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Lolo wolves, Idaho Fish and Game both under fire again

Idaho officials are working on plans to control gray wolves. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Idaho officials are working on plans to control gray wolves. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

PREDATORS -- Although Idaho continues to exceed all gray wolf recovery goals, some environmental groups still drum up national outrage when wolves are killed for management plans aimed at maintaining stable big-game populations.

It's a strange dynamic.  A viable elk herd is a good thing in the long run for the future of wolves and mountain lions.

Here's an update on the latest uproar by Lewiston Tribune outdoor writer Eric Barker:

LEWISTON -- Federal wildlife officials confirmed Monday that they are in the midst of an Idaho-sponsored wolf control effort in the Clearwater Region’s Lolo zone.

It’s the third year in a row that the Wildlife Services program and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game have joined forces to kill wolves in the remote country drained by the Lochsa and North Fork of the Clearwater rivers, where elk herds have been struggling for nearly two decades. But neither agency would elaborate on the details of the operation that they had wished to keep secret until its completion.

“Our policy is to not release information out of concern for operation safety until after an action is complete,” said Mike Keckler, an Idaho Fish and Game spokesman at Boise.

That desire was upended when the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife announced the action in a news release and called on U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to put a stop it. Wildlife Services is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Killing wolves in the Lolo district of the Clearwater National Forest is a decision based almost entirely on

Idaho’s extreme anti-wolf politics and not sound science. Aerial gunning of wolves is an expensive waste of precious taxpayer dollars,” said Suzanne Stone, of the Defenders of Wildlife at Boise.

The Center for Biological Diversity and the Friends of the Clearwater also issued statements condemning the action.

Wildlife officials fear that the high emotions surrounding wolves and efforts to reduce their numbers in some areas could spur strong and even violent reactions. Todd Grimm, director of Wildlife Services’ Idaho operations, expressed disappointment at the environmental group’s news release and said he received a troubling phone call soon after it was issued from someone angry that wolves were being killed.

“I’m not real happy with the way Defenders is putting this out instead of fish and game. We have already had one extremely violent phone call from somebody in Florida because of this press release,” he said. “People have very passionate views about wolves, and sometimes that drives them to make the wrong decision.”

In previous years, the Lolo wolf control action has not been made public until the operation was over. Last year, 19 wolves were killed there and 23 were shot in 2014.

Stone said poor habitat, not wolves, is what is ailing elk herds in the Lolo zone. Idaho Department of Fish and Game officials acknowledge habitat needs to be improved there. However, they argue the habitat, even in its present state, should support many more elk than it now does and that wolf predation is keeping elk numbers from recovering.

The department’s Lolo Predator Management Plan calls for reducing wolf numbers by 70 percent to 80 percent. Many wildlife biologists say wolves can sustain an annual harvest rate of as much as 40 percent without reducing overall numbers.

According to the state’s latest wolf population report, the Lolo zone had a minimum of 38 wolves, including six documented packs and five other wolf groups at the end of 2014. Also during 2014, hunters and trappers killed 18 wolves.

The annual report documenting wolf numbers at the end of 2015 is expected to be released next month. According to the 2014 report, the state had at least 770 wolves in January of last year.

Rich Landers
Rich Landers joined The Spokesman-Review in 1977. He is the Outdoors editor for the Sports Department writing and photographing stories about hiking, hunting, fishing, boating, conservation, nature and wildlife and related topics.

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