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April 22, 2007 | Wolves

The Idaho Statesman

Rocky Barker

Elk have replaced cows as the flash point in the debate over the return of wolves to the West. Ranchers led the campaign to eliminate wolves in the West early in the 20th century. Keeping wolves from eating livestock was the major concern when wolves were reintroduced to the region in 1995. But now, the complex relationship between wolves and their natural prey - and hunters and wildlife enthusiasts - dominates the debate.

"The reality is the wolves are competing with us," said Nate Helm, executive director of Idaho's chapter of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife. "Hunters' visions are they can return to the same location year after year and have a positive experience with elk. Wolves threaten that."

Wolves are efficient hunters of elk and can reduce local elk populations, biologists agree. But for at least 12,000 years, wolves and elk have coexisted in the forest and rangelands of the Rocky Mountains.

They evolved together, said wildlife biologist Doug Chadwick, shaping how each survives changes in habitat, climate and competition. Now, both animals are intensively managed to meet human expectations.

The issue isn't biology, it's sociology. Hunters want more elk in the places they've traditionally found them. Wildlife enthusiasts want opportunities to see both species. Managing these two human groups is at least as important as managing the animals.

The methods used by managers to balance these very different views are determined by how - or whether - Idahoans learn to live with wolves.

"This is a values thing," said John Freemuth, Boise State University political science professor and senior fellow at the Andrus Center for Public Policy. "Mother Nature doesn't maximize elk. Natural processes tend to affect populations cyclically."

Environmentalist Caroline Pavlinik of Meridian wants wolves managed humanely.

"My biggest objection to having the wolves delisted is the outright slaughter of them," she said. "We hear so much hatred about the animal here."

Idaho has no intention of slaughtering wolves nor will the state allow the decimation of elk, said Steve Nadeau, Idaho Fish and Game's large carnivore biologist. But the state has sent a mixed message. Gov. Butch Otter initially said he wanted the wolf population culled to 100 animals, less than one sixth of the population today. He backed off to the state plan's goal of 150 wolves.

Idaho Fish and Game Commissioners, who set wildlife policy for the state, have set a goal of managing wolves as a game animal. Since wildlife agencies began managing game animals in the 20th century, hunting has never driven any species to the brink of extinction and usually increases their numbers, Nadeau said.

The Elk hunt

Fish and Game officials estimate the elk population at 125,000. Hunters killed 20,257 elk in 2006.

Yellowstone biologists estimate an adult wolf eats about 9 pounds of meat a day or 12 adult elk a year. Idaho's 670 wolves, then, could eat about 8,000 elk annually.

"Scientific data shows that wolves have a negligible effect on hunter harvest success rates," said Suzanne Asha Stone, Northern Rockies Representative of the Defenders of Wildlife in Boise.

But for hunters, the numbers are misleading, Helm said. Wolves have changed elk behavior. They have pushed elk out of traditional haunts and made them harder to find.

Outfitters like Scott Van Winkle, big game hunting manager for the Flying B Ranch in Kamiah, are changing their strategies. They hunt in different places where they can avoid wolves when possible.

In the woods, the competition between hunter and wolf sometimes is an individual encounter. Wolves have responded to Van Winkle's elk call.

"You'd call on a calf call, and you'd hear wolves howling," Van Winkle said.

Elk Baby Boom

Wildlife managers are seeing elk populations drop in some areas where wolf numbers are high. But they also are seeing elk numbers rise in other areas where wolf numbers are rising. Sometimes a mountain range is the dividing line between elk populations that are rising and declining.

In the Panther Creek area near Salmon, wildfires burned hot in 2000 and cleared away the forest overstory, triggering a rebirth of grasses and other elk food. Despite the presence of several wolf packs, elk are experiencing a baby boom with 40 calves per 100 cows counted during winter flights.

But in the Camas drainage one range over, only eight calves per 100 cows were seen. Fire burned less summer range there, and wolf numbers may be higher. Managers consider an elk herd healthy when the ratio is 20 calves to 100 cows.

"It's a very complex system," said Tom Keegan, Idaho Department of Fish and Game's salmon region director. "Different pieces of the system react differently."

Wildlife managers can limit elk hunting and may eventually be able to issue wolf hunting licenses to increase elk herds. Setting seasons and limits is the traditional tool for managing hunters and wildlife.

But when the game animal is the polarizing wolf, management is more controversial. For instance, in the Lemhi Range, Keegan has more than twice as many elk as the state wants there.

That goal is set by biologists based on habitat, hunter demand and other factors, such as when elk raid farmers' crops. Ultimately, the goal is approved by the Idaho Fish and Game Commission, members of which are appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate.

Keegan plans to recommend allowing hunters to kill more elk to reduce the population, which he said is pushing bighorn sheep and mule deer out of their traditional habitat. To him, killing more elk to improve bighorn and mule deer populations is no different than killing more wolves to improve elk numbers.

