Wolves in Idaho

wildness and “management”


In late fall 2013 Idaho Dept. of Fish and Game (IDFG) decided to kill 12 wolves in two packs (the Golden Creek and Monumental packs) living in the upper reaches of Big Creek, a major tributary of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in wild central Idaho. They hired a professional hunter from the town of Salmon to trap and execute them.

This is Idaho’s idea of “wildlife management” now that wolves are delisted from the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act and the states surrounding Yellowstone can allow hunting so long as a bare minimum of packs and wolf population is maintained. IDFG prefers to have hunters cull the wolf population, but not enough hunters venture deep into the wilderness. In its third wolf hunting season, 232 Idaho wolves have been killed so far (as of February 3, 2014), with another 128 more allowed to be hunted in certain regions, mostly more remote locations where hunters have been less active. The limits have been reached already in many hunting areas in northern Idaho.

IDFG says the elk population has declined, blames the wolves and feels pressure from elk hunters to kill wolves. Idaho knows from its own biologists that habitat loss has played a bigger role than wolves in reducing elk numbers. Forest fire suppression for 100 years has allowed the forests to become overgrown, overly dense with limited forage for elk. The extensive fires in central Idaho the last few summers should produce a flourishing of grasses and elk habitat that should help elk populations rebound this spring and summer.

But mostly Idaho’s state government is controlled by rightwing wolf-haters. Governor Butch Otter, at the urging of ranchers, has proposed a $2 million program to exterminate 450 wolves, to push the population down towards the federal minimum. Even some conservatives think this is a little expensive, a large subsidy to a handful of wolf-hating sheepherders and ranchers. The lead legislator on this proposal lost quite a few sheep that were grazing on national forest land in my eastern Idaho neighborhood last year, when they stampeded out of fear of wolves. So the state killed the entire wolf pack. These wolf killings seem really old school to many of us, a relic of the bad, old wolf-extermination days based on ignorance, hatred and self-interest of welfare ranchers.

Big Creek is really remote, located in the heart of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area. There’s a gravel road into upper Big Creek from McCall and Yellow Pine, but it’s a winding, slow, scenic drive through really rugged country, the Salmon River Mountains. IDFG flew their hired killer into upper Big Creek, and he stayed at the US Forest Service cabins there for six weeks.

With a friend I rode my bike through Big Creek last fall, pulling a trailer over long, arduous climbs and exciting descents of 5,000 and 6000 feet over Elk Summit from the Salmon River to Burgdorf, Warren, then Big Creek and on. The few locals we met thought we were crazy, but it was fantastic bikepacking through wild, rugged country, lightly populated with clusters of summer fishing cabins and derelict old mining towns. The hot springs at Burgdorf — rustic, funky, friendly — was worth the effort alone!

I remembered Big Creek from running the Middle Fork twenty years before. The biggest tributary of the Middle Fork, it deserves its name. We saw a couple of hunting parties drive into upper Big Creek, big pickups pulling horse trailers, since it was mid-September and hunting season was about to start. Otherwise we saw almost nobody on the roads for days, just occasional trucks and two motorcycle parties passing through.

In early January, 3 weeks after the hired gun flew into Big Creek, Earthjustice sued the state seeking an injunction to stop the wolf killings, but failed to get the injunction. The state stopped the hunt (and the lawsuit) after 9 wolves were killed. Earthjustice claimed victory. But Idaho Fish and Game said that no wolves had been taken in more than two weeks, so they decided to end the hunt in late January. The last wolves knew what was happening and outsmarted the hired killer.

When the feds reintroduced 31 wolves to Yellowstone National Park back in 1995, they also introduced 35 wolves in central Idaho, at Corn Creek, the eastern end of the Salmon River Road and the put-in for the classic Main Salmon River float trip. The wolves have done well, radiating out from Yellowstone and Corn Creek, their numbers increasing to about 683 in Idaho in December, 2012 (most recent available info).

Wolves numbered 1674+ in the 3 states (Idaho, Montana and Wyoming), according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service as of the end of 2012, despite hunting and poaching, lethal diseases like parvovirus, distemper and mange, and inter-pack wolf conflicts over territory. Fewer than 100 live in Yellowstone, but our boundaries mean nothing to wolves. Some collared Yellowstone wolves were killed by hunters in fall 2012 after they crossed the YNP eastern boundary into Wyoming’s killing zone near Cooke City, disrupting scientific study and causing heartbreak to the dedicated wolf-watchers who frequent Yellowstone. 1600+ wolves have been killed in the last two years in the northern Rockies. Federal delisting of wolves is controversial, highly political, and still mired in litigation.

One NPR commentator compared wolves to abortion as a red-flag, hot-button issue with strong emotions on both extremes. This is obviously true. Sadly there is little public awareness or knowledge of the benefits generated by top predators, how they control prey populations and keep them healthy, primarily culling the weak, sick and young. Keeping prey populations small and healthy has many trickledown ecological benefits, limiting or stopping overgrazing of riparian areas and tree sprouts like aspen and cottonwood. This helps birds, both local populations and migratory songbirds, and the diverse ecosystems of riparian areas, inhabited by beavers, amphibians, insects and many other critters. Prey carcasses also feed coyotes, ravens, foxes, beetles and the soil. These benefits are well-studied and documented in Yellowstone National Park.

Wolves are here to stay; even Idaho Fish and Game acknowledges that. Wolves restore wildness to the areas they live. Many hunters seem to think they are entitled to as many elk as can be grown on public lands. The loudest act like no competition is acceptable from other hunters like wolves. Idaho could embrace wolves for the ecological benefits they generate and the economic benefits wolf-watchers bring, also shown by YNP’s busy wildlife-watching tourism.

Two highly social, intelligent, hunting species are competing for limited resources — wolves and humans. Can’t we learn to get along?