Gray wolf, © Tracy Brooks/USFWS

Idaho officials gun down 20 wolves in Lolo Creek

It’s February, and the woods are quiet except the occasional rustle of snow drifting down from the tall pines and the gurgle of the creek below. The air is clear and bright. The sky is cloudless and the bright sun reflects off the snow. Any humans would be cold in this weather, but wolves aren’t: they were made for winter. Wolves’ paws have thick pads on them, and they have two layers of dense fur for warmth.

© Suzanne Asha Stone/Defenders
February also marks the height of wolves’ breeding season, and alpha wolves (the parents in any wolf pack) celebrate with increased howling and play. Pups born last spring are around 10 months old now, and food is usually plentiful. Many elk and deer perish naturally in the winter when grass is harder to find, and their own breeding season leaves even the strongest males weakened and more vulnerable to predators. This is how nature designed our forests. A balance of predator and prey that would endlessly cycle and nurture the ecosystem by keeping elk and deer from overpopulating and damaging the forage that supports all life here. If prey numbers decline, then predator numbers decline as well. If prey populations increase, so do predators.

Humans don’t frequent the woods much at this time of year, so the pack is less on guard than during other seasons. Imagine hearing these wolves howl together –a hauntingly beautiful song that fills the woods and echoes back. We don’t know exactly what happens next but, sadly, we can imagine.

A wolf’s hearing is exceptional. They can hear sounds from miles away. Suddenly, the winter peace is broken. The wolves hear an unfamiliar buzzing to the west. It vibrates slightly through the trees. All the wolves stand at alert. Perhaps the breeding female whines and looks around for her youngest pups. She barks twice, a warning to her pack to be on guard. Her pups likely hurry to her side and look toward the unfamiliar noise.

The noise grows louder. The mother barks again. The older wolves sense the sound is heading in their direction and begin to run. The pups run behind them and trust the adults to lead them to safety from the unknown danger. The buzzing quickly grows louder, the noise vibrating the trees and pushing clouds of snow in front of it. The wolves run faster and the loud cloud of snow circles around them, cutting off their escape into the deeper woods. The mother wolf tries to hide beneath the bushes but the pups are in the open. She runs to one just as the first shot rings out. His body drops. Another shot, then another. There is no escape. At least one of the adult wolves is wearing a radio collar that gives away the pack’s exact location. Every wolf seen is killed except one that is left to rebuild a new pack and unwittingly lead the gunners to it again next winter. Only she remains alive when the helicopter moves on to hunt for the next pack. Within a few days, the mission is complete.

Earlier this month, at the request of Idaho Game and Fish Department, the United States Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services’ agents aerial gunned down 20 wolves in the remote Lolo Creek area of the Clearwater National Forest — public lands that belong to the American people. State officials blamed these wolves for killing too many elk, which are their natural prey. Before the wolves returned to this area in the 1990s, elk here were already in steep decline. At that time, the state blamed it on bears and cougars, encouraging hunters to target them. But that did not bring back the elk for hunters.

Wolf rally on steps of Idaho statehouse, © Defenders of Wildlife
Now the blame has turned to wolves. Why? Because state officials are unwilling to admit that this forest habitat can no longer support these huge elk herds and it’s not because of wolves or cougars or bears. It’s because this habitat has changed dramatically. Fire suppression, invasion of nonnative weeds, and pressure from climate change and hunters on ATVs have changed the habitat conditions. The huge open meadows cleared by fire have converted to brushy thickets, denser trees and less grass. It can no longer support the huge elk herds that once grazed here. Even if the state killed every wolf, it would not bring back the elk herds to their historically high levels. But that is not stopping Idaho’s anti-wolf politicians from using wolves as the scapegoat for elk’s continued decline. These aerial gunners killed 80 to 90 percent of the wolves in the area.
 There were fewer than 1,000 wolves estimated left in the entire state in 2014. There are also 3,000 mountain lions, 20,000 black bears, 50,000 coyotes, 100,000 elk and nearly a quarter million deer statewide. Yet the state of Idaho plans to spend millions of tax dollars each year to kill wolves. State political leaders value the elk and deer populations. Many politicians even say they wish they could kill all the wolves in Idaho. Many wish wolves had never returned.

On February 15, 2016, nearly 70 men, women and children gathered on the steps of the state capitol in Boise to speak for the wolves. We protested the killings, and we demanded the Governor and state legislature stop the unrestrained killing of this important but undervalued species.

Wolves were nearly eradicated by man’s ignorance and fear and they are threatened once again by these same perceptions. It’s time to stop this madness. Will you join with us? The Idaho Department of Fish and Game is holding a public hearing on March 9 in Boise, Idaho at 7 pm. Even if you just bring a sign expressing your support for wolves, it is important that you attend. If you can speak on behalf of wolves, we can help you prepare a 3 minute testimony. The wolves cannot speak for themselves. They need all of us to fill every seat with people who care. And if you don’t live in Idaho, you can still speak out against the actions the state took in the Lolo.

Will you come and speak for the wolf?