A look at Alaska

Alaska's efforts to aggressively reduce wolf numbers to help moose and caribou populations rebound has brought an international tourism boycott and successful legal challenges by environmental groups and animal rights advocates.

Alaska has 8,000 to 11,000 wolves, robust populations with no threat of extinction and wide-open expanses of wilderness. State agencies have found wolf hunting by itself insufficient to reduce wolf numbers enough to increase the numbers of moose and caribou.

The state first used state shooters from helicopters to attempt to reduce wolf numbers in key areas. While effective, helicopters are expensive and the most controversial method.

Environmental groups' opposition to helicopter gunning led officials to halt the practice in the 1990s.

Four years ago, they came up with a new strategy. They gave hunters and pilots who qualified permits to kill wolves from airplanes in popular hunting areas where moose and caribou numbers were far below goals.

For the last three years, these volunteer shooters have met their goals. This year's mild winter made wolf shooting more difficult, said Matt Robus, Alaska's Division of Wildlife Conservation director.

Hunters and even newspapers like the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner urged new Gov. Sarah Palin to authorize the use of helicopters and state employees to make sure the goals were met.

Research conducted along with the program shows increased moose numbers in the areas where wolves were reduced.

"We have early indications that if you sustain (the wolf killing program), it works," Robus said.

Friends of Animals

But to sustain the program, Robus has to get around Priscilla Feral, president of Darien, Conn.-based Friends of Animals, one of the nation's most powerful animal rights groups. Feral's group had success in court limiting the scope of Alaska's wolf and bear control programs.

She doesn't support hunting either, but "you can't sue on ethics, you have to sue on law," she said in a telephone interview.

"If we can trip them up on technicalities, we're here to offer as much resistance as we can," Feral said. "In the course of that, people begin to see wolves as animals that deserve respect."

She wasn't paying much attention to Idaho until Gov. Butch Otter made national news saying he wanted to bid for the first tag to kill a wolf once Idaho wolves are delisted. But now she's planning to join the groups that sue to stop delisting.

"We really did consider boycotting the Idaho potato, but we didn't want to take it out on the potato," Feral said.

Under the Microscope

Doug Smith, Yellowstone's chief wolf biologist, doesn't have to deal with hunting or wolf control. But his wolf program is under a microscope since Americans care so much about the national park.

His program attracts critics from all sides of the debate over issues ranging from treating disease to elk numbers. "Wolves are the abortion issue of wildlife management," Smith said.

Idaho's chief wolf manager, Steve Nadeau, is hopeful the state can find the balance between the different human values by managing wolves the same way the state manages bears and mountain lions.

When environmentalists see the state isn't going to slaughter wolves, he said, they will become more comfortable. And he's hopeful hunters will support the state when wolves are brought under control.

"I think they'll be much more accepting of wolves on the land because there is management," Nadeau said.


This is the first in a series by Idaho Statesman writers and photographers detailing how Idahoans are learning to live with a growing population of wolves.


I saw your ad in Horticulture magazine and checked out your site. I'm wondering how the Alaska boycott worked. Are they still shooting wolves from airplanes? Why don't they consider opening a hunting season (on the ground) like they do for Elk and Caribou? Shooting anything from the air doesn't seem like sport at all. Sign me, Disgusted [Blog editors' note: Thanks for visiting and sending us feedback, Melissa. The case in Alaska continues. The state is one of the few remaining places in the United States with a full biocommunity -- even the big carnivores. In Britain, the remaining wolves live only in pens. Our position values the entire biocommunity.]

I have been a staunch supporter of the wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone for many years. I think the only way to manage them now is to offer hunting licenses/permits. We've messed up the natural balance of Nature, so now we have to try to restore what balance we can.

Wolf reintroduction works when there's enough respect for free-living wolves to leave them alone. Homo sapiens have a difficult time managing their own numbers, and controlling their expansive,invasive inclinations. There's nothing natural about shooting wolves to death, and thatviolence is hardly a benefit to Nature. Restoring sanity is more like it and that starts with an end to catering to ranchers who think free-living wolves, coyotes, horses and other indigenous animals should be hammered if they prey on or compete with grazing animals for water and food. That nonsense thrives when people view cows, sheep,turkeys and other nonhuman animals as something on which to dine. That's neither environmentally sound nor morally justified.

Hunting for sport I cannot understand. What possible needs are met and used through this horrible hunt we call sport. Strange,but true, the word hunting used in other generations meant food, clothing, shelter...and in the aftermath of these hunts there remained a balance. Today hunting is more commonly known as sport, meaning trophys,money,greed...none of which has anything to do with necessity,survival,and the balance of all living things. We are destroying all of our natural resources... what are we going to do when we have no natural resources remaining, hunt our own kind?

what could we do if our dogs where getting eaten by a wolf?

