As wolf packs grow, so does resentment - Biologists call recovery the most remarkable they've seen, but most ranchers describe it in another way

Dan Hansen
Spokesman-Review Staff writer


Wolf No. 230 is dead.

Intentionally killed, most likely.

The wolf wore a radio collar, and researchers picked up a mortality signal in May. They followed it to a pool in Montana's Yaak Falls, about 25 miles east of Bonners Ferry, Idaho.

Wolves rarely drown, especially in scenic picnic spots.

Agents are waiting for low water before they recover the collar. They expect to find it cut, just like the collar found last year in the Boise River of southern Idaho. Just like others cut from illegally killed wolves throughout the West and tossed into other rivers and briers and canyons.

By now, No. 230's carcass is most likely just scattered bones, teeth and a few tufts of black fur, perhaps in a ditch or clearcut.

The who and when of the death may never be known, unless someone brags about committing the felony.

The why is simple.

A good many people in the West hate wolves. And after two generations of living without them, we're having to wrap our minds around the idea that they're back. That has a lot of people nervous and angry.

Eight years after biologists released 15 gray wolves into Idaho and another 14 into Yellowstone National Park -- a total of 37 more from Canada followed a year later -- wolves are expanding their range and increasing their numbers at an astonishing pace.

Federal officials estimate there are 263 Western gray wolves in Idaho, 217 in Wyoming and 183 in Montana. That doesn't include this year's pups, or wolves that researchers haven't yet confirmed.

And while there are no known packs in Washington, Oregon or north of Interstate 90 in Idaho, it's only a matter of time. Wolves already wander through those areas.

Biologists used to years of nursing along rare animals like grizzly bears and woodland caribou call it the most rapid and remarkable recovery of a species in U.S. history. They propose removing wolves from the Endangered Species List next year, leaving management of canis lupis to the states.

The Northwest has seen conflicts over grizzly bears. They flare up every time a road is closed to protect habitat or the government proposes relocating bears into places where they're missing, something that's never happened.

But wolves have a broader range and spread far more rapidly than bears. They're more often seen in Western areas where people live, raise livestock or hunt.

And wolves feed exclusively on animals -- usually big game animals, but sometimes livestock. That's why they were exterminated in the first place and why opposition continues to grow as they regain old territory.

By all appearances, wolves are more despised in the West than are grizzlies. Maybe they always have been.

"I've had ranchers tell me, `We started out liking grizzly bears, but we've always hated wolves,"' said Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Bumper stickers sold by the Central Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition urge folks to "Save State's Rights. Kill a Wolf."

To some people, those aren't just blustery slogans. Federal agents know of at least six wolves illegally shot in Idaho since 2000 and nine in Montana, not including No. 230.

There undoubtedly are more; deaths are discovered only if a wolf is radio collared or someone stumbles across a carcass.

Mick Carlson, who raises sheep near Riggins, Idaho, contends the government has set up a war pitting rural Westerners against the wolves.

"I don't know anyone in this town that hunts or has livestock who would not kill a wolf if he saw it," said Carlson, who recently lost sheep to wolves.

Blame a wolf?

Throughout the West last year, wolves are known to have killed 52 cattle, 99 sheep, nine dogs and five llamas. Ranchers contend the actual numbers may be five to eight times greater than those confirmed by necropsies or eyewitnesses.

Federal authorities agree that many kills go undocumented.

"In wooded and/or mountainous country, livestock carcasses may not be found promptly, if ever," reads the 2002 annual wolf report, compiled by several agencies.

That description pretty well describes Dave Wilson's situation.

Wilson has no proof he's suffered losses to wolves in the Payette National Forest near Riggins, where he grazes 600 cows and their calves. But, Wilson said, he ended 2002 with 22 fewer calves than he would normally have expected.

Also near Riggins, wolves attacked a flock of 20 sheep owned by Jack and Lorene Lees in May. In one night, the Lees lost seven lambs and one registered Suffolk ewe.

Carlson's sheep were the latest targets of wolves in the Riggins area. Agents for U.S. Wildlife Services say wolves killed at least three of his sheep -- and probably killed seven others -- the nights of June 30 and July 2. He also lost a trained border collie to wolves in April.

He contends the losses on his sprawling ranch and leased federal land are far worse than the agents document. He figures he was down 96 lambs even before the latest attacks, although there's no proving that they didn't fall prey to cougars, bears, coyotes or illness.

Despite the strong feelings of ranchers, the current leaders in the anti-wolf movement are mostly elk hunters.

