Two weeks in the West

 

"God gave man the ability to manage wildlife."

-- Wayne Wright, an Idaho Fish and Game commissioner, in the Idaho Statesman.

The political animals - the kind that walk on two legs and thump their chests while exhaling promises - could fill this page. But hip-deep in the campaign season, you might like a break from all that. So let's focus instead on the naturally wild animals - and some of the arguments over them.

Wolves in the Northern Rockies: The quote on this page from Wayne Wright shows how some people claim absolute authority over wildlife. It came during a recent Idaho Fish and Game Commission meeting about wolf management. Wright's view rankled environmentalist Jon Marvel. The two men argued. Now the wildlife agency has ordered its staffers not to talk to Marvel anymore, because, it charges, Marvel shoved Wright during the argument. Marvel, head of the Western Watersheds Project, denies doing any shoving, and says the charge is "an orchestrated ... attack" on his reputation. Other enviros who witnessed the argument agree with Marvel's account.

Ever since the federal government restored wolves to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in 1995, even environmentalists have argued among themselves about it. Some greens, including the National Wildlife Federation, favor the program. Another camp, which includes the Sierra Club, filed suit at the beginning, seeking - unsuccessfully - to block the program. That camp sued the feds again two weeks ago, basically making the same complaint: The program makes it too easy for people to kill wolves.

The program has restored a population of 1,500 wolves in the Northern Rockies. It has also killed hundreds of the predators on behalf of cattle and sheep ranchers and elk hunters. Now that the feds are trying to turn wolf management over to the state wildlife agencies in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming - further relaxing the Endangered Species Act protections - the Sierra Club camp thinks state agencies will allow the total population to be reduced by more than half, possibly dooming the program. But the federal agencies and the National Wildlife Federation camp say the killing will remain within tolerable limits.

Who knows: If we live long enough, we may one day see how federal judges and courts of public opinion - and various gods - settle the wolf issue. Meanwhile, Oregon biologists announced the first official sighting of a live wolf in their state since 1999 (in the mountains near LaGrande), and researchers in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado found a huge paw print they say was left by a wild wolf - both evidence that the Northern Rockies wolves are spreading out.

Porcupines: University of Montana researchers suspect porcupines "may be vanishing from the West's mountains," reports the Missoulian. The prickly creatures are doing OK in the valleys, but "anecdotal reports" indicate "they have largely disappeared over the past decade from many evergreen mountain forests." So the researchers have launched what they say is the first study of porcupine populations in the West.

Sage grouse, pygmy rabbits, ferrets, jaguars, lynx, cougars, salmon, elk, bighorn sheep, Arizona's 45 pairs of nesting bald eagles, Puget Sound's 88 killer whales (or orcas), and the huge Indonesian sea turtles that swim across the Pacific Ocean to feed on jellyfish along the Oregon coast: All need more protection from the activities of people, enviros said in new rounds of court cases, studies and other missives. Often, biologists agreed.

M-44 sodium cyanide: M-44 and a similar poison called Compound 1080 are the anti-wildlife, and enviros have finally persuaded the federal Environmental Protection Agency to study how they're used to kill thousands of coyotes and other predators each year in the West. The EPA is accepting public comment until March 5. Enviros want a ban, but given the political power of ranchers who want the poisoning to continue, don't bet on it.

Fishers: Biologists brought 11 of the slithery mammals from Canada and released them in the rain forest of Olympic National Park in western Washington - beginning an effort to restore a species that was extirpated in the state more than 80 years ago. Similar efforts have succeeded in other states, including Montana and Oregon, reports the Seattle Times.

Pikas: The Center for Biological Diversity sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in January, on behalf of a 6-inch-long mammal, the pika. The Tucson-based group believes pikas should be put on the endangered species list because global warming shrinks their cold alpine habitat. The lawsuit - which also represents polar bears and ribbon seals - aims to use the wildlife law to force the government to do more about the impacts of global warming. It's an interesting attempt to get leverage on the biggest environmental problem.

Invasive procedures

In Colorado, a burgeoning elk population is gnawing Rocky Mountain National Park down to the nub. The National Park Service wants to use sharpshooters and birth control to thin the herd. Wildlife biologists recently tested some of the park's elk for chronic wasting disease. Previously, such testing could only be done on dead elk; this is the first time biologists have been able to check live free-ranging elk for the disease. During testing, researchers also injected 60 cow elk with GonaCon, a multi-year birth control drug.