January 14, 2015
Rocky Barker covers energy and the environment for the Statesman. He was present at the releases of wolves in Idaho and Yellowstone and heard them howl in 1995. He also saw wolf tracks in Bear Valley in 1994.
He and three other wolves released at the edge of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness were the first of 66 wolves brought to Idaho and Yellowstone National Park from Canada in 1995 and 1996. By 2009, the wolf population had grown to more than 1,500 in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming and today has spread to Washington, Oregon, Utah and even California and Arizona.
Congress delisted the populations in Idaho, Montana, northern Utah, eastern Oregon and eastern Washington in 2011, which removed them from protections under the Endangered Species Act and led to wolf-hunting seasons. Today, more than 600 wolves are thought to live in Idaho and the haunting howl of a pack of wolves is an almost common sound in Idaho's backcountry, pleasing the people who pushed to restore them.
Idaho hunters and trappers now harvest hundreds of wolves every year, but many complain that traditional elk-hunting areas are no longer as productive because wolves kill, move or stress the big game.
Ranchers now have the right and the means to kill wolves that attack their livestock, but they remain bitter that they aren't compensated for losses that can't be definitively linked to wolves. Ranchers also say elk and other big game are streaming out of the back country to raid their pastures and haystacks as they get away from the wolves.
But what if the federal government had decided not to reintroduce wolves to Idaho and Yellowstone in 1995?
Folks who love wolves would have fewer to see or hear, experts say. And the folks who hate wolves might have fewer options to manage wolves or kill wolves that come into contact with humans and livestock.
A MIND OF THEIR OWN
Wolf biologists and managers who led the recovery program that began a decade before the wolves were released agree that Idaho would have wolves today, possibly hundreds, even if the reintroduction had never taken place. But they doubt that Yellowstone National Park - the place the public associates most closely with the new population of wolves - would have a wolf population today without reintroduction.
Wolves were moving on their own from Canada into Montana and Idaho beginning in the 1960s. But a lack of safe corridors for wolves between northwest Montana and Yellowstone would have hindered or stopped natural recolonization of wolves from Canada there. Today, 400 to 450 wolves live in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. "There would be wolves in northwest Montana, there would be wolves in central Idaho, but I doubt we would have more than a few (scattered) in Yellowstone," said Ed Bangs, the retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gray wolf recovery coordinator in charge of the reintroduction.
Without a healthy, sustainable wolf population in Yellowstone, there would be no chance of removing wolves in the Northern Rockies from the Endangered Species Act.
With the full force of the federal Endangered Species Act in effect, ranchers would have little flexibility to have wolves killed if they ate livestock on public land, Bangs said. Miners, loggers and recreationists also would have to show their operations didn't harm wolves, a bureaucratic process open to litigation that could lead to more restrictions.
Wolves were reintroduced under a provision within the law that allowed the reintroduction under relaxed rules for an "experimental population." This allowed federal officials to kill wolves that repeatedly attacked livestock and exempted officials from requiring that every federal action in the habitat be shown not to hurt the wolves.
But that approach was based on the premise that there was no wolf population - no breeding pairs - in the areas targeted for reintroduction.
As the wolf population in British Columbia and Alberta grew in the 1980s, several packs showed up in northwest Montana, making that area ineligible for reintroduction. Many wolf sightings also were reported in Idaho.
In 1991, two wolves were seen and even filmed chasing sandhill cranes in Bear Valley Creek meadows between Lowman and Stanley. A Fish and Game warden reported seeing four wolves - confirming in some minds that Idaho had breeding pairs. Bangs and other U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists said that was not enough proof, especially after one wolf was poisoned and another shot.
At the time, conservationists and wolf advocates were mostly interested in returning wolves to Yellowstone, hoping to bring back a critical predator to a natural ecosystem, vast portions of which have no humans, no development and no ranching.
In Idaho, the drive for reintroduction came, remarkably, from Republican U.S. Sen. James McClure.
