No other animal divides Idahoans like the wolf. It raises tempers, ignites extreme behavior and stews angry frustration. Both sides of the issue watch wolves with intense emotion. One side is desperately trying to keep wolves out of the maelstrom, the other side says those who released the wolves will reap the whirlwind. Caught in the eye of the storm is an animal released into Idaho's wild more than a dozen years ago, with a relentless instinct to survive no matter what happens between the people fighting over it.Protecting the Pack
Twelve conservation groups sued U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, challenging the decision to take wolves off the endangered species list six months ago. Last week, they won when U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy put the animal back on the protection list. That guarantees the battle will stretch into a third presidential administration.
"In my mind, the really important question is, should a species that's just come off the Endangered Species List be killed in such a large-scale manner in the first year it came off the list," said Anne Carlson, Defenders of Wildlife wolf campaign coordinator. "I don't think it would be acceptable if you said, for example, brown trout just came off the list, let's kill a third of them. If it isn't OK for one species, it isn't okay for wolves, either."
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced, the same day Judge Molloy reinstated wolves on the Endangered Species List, that it will next year seek to once again take wolves off the list, giving states the option to offer hunting seasons for them.
Idaho Department of Fish and Game sees no problem with that.
"Someday we hope to manage wolves like we manage all other big game species - deer, elk, antelope, black bear and mountain lion," said Daryl Meints, Idaho Department of Fish and Game regional wildlife manager. "We have a good plan in place and that plan will serve as the basis for the management of wolves and it will include hunting."Pack of Predators
What feeds the controversy is that the hunted is also a hunter. There are more than 700 wolves in Idaho and they hunt what passes through their territory, including cattle and sheep.
Federal livestock experts are experimenting with new ways to cut down on livestock losses.
A new idea in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area aims to curb the easy kill appeal of sheep by keeping wolves at bay.
"If the livestock stay alive and the wolves stay alive, then we've won. Both sides are happy," said Rick Williamson, USDA wolf specialist.
"We realize not only from a conservation standpoint, but also as a business, finding ways to coexist [with wolves] is going to be crucial," said Mike Stevens, Lava Lake Lamb and Livestock president.
The Wood River Project has the usual hazing elements: rubber bullets, electric fencing and watchdogs are used to chase off wolves that harry flocks. The added element is a night guardian. Defenders of Wildlife sends a staffer into the woods overnight as an extra pair of eyes on a band of sheep. "If we work with producers and help keep their sheep safe, they won't have to remove any wolves we hope," said Jesse Timberlake, a field technician for Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation group that has supported wolf reintroduction by paying ranchers for their losses. Defenders put $21,000 into the project. Compare that to the $10,000 it paid a single producer for losses in 2007, and the motivation to find new solutions is clear. "The field technicians have reported 10 nights in a row of wolves right up against the sheep band without any losses. That's pretty compelling," Stevens said.
The Pack as Prey
Another compelling argument comes from hunters. Many want a shot at a wolf because they think wolves are taking a huge shot at Idaho's prized elk population.
"The calves just aren't there," said Travis Bullock, who owns Mile High Outfitters. "If you don't have calves, you don't have replacement bulls coming into the herd."
Idaho Department of Fish and Game says cow elk survival is indeed below expectations, but it may not be solely related to wolves. Game managers say grass, affected by weather and competition, is the organism they focus on hardest. Still, biologists are looking for wolf impacts. They collared 41 elk in Island Park between 2005 and 2006. By the end of 2007, they had gotten 18 of those collars back. Hunters returned 13 of them.
Beyond elk, the agency's bigger problem is conflict. Wolf and livestock losses are at an all-time high. Now that wolf management is back where it started, in federal hands, there will be no wolf hunt. Idaho Department of Fish and Game planned to use the hunt to help keep pack numbers and conflicts in check.
"Wolves will continue to expand," Meints said. "Most of the areas they'll expand into are going to be areas in and around humans and livestock, so we anticipate an increase in conflict which will lead to the removal of additional wolves."
These, of course, are the same wolves that conservationists will continue to try to keep out of the crosshairs.
Meanwhile, population experts can see there's reason to expect Idaho's wolf population will continue to grow.
"There are huge areas of habitat that have no wolves and none of the subpacks have joined up, so there's no evidence to indicate that we do have too many wolves," Carlson said.This story first appeared in the Post Register.http://www.postregister.com/special/wolves/index.php