Wolf Debate Heats up 

What some call a big bad wolf, others call a big bad plan

Ryan Tannenholz really likes wolves. Actually, he'd tell you he loves. Tannenholz even honors the wolves that now roam the state with an e-mail address that partially reads, "thelonewolf." Tannenholz was hardly a lone wolf recent at a public meeting that may help decide the future of wolves in Idaho, but he and Fish and Game officials heard a host of reasons why the canine of fairy tales and legend should no longer be a part of the Idaho landscape.

The same day the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans to de-list the Rocky Mountain gray wolf as an endangered species, Idaho Department of Fish and Game Commissioners heard clashing views over state management plans that would eradicate 75 percent of wolves in the Lolo area of Northern Idaho. In January, federal authorities signed over control of the state's entire wolf population from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Now the state must wade through the public comment process before a management plan approved by Idaho Fish and Game can go into effect.

At a February 2 public meeting set to hash out the details of the state management plan, hunters called the eradication of what the predator long overdue, while environmentalists and wildlife defenders questioned the state's research and called for commissioners to reject the plan. And then there were folks such as Tannenholz who simply love wolves and implored commissioners to spare the wolves' lives.

"I actually care a lot about them," Tannenholz said. "I just don't want to see them go extinct or vanish."

Federal fish and wildlife officials say concerns about wolf extinction have been answered, thanks to federal protection under the Endangered Species Act and the 1995 reintroduction of 35 wolves as an experimental population in parts of Idaho. In 2005, an estimated 600 wolves were well-distributed from the Panhandle to southwest Idaho.

Some folks--hunters mostly, and a few ranchers--told commissioners another story about those same wolves. They painted them as bloodthirsty predators with an insatiable appetite for elk meat--an appetite hunters share, but say they aren't able to satisfy, thanks to the wolves. Idaho hunters told commissioners that the success of wolves put big game heard populations in a slump and cut the amount of tourism dollars and hunting-tag revenues coming into the state. And ranchers say the wolves that are bad for hunting also put their livestock in danger.

"They are thriving using Idaho's hard-earned and highly valued game populations like an all-you-can-eat banquet with sportsmen being passed the bill," said Nate Helm, the executive director of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife. "How many wolves are enough?"

Too much equals about 43 wolves, or 75 percent of the Lolo area wolf population, according to state research. That number of wolves would be killed under the proposed state management plan. After the initial reduction of 75 percent of the Lolo wolf population, Fish and Game would maintain the wolf numbers at 25 to 40 percent of pre-removal abundance for five years, when the removal efforts are set for re-evaluation. Under recently modified Endangered Species Act rules, states have the option to lethally remove wolves if "predation is having an unacceptable impact on wild (game) as determined by the state." Proponents of the plan told commissioners they didn't need a study to know wolves have had what they consider an unacceptable impact on game in northern Idaho and other parts of the state.

Others told commissioners to hold off on implementing what they called a hasty decision. Jennifer Patrick told commissioners the state plan would harm the game Fish and Wildlife seeks to protect. "The wolf was not made by the devil. It is noble and serves a purpose."

The state wolf management plan contends that wolves pose a threat to elk populations and warrant management due to "moderate to steep declines in abundance caused by wolf predation." Fish and Game research notes that, "Eight of 25 (35 percent) mortalities among adult cow elk from January 2002 through mid-October 2005 were attributed to wolves . . . (and) cow survival has dropped from the 90 percent range pre-wolf to the 80 percent range post-wolf." In 2004, wolves were the confirmed killers of 22 cattle and 170 sheep statewide, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Karen Williams with the Idaho Cattle Association said wolf predation can be difficult to quantify. Think of wolves as committing the perfect murder; they often don't leave a body. Williams said wolves are often the suspect but between them, other predators, scavengers and natural decay processes, there's little to nothing left of the kill.

Suzanne Stone with Defenders of Wildlife told the commissioners that the state can not accurately grasp the effect of wolves on elk populations because the research behind the management proposal rests on bad science. "Elk have been declining years before wolf reintroduction," Stone said. She explained that a fire in 1910 wiped out forested areas in the Lolo region east of Lewiston, and in place of the trees and thick foliage grew grasses and vegetation that attracted elk herds to the area. As a result, big game populations thrived. But in recent years, the Lolo ecosystem began to recover from the fire, returning the region to the lush forested area it once was. Nature, not wolf reintroduction, led to the dwindling elk population, Stone said.

Defenders of Wildlife recently released a peer review of the research backing the wolf reduction proposal (it is available at www.defenders.org). Among the more than 30 points of critique, the review noted flaws in statistical analysis, contradictory evidence, failure to follow scientific methods and gaps in data, including omission of detailed impacts from other elk predators. The state plan, Stone noted, relied on only eight elk samples--too small of a number to draw conclusions from--and the data was not subjected to scientific repetition. Overall, the review concluded that the management plan offered a weak argument for wolf reduction. "Politics, not biology, is driving this proposal," Stone said.

Copies of the proposal are available online at http://fishandgame.idaho.gov. Written comment can also be submitted through the department's Web site, or by sending snail-mail to IDFG Wolf Comments, P.O. Box 25, Boise, ID 83707. The comment deadline is Feb. 17.

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