island Park this year is because the seasons are early. They have already had their first frost in August, and that signaled to the bears to begin fattening up for hibernation.
“I’ve had them on my deck and my breezeway. You have to be careful,” Anthony said. “If you leave something out, they’re going to get into it.”
The problem is some seasonal residents actually like having grizzly bears in their backyards so they can watch them and photograph them. In her editorial this week, Anthony told readers to stop putting food in their bird feeders to attract bears.
“You are putting a death sentence on these bears when you put the birdseed out,” Anthony said.
She wants Fremont County to start ticketing people who don’t keep their garbage and birdseed away from bears. But Anthony also wants bears delisted, and she wants Idaho to open a hunting season like it already has on wolves.
She is the face of the new generation of Idahoans who relish the state’s wildness and want to make room for its wild creatures — but also want a place for humans, too.
Idaho: a state of mind.