For the first time since the 1920s, wolf pups may be born in the Clearwater National Forest, smack in the back yard of wolf foe U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth.
While maternity may be their fortune, geography is their misfortune. Because they are south of Interstate 90 in Idaho, the wolves and their potential pups don’t have the full protection of the Endangered Species Act. They can be shot if they become a problem for livestock producers.
That could become central to a court battle, which begins today, over protecting the maligned canines.
While there have been reports of individual wolves in the Clearwater for years, this is the first known pairing since federal bounty hunters eradicated wolves in the continental United States in the 1920s.
The origin of one of the wolves is unknown except that it came to North Idaho by itself, and is not one of the animals transplanted in the continental United States in the last two years, said Mike Jiminez, a wolf recovery biologist for the Nez Perce Tribe.
The tribe manages wolf recovery in Idaho for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The other wolf is one of 15 transplanted from Canada into the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness last year. She traveled to the Orofino area, former home to Chenoweth, an Idaho Republican.
Chenoweth has gone so far as to agree with animal rights groups that believe it’s cruel to drug and move wolves from Canada to the United States. She also vehemently opposes bringing wolves to Idaho, because of potential conflicts with livestock and timber harvest.
It will be spring before anyone knows whether this liaison produces pups. But a battle over Idaho wolves, which includes the future of the Clearwater pups, begins today in federal court between environmental groups and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
As it stands, the wolf of unknown origin lost full protection under the Endangered Species Act once it wandered south of I-90.
The transplanted female, from central Idaho, also is considered part of the experimental population.
Environmental groups, including the Bozeman, Mont.-based Predator Project, say the fact that they can be shot is wrong. If the wolves were just 50 miles north they would have the full force of the Endangered Species Act working to keep them alive.
“We are always asking the wolf to change its behavior to meet our politics, rather than changing our politics to meet the behavior of the wolf,” said Tom Skeele of the Predator Project.
In addition, wolves that wander into the area north of I-90 naturally are entitled to the full protection of the Endangered Species Act, Skeele and other plaintiffs argue. Their pups likewise deserve that protection.
“The bottom line is right now agencies don’t have to do anything to protect those wolves and that’s illegal,” Skeele said. “The jury’s out on whether or not wolves can make it as an endangered species. To turn around and take away their legal protection makes it worse.”
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