Idaho predators are under the gun

 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

The wolf will enjoy federal protection for at least a few more years, but other Idaho predators aren't so lucky.

In August, the seven-member Idaho Fish and Game Commission, which sets the agenda for the state Department of Fish and Game, adopted the state's first predator-control policy. The policy provides only the broadest of guidelines, but commissioners - especially the four new appointments by Republican Gov. Dirk Kempthorne - are pushing for aggressive controls.

The Clearwater National Forest in northern Idaho may be the first to feel the impacts of the commission's new approach. In late January, the state announced plans to kill at least 75 bears and 10 mountain lions in a 200-square-mile area near the Lochsa River, where elk populations have dropped in recent years.

The elk scarcity is a big concern for the agency, in part because hunting licenses bring in a lot of funding, and commissioner Don Clower says the Clearwater project will determine whether predator control is a workable solution.

The Idaho Guides Association lobbied the commission in support of the new policy, and it backs the Clearwater proposal. "If you can't show people live elk on the ground, man, you are not going to be in business very long," says executive director Grant Simonds. He says predators - including the reintroduced wolves - are largely to blame for the elk decline.

There's one hitch in the proposal, says Lynn Fritchmann, a longtime hunter and Idaho conservationist. "There's not a shred of evidence that this will do any good," he fumes. "Every wildlife biologist you talk to says, 'Hey, it's the habitat, stupid.'" Decades of fire suppression, he says, have produced a thick understory of small trees and encouraged the invasion of inedible exotic weeds.

But Fish and Game wildlife chief Steve Huffaker says that though habitat is part of the answer, the state has no control over the private land and national forests used by wildlife. "We don't own or manage habitat," he says. "The only thing we can do something about is predation."

The Clearwater project, which has funding from the federal Wildlife Services agency, was set to begin in April. But widespread public outcry, combined with legal threats from the Idaho Conservation League, Defenders of Wildlife and several other groups, led the state to put a hold on the project in early February. State biologists are now taking a second look at the proposal.

Though Idaho's new predator policy isn't directly related to the draft wolf management plan, environmentalists fear the official Idaho attitude will turn out to be bad news for the wolf. Gov. Kempthorne recently referred to grizzly bears as "massive, flesh-eating carnivores" (HCN, 12/4/00: Grizzlies invited back to the Bitterroot), and the majority of commissioners appear to share his general feelings about predators.

"There's no one on this commission with a degree in biology, no one with any wildlife management expertise," says Larry McLaud of the Idaho Conservation League. "And what they say, goes."

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