Wolf politics make NWC skittish; Intern program at college suspended over safety issues

Billings Gazette Wyoming Bureau

March 30, 2004

POWELL, Wyo. - Students at Northwest College have tracked wolves, mapping their territories and studying wolf behavior in the field as interns with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

But the college suspended the program after spring break, deciding that hot-button wolf politics were potentially a threat to the students' safety.

Removing the burden

"It's so hot and people are so mad that we decided to remove them after the midterm," said NWC associate professor of biology Ron Hitchcock. "We don't want to put that burden on the students."

Controversy surrounding allegations of federal wildlife agents' trespass on a ranch near Meeteetse has led to a "marked upswing in negative reactions to the wolf issue" and compelled administrators to reconsider the interns' safety.

The students were assisting Fish and Wildlife Service wolf biologist Mike Jimenez in tracking wolves and plotting their courses using geographic information systems technology. This often put the students in contact with local ranchers, many of whom are emotional about wolf reintroduction, Hitchcock said.

Though no threats had been made, NWC administrators decided to suspend the program before anything happened, he said.

Positive encounters

"When they drive around looking for radio signals, our students deal with ranchers a lot. In general, it has been very positive, but lately there has been some bantering about wolves."

Along with safety concerns, administrators feared that students' work with the federal wildlife agency may be subjected to "protracted legal proceedings and hearings" in light of the two trespassing complaints against the agency recently filed with the Park County Attorney's Office. The county attorney has not filed charges and is waiting for a report from the state Department of Criminal Investigation.

The college regrets the need for suspending the program because it has allowed freshmen and sophomore students the kind of field experience normally reserved for graduate students, Hitchcock said. Twenty students have participated since the program began five years ago. The work has been used to save cattle and has also given the students a chance to earn college credit in the field, he said.

Of the three students most recently in the internship program, two have chosen to take half credit for the unfinished field study. The third student completed her field work last year.

Though NWC students have worked with many kinds of wildlife in their studies, including wild horses, beaver and bighorn sheep, no animal has prompted such controversy as the wolf, Hitchcock said.

"It is the first time we've ever had to do anything like this," he said. "Wolves just create a lot of emotion."

Hitchcock hopes to restart the program once the current controversy is resolved.

"I want our students back in the field and I want to continue a productive relationship with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," Hitchcock said.

Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises.



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