Letters from the West

Idaho hunters, wildlife lovers hate poachers more than each other

Hearing the deep, haunting howl of a wolf — or even better, a chorus of howls and barks of a pack in the wild — is one of the richest experiences in nature.

It’s a sound that transcends the polarizing politics surrounding these wild predators in any place they survive or have been restored. I first heard it in Yellowstone National Park soon after they were brought in from Canada in the 1990s.

Hunters have told me stories of sitting quietly with wolves all around them, barking, howling and making their hair stand up. The full-throated bawling howl of a wolf in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area brought one of my friends to tears.

Most of the time hunters and wildlife lovers fight over the way we manage these animals at the top of the food chain. The same is true with grizzly bears, where right now people along the great divide are arguing over whether to remove the grizzly from threatened status on the endangered species list.

Two incidents in the past month have forced the sides to put aside their differences and join forces against a creature they both hold in contempt: the poacher.

The week of May 16, somebody found a den of wolf pups in the Sage Creek drainage in Kootenai County north of Coeur d’Alene. The den was within sight of the popular Silverwood Theme Park, visited by thousands of people.

The poachers dragged the defenseless pups out of the den to kill them. There was no open season on wolves at the time, so their actions were illegal.

The second incident came to light June 4, when the Idaho Department of Fish and Game got a call that a young grizzly was found dead near East Dry Creek along a road in Island Park. East Dry Creek flows out of the Centennial Mountains, which serve as a wild link between Yellowstone National Park and the best and largest tract of unoccupied grizzly bear habitat in the lower 48 states, in Central Idaho.

Later, Fish and Game revealed the bear had been killed only a few days earlier and dumped there. Whoever did it cut off some bear claws as mementos.

The state’s Citizens Against Poaching program and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with several wildlife groups, have offered big rewards to convince people to turn in or provide information about the poachers. The state and the feds, along with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, are offering $11,200. The Center for Biological Diversity and the Humane Society’s Wildlife Trust are offering rewards totaling $10,000, bringing the bear reward total to 21,200.

The Center for Biological Diversity also added a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the wolf killers on top of the reward offered by Citizens Against Poaching.

Each side has its own agenda behind its reward offer.

The center wants to highlight threats to bears and wolves, to back up their case against removing the animals from the endangered species list and strengthen their effort to force the federal government to reinstate monitoring of wolf management in Idaho.

“Pulling young wolf cubs from their den and killing them is repulsive,” said Andrea Santarsiere, a staff attorney at the center. “Coming on the heels of a protected grizzly bear being killed last month, it’s a stark reminder that Idaho’s still-recovering populations of big carnivores are at constant threat from poachers.”

Idaho Fish and Game wants the poacher of the bear caught to show that the state can and will protect grizzlies as well as the federal government does, so that the animals will be delisted.

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition not only put up the reward, it just spent $25,000 to provide bear-safe storage and dumpsters to the Treasure Mountain Boy Scout camp in Teton Canyon east of Driggs in order to reduce the conflicts between bears and humans.

For hunters who don’t like wolves, catching the poachers strengthens Idaho’s grip on managing wolves and its claim to be effective managers.

“We need the rule of law,” said Steve Alder, executive director of the pro-hunting group Idaho For Wildlife.

The loose coalition against poaching wolves and bears provides the Idaho Department of Fish and Game another chance at bringing these groups together over common goals, which is far more often than both sides recognize.

Little do the poachers know that their indefensible acts only unite disparate groups against poaching.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker