Monday, August 4, 2014

Rocky Barker - What happened to the SNRA's wolves? (What do you think?)

August 4, 2014 
Updated 6 hours ago

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game's decision to back off its program to hire a trapper to kill wolves in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness delays, for now, the public debate over how to manage elk and wolves near the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

And that's fine. Anything the agency does would stain this summer's 50th anniversary celebration of the Wilderness Act of 1964, which Church played a key role in passing. The wilderness now named for him is the largest in the continental U.S.

Key proponents in passing the law were the hunters and outfitters who promoted wilderness for its positive effects on their sport and business, as well as preservationists who sought wilderness as a place where natural processes were allowed to function with minimal human intervention.

Resolving what divides these two groups today is important. But it's more about wilderness than wolves. For the larger green constituency willing to tolerate even trapping, the Middle Fork debate is about the role of wilderness, not killing.

Idaho's wolves remain the state's most intractable, polarizing environmental issue. We are still stuck with endless political sniping despite the fact that Idaho has apparently reached a population of wolves - about 600 - that can be managed to minimize livestock depredations, allow for a robust hunting season and not empty the treasury controlling problem wolves.

Because of the political pressure, Fish and Game officials must say the department's goal is to keep reducing wolf populations, despite the reality that additional control gets increasingly expensive. That stance fuels the fear of wolf lovers elsewhere in the nation, who see Idaho only through the anti-wolf rhetoric of the folks who are still bitter that the federal government reintroduced wolves in Idaho 19 years ago.

About the same time last week that Fish and Game was filing its notice in federal court that it wouldn't return a hired trapper to the Middle Fork in 2015, USDA Wildlife Services was trapping and killing three wolves in the Sawtooth Valley where wolves killed a calf in June. Two of the dead wolves even had radio collars, and Fish and Game had wanted them kept alive.

Wildlife Services still has trappers camped in the area trying to catch more wolves, as it does in the Copper Basin area near the Pioneer Mountains. These wolf deaths, whether necessary to protect livestock or not, are especially hard for many wolf lovers to stomach because they took place in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

In 2002, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled that the Forest Service violated the law that created the SNRA by failing to consider whether livestock grazing was "substantially impairing" wolf populations. He also determined that the SNRA law does not include grazing as a "historic" or "pastoral" value.

The Forest Service, which has not provided the "showcase management" it promised when Congress considered making the area a national park, simply determined that grazing was not "substantially impairing" wolf populations and moved on. Before wolves were removed from Endangered Species Act protection by Congress in 2011, many Idaho residents delighted in the annual "February show" of wolves in the Sawtooth Valley and the Phantom pack's frolics in the Wood River Valley.

Several ranchers told me then that they could tolerate wolves and move toward more non-lethal controls if they were paid for their trouble. Providing wolf supporters with a place where they have a chance to see and hear Idaho wolves would go a long way toward building acceptance of the wolf killing that Idaho believes is necessary elsewhere.

Experts tell me this must be done on a landscape scale, as it is in Yellowstone. Fish and Game won't have to end wolf hunting in the area where it decides to allow wolves, but it will have to manage a higher number of wolves. Inherently, that will mean fewer elk.

Such a balanced policy would take the approval of the Idaho Legislature. And since those are the very people pressuring Fish and Game to kill even more wolves everywhere, don't expect to hear wolves howling in Stanley again soon.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484