Wolf management in Idaho is not ready for prime time
Idaho's treatment of wolves has not yet sunk to the bygone days of state bounties and federal poisoning that exterminated all the wolves in the Lower 48 states, except for a few in northern Minnesota. But it's not far off the mark.
With at least 378 of the state's approximately 1,000 wolves already trapped and hunted this year, Idaho is well on the way to driving its wolves back to the brink. In the process, the state is building a compelling case for returning federal protection to wolves.
It was just a year ago this month that a congressional rider on a budget bill stripped Endangered Species Act protections from wolves in Idaho, Montana and parts of Utah, Oregon and Washington.
The move put the states in charge of wolves, in large part because, supporters argued, the states could better manage their own wolf populations. But all the evidence to date suggests that Idaho's management ignores the scientific, on-the-ground realities of conserving wolves. It has failed to figure out how to manage the complex human factors involved when wolves and people share the same landscape.
The inhumane wolf free-for-all in Idaho was thrust under a national spotlight this spring by a graphic photo showing a trapped male wolf in northern Idaho. The wolf was still very much alive, and in pain, in a circle of bloody snow with a grinning trapper in the foreground. The picture was posted on a trapping website in March and ignited a firestorm of revulsion when it went "viral" online.
Idaho state law makes it a crime for a person who "causes or procures any animal to be cruelly treated, or who, having the charge or custody of any animal either as owner or otherwise, subjects any animal to cruelty." The law also requires that "destruction of animals for population control" (the supposed reason for wolf trapping) be carried out humanely.
But the bleeding, suffering black wolf, which had possibly already been shot as well, had to wait for the photo to be taken before it was killed.
A reasonable person, or at least an empathetic one, might conclude that the trapper who prolonged the animal's suffering in order to pose for a photo violated the minimal standard of decency intended by state law. Idaho Department of Fish and Game officials say no law was broken since the trapper had a valid wolf-trapping permit, but they acknowledged that the trapper's actions were "contrary to the ethics and humane responsibility" taught in trapping classes.
The state's cursory investigation of this cruel incident only serves to highlight its reluctance to address head-on the anti-wolf fervor that is the primary impediment to the wolf's survival and recovery. It also clearly shows why the removal of federal Endangered Species Act protections was premature. Even at the high-water mark of their recovery in 2009, wolves were established in less than 5 percent of their historic range in the contiguous 48 states, and only 115 breeding pairs survived in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.
What was always clear was that, without federal protections, the states would move quickly to reduce their wolf populations. For these and other reasons, federal courts consistently ruled that taking wolves off the endangered species list in the Northern Rocky Mountains violated the Endangered Species Act.
But after the last of these rulings, Congress on April 14, 2011, approved a rider on a must-pass budget bill that required wolf delisting in the Northern Rockies. The passage of such legislation was unprecedented, and it is now unraveling more than 15 years of work to recover wolves and conserve their ecosystems.
The return of wolves to the Northern Rockies has taught elk to avoid valley bottoms where they can't see wolves approaching. Streamside trees are now thriving in places where, for the previous seven decades, elk had eaten every growing sapling. Songbirds now nest in new cottonwoods, beavers gnaw down some of them for dams, and fish thrive in the beaver ponds. Wolves also provide carrion from the leftovers of their kills, benefiting scavenging bears, eagles, weasels and wolverines. And wolves even help foxes by controlling the number of coyotes, which kill the smaller foxes.
In short, wolves were returning to their rightful place as an important, influential force on the landscape. Now, Idaho seems determined to go back to the days when wolf extermination - rather than conservation - was the name of the game. Idaho was given a chance to responsibly manage wolves, but the state has clearly shown that it is not up to the task.
Michael Robinson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He works for the Center for Biological Diversity in Silver City, New Mexico, and is the author of "Predatory Bureaucracy: The Extermination of Wolves and the Transformation of the West."