AN IDAHO PLAN
McClure saw that the return of the wolf to Idaho was inevitable. He wanted to put in place rules that would protect ranchers from the powers of the Endangered Species Act that restrict the killing of depredating wolves and other management. He proposed federal legislation in 1988 that would have reintroduced a few packs and stipulated that no wolves would be allowed to live outside of Yellowstone and Idaho's wildernesses. His bill would have restricted wolf expansion far more tightly than the final reintroduction rules did. "He wasn't a wolf-lover," said David Mech, the internationally renowned wolf biologist who was one of the early voices for reintroduction.
The Idaho senator not only feared the costs to ranchers if more wolves showed up in Idaho. He saw loggers, miners and recreationists would end up facing stricter limits under the full powers of the federal Endangered Species Act.
Ranchers weren't convinced. Brad Little, who is lieutenant governor today, came from a long line of sheep ranchers. In 1988, he was active with the Idaho Wool growers and an opponent to McClure's bill, which went nowhere because of strong opposition from Wyoming ranchers and lawmakers.
"He was pretty darned convinced that his bill would have been far and away superior to what we eventually got," Little said.
The return of wolves has forced Little, like most ranchers, to change the way he operates. He gave up private grazing leases in the Cascade area, due to the rate of depredation on his cattle. But he thinks ranchers in Custer and Lemhi counties that deal with the largest wolf populations have had the hardest time maintaining their livelihoods. "The central Idaho ranchers are in the same place that the West Coast loggers were with the spotted owl," Little said.
THE SWEET SPOT
Suzanne Stone, now with Defenders of Wildlife, was contracted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife in the early 1990s to look for wolves in central Idaho. She soon knew how hard life would be for wolves in Idaho then and now.
Biologist Steve Fritts was teaching her to howl in 1991 near Warm Lake east of Cascade. "On my second howl, we literally (had) rifle bullets go over our heads so close I could hear them whistle," Stone said.
She wanted reintroduction to be called augmentation, because she knew wolves already were living in Idaho. But she also believes that if the naturally moving wolves had been given the full protection of the Endangered Species Act we would have wolves in Idaho, Yellowstone and at least Wyoming without reintroduction.
Bangs said the wolf recovery program today would not be as divisive had the delisting occurred several years earlier, before wolf populations had reached their peak and affected so much livestock and big game. "We lost the hunting constituency because of that," he said.
Steve Alder, who heads Idaho for Wildlife, the group that sponsored this month's derby hunting wolves and coyotes in Salmon, agrees. "From our perspective, (the delay in delisting) really got people rallied," Alder said.
Mech said ranchers showed remarkable patience as wolf numbers climbed far above the 350 that federal authorities saidwould be necessary before wolves could be removed from Endangered Species Act protections. But he is disappointed that voices on the edges of the debate have polarized the politics and the courts. "I think this has worked extremely well," Mech said. "I'm dismayed at some of the fallout from both sides."
Bangs, who watched as those first wolves ran into the Idaho wilderness in 1995, thinks biologists "hit the sweet spot" - in the political middle. "Both sides need each other," Bangs said. "The wolf haters need the rabid wolf lovers."
SO WHAT ENDED UP HAPPENING?
Wolves captured in northern Alberta were released at the beginning of 1995, after a federal judge lifted a temporary restraining order that had halted the proposed reintroduction.
In Idaho, the 35 wolves were simply released from cages into the wild.
In Yellowstone, packs that had been captured together were kept in enclosures to allow the animals to acclimate to their new environs. The enclosures were opened in March and the wolves reluctantly left to take over their new home. More wolves were released in 1996.
From the beginning, Idaho's great wolf habitat - lots of undeveloped spaces and lots of food such as elk and moose - mean that the wolf population grew faster here than anywhere else. By 2001, the Idaho population had reached the 10 to 15 breeding pairs that federal biologists said was necessary for recovery.
After years of debate, lawsuits and failed efforts to remove Idaho wolves from protections under the Endangered Species Act, Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson added a rider to a fast-track federal budget bill in 2011 that inserted language to allow the states of Idaho and Montana to manage wolves in their states and authorize hunting seasons.