They include Ron Gillett, a hunting outfitter who leads the Central Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition; John Nelson of St. Maries, who is an avid hunter; and Ed Wright of Libby, Mont., who spoke against wolves at Spokane's Big Horn sportsman's show in March and is a former outfitter.

They warn that wolves will wipe out the West's premier big game animals -- something biologists say could not happen.

"The number of wolves is solely dependant on the number of prey," said Bangs, the wolf recovery coordinator. "Once prey goes down, (wolves) start fighting among themselves and the number of wolves goes down."

Preliminary studies in Yellowstone, where elk comprise about 90percent of wolves' prey, indicate that packs kill about 15 elk a year for each member.

But it's way too early to determine the impact of wolves on Idaho's elk, state biologist Steve Nadeau said. He notes that bears and cougars also take a big toll on elk, particularly in brushy places like the Clearwater River drainage.

Hunter success remains high in Idaho, hitting 25 percent for those who pursued elk in 2001. Carter Neimeyer, who oversees Idaho wolf recovery for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, believes weather and hunter effort have far more impact on success than do predators.

"Guys cry to me that they didn't get an elk and I say, `And you're going to blame a wolf?"' said Neimeyer, an Idaho native and longtime hunter.

Rural America's war on wolves dates to the earliest arrival of Europeans. "Our greatest enemies are our wolves," a colonist wrote to relatives in England.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony offered rewards for dead wolves starting in 1630. Over the next 300 years, virtually every state and territory passed similar laws. Oregon Territory adopted a $3 wolf bounty in 1843. Washington Territory adopted one in 1871.

Montana spent $178,000 on wolf eradication in 1914 alone, according to the book "War Against the Wolves" by Yellowstone ranger Rick McIntye.

With such costs mounting, ranchers and Western politicians demanded that the federal government take over the fight. Congress agreed in 1915, ordering the U.S. Biological Survey (now Wildlife Services) into the fray.

At the peak of the battle, the agency had about 500 paid hunters who killed nearly 70,000 wolves, along with other predators. There is no accurate count of wolves killed by the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service or the states.

By 1973, when wolves outside Alaska were added to the endangered species list, the range of gray wolves south of Canada had shrunk from 43 states to just the northern tip of Minnesota and Michigan's Isle Royale.

`Dumped on us' by the feds
The same federal government that helped eradicate wolves for one generation is viewed by another as a co-conspirator with environmentalists.

Some opponents claim it's part of a plot to drive rural Westerners off the land or take away firearms. Eliminate game herds like elk, the thinking goes, and there will be less reason for Americans to own guns.

"You hear these things and think, `Who would ever believe that?' " Bangs said. As a wolf researcher, "you learn to sort out the wild-eyed hysterics from reality, be polite and nod your head."

The Central Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition, which works throughout the state, is among the groups raising money for a threatened lawsuit. Defendants will be the Fish and Wildlife Service, the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife "and anyone else who's responsible" for wolf reintroduction, St. Maries activist Nelson said.

"Our constitutional rights have just been trampled on," Nelson said.

Speakers at Idaho anti-wolf gatherings accuse federal agencies of intentionally underestimating the number of wolves and their impact on elk. They insist that wolves were never really gone so shouldn't have been reintroduced.

Biologists believe all resident wolf packs were exterminated in the West by the 1950s. Recovery started in the 1980s, when Canadian wolves wandered into Glacier National Park and formed a pack.

But biologists don't deny that individual wolves visited Western states, probably without settling down. In fact, two Washington farmers were fined $500 apiece for shooting a wolf in 1975.

Gillett, a firebrand from Stanley, Idaho, is among those who contend the reintroduced wolves are a larger, separate subspecies from those native to the state. He calls them "an exotic species that was dumped on us."

Biologists insist the wolves are the same subspecies.

As to allegations that government biologists intentionally deceive citizens, Neimeyer vehemently defends his agency and others, while questioning some of the information anti-wolf activists present as facts.

An anti-wolf letter published in The Spokesman-Review in May reported that Idaho already is home to 44 known wolf packs. The hunter who wrote the guest commentary extrapolated that those wolves probably kill more than 9,000 elk a year. But the 2002 report he cited as the source of that information puts the number of known packs at 19.

Gillett told the crowd at an anti-wolf rally in Orofino in March that "we're confident there are between 700 and 1,000 wolves in Idaho." But he offered no proof for disputing the federal estimate of 263.

Wright told a Spokane audience at the Big Horn Show in March that federal biologists were so naive, they predicted wolves released in Yellowstone would not leave the park. But the widely circulated reintroduction plan of 1994 says wolves were expected to spread throughout the region, just as they've done.

