SANDPOINT – Pushed to the point of near-extinction a decade ago, wolves are now flourishing in Idaho, with packs gradually making their way north of Interstate 90 in the state’s Panhandle to the Canadian border and spreading into Washington, a wolf expert told conservationists Saturday.
There are now an estimated 788 wolves living in Idaho, up from 650 just a year ago, wildlife biologist Dave Spicer, of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, told 90 people attending a conference sponsored by the Idaho Conservation League and the Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness.
While that number may sound large to some, Jesse Timberlake, a northern Rockies representative with Defenders of Wildlife, said by comparison there are an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 cougars in Idaho, and 60,000 to 80,000 black bears.
“People need to get over the myth that the wolf is an evil, bad animal,” Timberlake said, contending weather and disease pose far more significant degradation issues for sheep and cattle herds, including those grazing on public lands.
His wildlife organization has paid out $1 million in compensation to cattle and sheep ranchers for confirmed wolf-kills, Timberlake said.
Wolves recently have been spotted near Avery, Idaho, in Shoshone County; near Squaw Valley, on the west side of Priest Lake; and near Lightning Creek, close to Clark Fork, at the north end of Lake Pend Oreille, Spicer said.
A confirmed wolf-kill of a calf was reported in Washington in early September near Laurier, and biologists now believe wolves from either Canada or Idaho or both are making their way into the northeast corner of Washington.
“There are so many misconceptions about wolves and how they behave,” Spicer said. They are wary of humans, and wolf sightings are rare.
Still, the re-introduction of wolves in the West remains a “very polarizing issue,” with little agreement among conservationists, hunters and the livestock industry, he said.
The only common area of agreement, a recent Idaho Fish and Game survey noted, was that wolves soon should be taken off the Endangered Species Act list and put under strict state wildlife management, Spicer said.
“We don’t know about all the wolves in Idaho,” said the wolf-recovery expert, who works out of an office in St. Maries not far from known wolf packs living up the St. Joe River near Avery.
State and federal biologists use radio collars, and sometime helicopters, to track many of the wolves living in 75 packs spread throughout the state.
Those packs included 41 breeding pairs counted at midyear, the state biologist said.
Soon, he said, the state’s wolf populations will move from an endangered species recovery program, administered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, to a state wildlife management program run by the state Department of Fish and Game.
The state is drafting its Idaho Wolf Population Management Plan, and public comment will be sought at open houses in November and December, Spicer told the conservation gathering.
The management plan likely will include some limited form of hunting wolves in Idaho to keep populations in check, but there are concerns about how hunters may disrupt “socialization patterns” of the wolf packs, important to the animals’ continued survival, Spicer said.
The state has reached out to various “stakeholders,” including cattlemen, wool growers, outfitters and guides, as well as the Idaho Conservation League and Defenders of Wildlife in drafting the wolf management plan, said Spicer, who has been involved in its formulation.
“It’s been a heck of a success story,” he said of wolves reintroduced to central Idaho and Yellowstone Park in 1995 and 1996. By 2002, the species was declared “biologically recovered” in the region where it was driven to extinction in the 1930s.
Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, told the conference that collaboration should be pursued whenever possible by conservationists and industry groups, instead of resorting to litigation and legislation to solve environmental differences.
“If we are committed to a conflict-mode of decision-making, we won’t get very far,” the senator said.
Groups who try collaboration on contentious public land use and management issues must be willing to listen to opposing views and be willing to compromise and adjust viewpoints for the technique to succeed, Crapo said.
Through collaboration, he said, laws and changes can come about that are better for the economy and better for the environment.
The evening’s keynote speaker, veteran environmentalist Brock Evans, said he was prepared to tell the conference that it’s important to remember “green areas” in the region already set aside as wilderness or protected lands – and how those achievements were made by unpaid, grass-roots volunteers.
“We forget the beautiful legacy that’s already here,” said Evans, former vice president of the National Audubon Society and former Washington, D.C., director of the Sierra Club. He now heads the Endangered Species Coalition, a consortium representing 400 smaller groups.
Now 70 and a cancer survivor, Evans listed the Hells Canyon Scenic Area, the River of No Return on the Salmon River, the Priest-Salmo in northeast Washington and the Wenaha-Tucannon in southeast Washington and northeast Oregon as part of the Inland Northwest’s legacy.
“Each one of these places was threatened to be lost to development only 40 years ago,” he said, crediting the environmental movement, where he was a leading activist and litigator, with preserving public lands and rivers for future generations.
His message to conservationists pushing today’s issues: “Stand up, don’t be afraid and know the facts. I want them to know they can win.”