We have evolved much farther than other animals - in the matter of intelegence. We farm, we cut down trees to make our houses, we've made electricty, heck, we've even been to space! But if we do something, like say, start a horse ranch, and wolves start to eat our horses, the first thing we do is exterminate them. We're so smart, but we dont stop to think, WHY are they eating our livestock? Maby they dont have eniough prey themselves? Maby there isan't eniough land to house them? We wouldn't know, because we dont even attempt to look. The first thing we think to do is just get rid of them, and our problem is gone. But think about that for a minute.... If you get rid of the wolves, the moose populaion goes up, and then because the moose are herbivores, they eat all of the vegiation. ( Not to mention disease will spread much faster ) Then because all of the vegitation is gone, we loose the moose and other herbivores. Then what do we have? Not much. Also, if we cut down trees - destroying the wolevs and other animals habitat - where else do they have to go but our land and our livestock? Then we blame them for comming on our turff, when really its us who has taken thiers. Yet we blame them still. Even if the facts are put before us, we still deny it. We just want to get rid of the problem no matter the cost. Then when it is too late, we try to do something about it; but it's too late.

I do not want to see the day when the only remaining wolves are living in pens. Why is Idaho now considering delisting wolves when they fought so hard to conserve the species decades ago? This issue does not make sense to me at all. The same thing is going to happen again. Humans are greedy and they don't follow rules when it comes to wildlife management, people will kill wolves regardless of if they have a permit or not and because it is so hard to prove will get away with the crime. Then what happens when the population is down to just a handful again, put them back on the list, just doesn't make sense to me. I respect wolves so much I wish I could do so much to protect them, they are the reason we have intelligent canines to sniff out bombs, drugs, find missing children, and provide us with companionship. I hope I am not here the day the wolf is declared extinct because if something isn't done soon to protect these beautiful creatures it will be to late for them.

I'm glad to see some people are questioning the wolves unquenched hunger. The fact is that wolves are predators, they prey on everything! They don't hunt only what they need. Statistics show that their reproduction can't be controlled by any other means without man's involvement. Truth is that when a house goes up, it actually benefits the ecosystem! What?? Yes it's true. If we didn't knock down trees to build a home, what would grow there? Nothing but those old dying trees. The forage floor would be bare due to the absence of sunlight. Herbivores actually benefit b/c there are browsing lines available now. Wolves actually hunt for sport - just like humans do. When left unchecked they will decimate the entire ecosystem. Then ALL animals suffer, including humans. There are more than enough wolves in Alaska. In fact in the lower 48 wolves have met the criteria to be "de-listed" since 2002. Yet it's organizations like AoF that are causing more damage to the environment by "protecting" wolves and filing frivolous lawsuits that tie up tax dollars that could be used in other reclamation projects. Projects that hunters actually support with their dollars poured into conservation. In fact, in 2005 hunters paid nearly $296 MILLION dollars into environment studies and conservation projects. FoA actually costs taxpayers millions of dollars rather than contribute to solving the problem. Of course, you aren't interested in what the people that actually live in Alaska want or need. Rather than give them a say in the matter, you'd rather stomp their freedoms into the ground. Have you seen the devastation left in the wake of wolves? Do you know that they actually do the unthinkable and prey on humans, not always adults, but children. Look it up! Wolf/human encounters have increased steadily with the (over)population of wolves each year. BUt you couldn't possibly be concerned with the wellbeing of humans, namely young children - you're all about telling people what they should be doing. Even though you have no scientific basis to support any of your theories, you continue to portray people that just want to co-exist with any animals killers and murderers. Well, I know the truth as do millions of other hunters. We take the fight seriously and are rallying to make OUR voices heard. But again, as on other posts I've made on this website, I doubt you post anything but what you think you can rip to shreds. Well, I'm here to educate people on your organization, it's practices AND the TRUTH of what hunting actually does for the environment, including the animals we revere and protect! Have a good day. [Blog editors' note: Perhaps the above proclamation is Scott's version of the big-bang theory? To offer that it's wolves, not humans who are "devastating" Alaska's environment (much less the planet) would be mildly amusing if it wasn't so silly. Let us not give violence a mystique. ]

poor scott... his attitude reflects the self servicing fantasy world of the most dangerous type of predator, the liars and sneaks who spread distorted chaos. love is the only answer. ...

I am one of those horrible Alaskans, I don't shoot any animals and dislike hunting, but the wolves are now attacking our dogs in the city. There is a pack right now who stalked and attacked a group of 3 women and their dogs a mile from our home. I will protect my child and animals. Before you pass judgment, look at your own state and how they have managed their wildlife. We do not have a shortage of wolves and human life is far more important. If you do not live here, you have no idea what it is like to be outside playing with your child and have a bear run into your fenced yard. Or walking to your car and have to wait 30 minutes or more because there is a mother moose with her young lying by the door. Yes it is magical, but also very dangerous. [Blog editors' note: Wolves will attack each other and other canines. The same is true of domesticated dogs.Moreover, humans attack each other, wolves, and most everything that moves. If you have neighboring wildlife, be cautious and respectful. Use your brain. That's the overarching message.


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