HAILEY — No species likely raises passions in residents of the West more than wolves. They are ravenous predators, a threat to the ranching way of life, victims of overhunting, a political football, or a biological success story, all depending on the viewer’s perspective.
What they aren’t, in living rooms, courtrooms and hearing rooms across the region, is ignored. Wolves make headlines and cause arguments. And no one is quite sure what their future will be.
As lawmakers and scientists negotiate that future, Idahoans’ concerns remain. Ranchers watch for threats to their livestock and livelihoods; hunters fear the predators’ impact on big game herds; and despite the statistics, people are scared that pets, children and backcountry recreationists will fall victim to wolves.
From delisting to today
By 2010, the 66 wolves reintroduced to the Intermountain West in the late 1990s had helped spawn a 1,700-wolf population in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
The protected species’ population was biologically recovered by 2002, said Carter Niemeyer, a retired wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But it was several more years until the wolves were removed from federal protection in Idaho and Montana — first in 2008, then another attempt in 2009.
The two states’ plans to manage the predators — including the 2009 legal, public hunt in Idaho — were acceptable to the federal government. Wyoming’s wasn’t, which proved to be problematic.
Just prior to their delisting, some Idaho wolves drew attention to themselves. Wood River Valley residents began to spot members of the Phantom Hill wolf pack from their back porches.
Area elk, also lured by human efforts to feed them, drew closer to civilization to escape harsh high-elevation weather in winter 2008. Wolves followed, killing prey in view of some homes.
This created a “full-on Ringling Bros. effect” in those neighborhoods in March 2008, as Lee Frost, retired Idaho Fish and Game conservation officer, said the following winter.
However, there were no recorded attacks or direct threats to people or pets, and since the 2009 hunt, area wolves have kept a lower profile.
“There have been sporadic reports of occasional wolf sightings in the (Wood River) valley, but we had those prior to that month-long episode in 2008 when they were pretty visible,” said Regan Berkley, regional wildlife biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
Some observers have attributed that lower profile to a newfound respect for how dangerous humans can be.
Meanwhile, environmental group Defenders of Wildlife continued funding a program to compensate ranchers for loss of their livestock to wolf predation; that fund was recently replaced by a federal appropriation.
Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen said he, like other commissioners in counties where wolves are active, continues to hear from constituents about the issue. He supports compensation for predation losses, at least in the short term, as well as provisions that allow for lethal control by wildlife managers and ranchers with threatened livestock.
“Wolves have a place in a balanced ecosystem, and many people understand that,” Schoen said. “It would be nice if we developed a cultural ethic as recognizing predators a part of our heritage. It would be a significant shift that would ease a lot of the tension around this issue.”
Legal and political wrangling
Just months after hunters’ guns went cold from Idaho’s first wolf season, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy put wolves in Idaho and Wyoming back on the endangered species list — not because the species hadn’t recovered, but because of Wyoming.
“The fact that Wyoming doesn’t have an approved management plan has been more or less the big sticking point in all of this,” said FWS spokesman Chris Tollefson. The agency had left Wyoming’s wolves under ESA protection while delisting them in Idaho and Montana, but Molloy ruled that such political boundary distinctions couldn’t be made.
Idaho lawmakers responded in strong opposition to Molloy’s decision. Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter announced last October that the state would discontinue management of wolves as long as they were considered endangered; wolves in Idaho are currently under federal management.
“Our position then and now is that we’re not going to continue to spend our limited sportsmen’s dollars on a process that can be turned upside down by a judge,” said Otter spokesman Jon Hanian. “If the courts are going to decide, it takes common sense and science of how we manage these animals.”
And U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, has included provisions in several legislative measures that would put wolves back under state management, effectively bypassing the ESA.
“It’s basically Congress reclaiming their authority; it was their intent to delist the wolves,” said Simpson spokeswoman Nikki Watts.
Niemeyer said that while he agrees wolves should be off the endangered species list, Simpson’s path to get there is inadvisable. “It sets a terrible precedent to delist them outside the normal delisting procedures,” he said. He worries that if the ESA is bypassed, slow and cumbersome as it may be, the results could open a Pandora’s box.
“Reasonable people need to prevail right now, otherwise we’re going to get a political fix that is going to be unacceptable.”
What’s next for wolves
Despite legal and political drama, FWS and Idaho lawmakers agree on at least one basic point.
“Our goal is to make sure that the wolf’s recovery is maintained, and to return management to the states, where we feel it’s most appropriate,” Tollefson said.
The federal agency may consider contracting wolf management back to the locals, effectively paying IDFG or the Nez Perce Tribe to monitor the species.
And the animals themselves? Their population is plateauing. In part, this is because of the 2009 public hunt that killed 187 of the allowed 220 wolves. But it’s also because wolves are again finding their niche in a natural environment where they were absent for what, in ecological terms, was the blink of an eye.
Many Idahoans — self-identified environmentalists or not — have seen the wolves’ return as positive, said Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife.
“We’re lucky not to live in a sterile landscape, but along with the benefits come responsibilities, that they’re wild animals and have to be respected too,” she said.
But that respect — for wolves as well as for parties on the other side of the political and legal tables — will continue to be hard to achieve with so much emotion involved.
Ariel Hansen may be reached at 788-3475 or firstname.lastname@example.org.