An impasse over wolf management in the Northern Rockies is alienating hunters and ranchers, groups whose support is crucial to the canny predators’ long-term success in the region, experts say.
Many are fuming at wolves’ recent return to the Endangered Species List in Idaho and Montana. The action canceled public wolf hunts in both states this fall, even though wolf counts in Idaho and Montana far exceed the minimum federal recovery goals of at least 30 breeding pairs and more than 300 wolves.
“We had an agreement that lots of people signed off on. And now they feel betrayed,” said Dan Pletscher, a wildlife biology professor at the University of Montana.
Idaho had a minimum of 843 wolves at the end of 2009, and Montana had 524.
“We get above the federal goal, and that’s still not enough,” said Elaine Allestad, a Montana sheep rancher.
The mounting frustration is bad news for wolves, said Pletscher, who predicts a rise in illegal killings and potential weakening of the Endangered Species Act.
Idaho and Montana congressional delegations are sponsoring bills to return management of their wolf populations to their states. It’s politically expedient, Pletscher said, but that type of legislative maneuvering ultimately undermines the science-based process in the Endangered Species Act.
“It gives Congress ideas,” Pletscher said. “The next time a developer has a problem with (an endangered) butterfly… legislation gets tacked onto a spending bill.”
Rural residents’ frustration is real, said Tony McDermott, an Idaho Fish and Game Commission member from the Sandpoint area.
“I think the wolf issue has made a mockery of the Endangered Species Act. It doesn’t work,” McDermott said. “It’s tied up in the courts because of a pure technicality.”
In August, U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy said the federal government couldn’t delist wolves in Idaho and Montana until Wyoming adopts an approved plan to manage its wolves. The ruling rescinded state management of wolves granted to Idaho and Montana in 2009.
Idaho and Montana have appealed Molloy’s ruling, and Wyoming is challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s stance that its wolf management plan is inadequate. But a court resolution is probably two years away, McDermott said.
That’s too long for some struggling elk herds, he said, not to mention rural communities that profit from hunters’ retail spending.
“Our deer, moose and elk are Idaho’s livestock,” McDermott said. “They should be protected.”
Re-establishing wolves in the Northern Rockies is particularly controversial in rural areas, acknowledged Ed Bangs, Western wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It contradicts many homesteading families’ stories of settling the West, said Bangs, who frequently hears comments like: “My grandfather shot the last wolf in this drainage.”
Bangs said people’s tolerance for wolves typically erodes with close contact. Watching a nature special on wolves or hearing howls during a wilderness trip is one thing, he said. Spotting them in your pasture is another.
Last year, the Bonner County prosecutor’s office dropped misdemeanor charges against a rural homeowner who shot and killed a 75-pound wolf that circled his house south of Priest Lake, ambled off and returned to watch the homeowner’s dog through a window.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game officials said the wolf didn’t appear to be a threat. The prosecutor’s office disagreed, saying it was unlikely that a jury would convict the homeowner.
“Most people are proud to live in a place where we still have grizzly bears and wolves,” said Pletscher, the University of Montana professor. “The question is, how many?”
Suzanne Stone is the Northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife. The group is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit that reinstated federal protections for wolves in Idaho and Montana.
“We’re not asking for thousands of wolves,” Stone said. “Defenders isn’t anti-hunting. We want to see wolves managed by the states … But for us to manage this population down to the bare minimum is unacceptable.”
The debate over wolf numbers could soon move to Washington, where a third wolf pack was confirmed this year. The state is crafting a wolf management plan.
Dan Braunberger, a hunter from Chattaroy, Wash., said he called the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife after counting 12 wolves in a pack in Pend Oreille County. He spotted the wolves Oct. 17 near Monumental Mountain, where he hunts for mule deer. Two of the wolves had radio collars.
“I don’t have a problem with wolves,” Braunberger said. “I have a problem with … not managing them.”
Hunters are typically allies in conservation efforts, said Tim Aldrich, president of the Montana Wildlife Federation. Their support is important, he said, so it’s unfortunate that gridlocked wolf management is alienating hunters.
“It would be great to have success under the Endangered Species Act,” Aldrich said, “so we don’t have to fight to protect the act itself.”