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for people who care about the West

Delisting wolves won’t change much in the West

  When Idaho Gov. Butch Otter said last month he wanted to bid for the first wolf tag offered to hunters in his state, it prompted predictable righteous indignation.

Newspapers across the nation, including the New York Times, expressed doubts that the federal government could turn control over Idaho’s remarkably productive wolf population to people like Otter. Wolf lovers around the world loaded the governor’s office with e-mails, scolding him and Idahoans for our lack of understanding of this regal predator and its place in the ecosystem.

Idaho has finally become a focus in the wolf debate. Ever since wolves were reintroduced in 1995, Idaho’s place in the discussion has been overshadowed by Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone, it seemed to most people, was the ideal place to restore wolves after federal government trappers, ranchers and others trapped, poisoned and starved out the region’s original wolves in the early 20th century. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took great care when it brought wolves to the park in 1995, since conservation efforts there always play out on a world stage. Wolf packs brought from Canada were kept together and placed in “enclosures” to allow the animals to acclimate to their new home. Meanwhile, in Idaho, the wolves were dumped out at the end of a road on the edge of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

Politically, Idaho didn’t appear to be a friendly place for wolves either. Then-Gov. Phil Batt and the state Legislature said they wanted nothing to do with wolves. So the federal government handed over management to the Nez Perce Tribe, though without adequate funding.

Fortunately, Idaho’s wolves didn’t notice their second-class status because today, Idaho has a wolf population twice the size of Yellowstone’s. At more than 650 animals, Idaho has more wolves than Montana and Wyoming combined, and the state’s wolf numbers have exceeded federal recovery goals. Most important, Idaho’s leaders and most of the livestock community have learned to live with the predators. They helped put together a wolf management plan that, for all of its anti-wolf rhetoric, allows the animals to flourish.

Yet Otter expressed his true feelings — and the feelings of many ranchers and hunters — when he said he wanted to manage wolves for the minimum population goals, which would be 10 packs and a little over 100 animals. This immediately concerned wolf advocates, who foresaw a great slaughter as soon as wolves were removed from the protection of the Endangered Species Act.

But most wolf experts — scientists who have studied both wolves and their prey — doubt that such a slaughter could return even if the state decided to sanction it. Jim Peek, University of Idaho wildlife management professor emeritus, said hunting won’t by itself result in a dramatic decrease in wolf numbers. The more wolves killed, the more productive they become, as females have larger litters and breed more often in the face of reduced numbers. Idaho might be able to cut numbers through helicopter-gunning, but that’s a practice that’s both expensive and unpopular. Trapping, too, has its difficulties. It may have proved effective a century ago, but in Quebec, Canada, for example, where officials are trapping to reduce the population, wolves have become as wary as coyotes.

As always, the debate will come down to clashing values. The New York Times is sure to chastise Westerners for not embracing federal protection of wolves at the same time the paper is unwilling to press for reintroduction in the East, where there remains excellent habitat. Meanwhile, many Idahoans are similar to people in Montana and Wyoming who want wolves back on the land. Previously, wolf opponents could count on support for their cause from residents who never like the federal government sticking its nose in their lives — no matter what the issue.

But here’s what I think: Once wolves are delisted and management returned to the states, wolves will become “our” wolves and not the federal government’s. Politicians like Otter who target wolves will have to deal with the potential of worldwide tourism boycotts and other sanctions, along with the expense of a major wolf kill-off. Inevitably, politics in the states will continue to change as places like Idaho become more like Oregon and California. Wolves are here to stay, and they and the wild lands they need to survive will play a larger role in the region as subdivisions sprawl up mountain valleys and fragment ranchlands.

Rocky Barker is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the environmental writer for the Idaho Statesman in Boise and the author of Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America.