Gillett and others claim wolves kill for fun, sometimes without bothering to eat the animals they bring to the ground.

Doug Smith, wolf project leader in Yellowstone, said wolves rarely kill more than they can immediately eat because killing is rarely easy. When it does happen, they return to their excess kills later, he said, although scavengers often have picked over the carcasses by then.

"If a wolf does not kill every animal it can kill at every opportunity, it's going to starve to death," Smith said.

Paying for wolf kills
The environmental group Defenders of Wildlife has compensated ranchers $270,000 since 1987 for some of the livestock killed by wolves. That privately funded program was started to encourage wolf recovery.

Jack Lees said Defenders has offered him a fair price for the 20 sheep he lost near Riggins. And while rancher Carlson has not yet applied for compensation for the sheep he's lost, Defenders has agreed to buy him a replacement for Spike, the border collie killed by wolves, said Laura Jones, Defenders' Boise coordinator for the program.

Defenders typically pays $90 to $115 for sheep and $500 to $1,000 for calves, when federal agents confirm that the animals were killed by wolves.

Confirming wolf kills is an inexact science.

Wolves bite three times harder than do German shepherds and leave bigger tracks with longer strides. Hemorrhages under the skin are proof that an animal was alive when bitten, and not just scavenged by wolves, said Rick Williamson, the Wildlife Service's Idaho-based wolf management specialist.

They're sloppier killers than cougars or bears, and their prey often tear up a kill scene in the process of dying.

Despite all that, agents often can't do more than declare that an animal was "probably" killed by wolves, which nets the owner a half payment from Defenders.

Unconfirmed losses, like the 22 calves rancher Wilson says he's missing, draw nothing from the environmental group. In those cases, ranchers can turn to a new federally funded program run by the Idaho Office of Species Conservation and offered only in that state.

A state committee recently agreed to pay 12 Central Idaho ranchers a total of $90,500 for the loss of 208 calves and two cows in 2001 and 2002.

The ranchers, who raise cattle on private and leased public land within the territory of known wolf packs, did not have to prove wolf kills. Instead, they had to show how many calves their cows produced in the years before wolves, compared with now. The presumption was that wolves caused any shortfalls.

The program is funded again for next year, "but it's going to be on a year-to-year basis after that," said Lemhi County Commissioner Robert Cope, a committee member.

Wolves that kill livestock generally are given a second chance. But government agents in 2002 killed 46 wolves in cases of chronic livestock depredation. That included one entire pack in northwestern Montana and another pack in central Idaho.

It was the most common cause of death last year among monitored wolves.

Hunting on the horizon
Rural county commissioners and some Western legislators have adopted a variety of anti-wolf laws and resolutions. They are mostly useless, as long as wolves are wards of the federal government.

A 1999 resolution in Wallowa County, Ore., calls on the federal government to "immediately destroy or return all wolves" that wander into northeastern Oregon from Idaho.

Idaho lawmakers in 2001 passed a memorial calling for "the immediate removal of all wolves from the state." There were bills opposing wolves this year in Washington, Oregon, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, although few of them passed.

Now, the states must decide how they'll manage the critters while protecting them from extinction. Plans for Montana, Idaho and Wyoming must be approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before wolves can be dropped from the Endangered Species List.

Idaho is ahead of its neighbors, having passed a federally-approved plan this year that calls for strictly regulated hunting when populations allow. Montana's proposal is similar.

Wyoming has a less-protective proposal.

Wolves in the northwest corner of Wyoming would be classified as "trophy game animals" and hunted under strict regulations. Elsewhere in the Cowboy State, wolves could be shot any time, just like coyotes, skunks, jackrabbits and stray cats, said Larry Kruckenberg, who works on wolf issues for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

If hunting occurs in Idaho, the Nez Perce Tribe will likely demand a "harvest sharing" agreement, said Marley Hochendoner, spokeswoman for the tribe that leads Idaho wolf recovery efforts for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Nez Perce, whose past chiefs include the likes of Yellow Wolf and Red Wolf, historically hunted wolves only for ceremonial purposes, "not like harvesting elk for food," said Aaron Miles, tribal natural resources director.

Defenders of Wildlife, the nation's leading wolf advocacy group, does not oppose most hunting, said Nina Fascione, vice president of species conservation.

But, "it's premature to be talking about hunting a species that's just coming off the Endangered Species List," Fascione said.

Nadeau, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologist, acknowledged the hunts will be controversial, just like everything else about wolves.

"There's nothing we can do about that," he said.


Wolves regarded as menace throughout European history - Spokesman-Review


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