Milt Turley, an elk hunter, hung a sign on his pickup that read: “Wolves are eating my family’s dinner as we speak.” Others carried signs proclaiming “Wolves – part of a healthy ecosystem.”
Lines were sharply drawn Friday as supporters and opponents of Idaho’s first public wolf hunt in decades faced off during two hours of demonstrations outside the state Fish and Game office in Coeur d’Alene. Although feelings ran high, the crowd was courteous.
About 20 people attended the event organized by the Northern Idaho Wolf Alliance, which opposes the wolf hunt. A similar number of sportsmen came to support the hunt. Both sides claimed science as the basis for their stance, arguing over the state’s available habitat for wolves, the need for genetic diversity and wolves’ impacts on elk herds.
“We think the hunt is wrong. Period,” said Richard Hurry, of Ponderay, an alliance member. “The wolves have just been off the endangered species list for five months. … They’re in a precarious balance right now.”
Ken Fischman, a retired geneticist from Sandpoint, said Idaho’s wolf population is still too small to responsibly allow hunting. The state would allow 220 wolves to be taken, or about a quarter of last year’s population estimate. Given other possible causes of wolf mortality, including shooting animals for livestock predation, Idaho’s wolf population could drop dramatically within a single year, Fischman said.
The state should follow the example of Minnesota, which has nearly 3,000 wolves but doesn’t plan to consider a public hunting season until five years after the Great Lakes wolf populations are delisted, Hurry said.
“Gut reaction here is visceral, it’s primal,” added Stephen Augustine, another alliance member. “Give it time, see what happens. Wolves and their prey have evolved together over millions of years.”
The pro-wolf hunting crowd was equally passionate.
“I think hunters are portrayed as anti-wolf, but they respect the place of wolves in the ecosystem,” said Todd Hoffman, a Post Falls hunter. “Hunting is not going to put the wolf population in danger. The management plan really creates a balance between wolves and their prey.”
Hoffman said he started noticing signs of wolves in the St. Joe River drainage four years ago. He thinks Idaho’s current wolf population, officially at 1,020, may be underestimated. In the Idaho Panhandle, Fish and Game officials estimate wolf numbers at 150, and say the population is growing by roughly 20 percent per year.
“I don’t think people realize how fast it’s increasing,” Hoffman said.
Wolf season is scheduled to start Tuesday in the Lolo and Sawtooth regions, and Oct. 1 in the Idaho Panhandle. However, action in the federal courts could change that. A coalition of 13 environmental groups has asked U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy for an injunction to block fall hunts in both Idaho and Montana. A hearing is scheduled Monday in Missoula.
Turley, the hunter with signs on his pickup, was headed for an elk camp in the Lolo area after the demonstration. The Avery, Idaho, resident also had a wolf tag.
He expected to be out of cell phone range, so he didn’t know how he’ll monitor the status of Idaho’s wolf hunt. If he can’t track the latest court news, Turley said he’ll continue his wolf hunt in good faith: “I’ve got a wolf tag. It’s legal in Idaho, and I intend to use it.”