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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Wolf hunt doesn’t put recovery gains at risk

Extremists on both sides of Idaho’s wolf hunting furor make it sound like the battle of the species rather than a game management tool.

Even though wolves have thrived since being reintroduced in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming in 1995, some conservationists imply that the decision to issue wolf tags threatens to wipe the population out. The other end of the spectrum is epitomized by the overzealous comments Gov. Butch Otter made a year and a half ago when the feds announced their intention to remove the gray wolf from the Endangered Species List. Otter wanted hunters to harvest 85 percent of Idaho’s wolves, then estimated at 650 animals.

As a practical matter, the carefully crafted rules under which Idaho Fish and Game authorities are allowing up to 220 wolves to be killed will not jeopardize the recovery effort’s ongoing success. And it would be a mistake if they did.

When wolves were hunted to extinction in the United States early in the 20th century (the last pups were killed under a government program in the 1920s), an important part of the Western heritage was lost. The transplant of Canadian wolves into the Northern Rockies in the ’90s was a reasonable but ambitious enterprise to reclaim that heritage, but it produced an angry confrontation that has continued ever since.

The hunting period opened Tuesday in the first two of Idaho’s 12 wolf management zones, and although more than 11,000 tags were sold, only three animals had been taken as the weekend approached. That’s hardly a slaughter, and it’s no indication that the impressive gains of the past 14 years are likely to be reversed.

Consider that the restoration effort began in Idaho with the import of 35 wolves. By 2007, the population was about 650; it’s now up to some 1,000. Federal authorities say that the wolf population throughout the Northern Rockies has exceeded the law’s goals every year since 2002.

Now that the animal has been delisted and its management turned over to the states, the law requires that the population be managed to stay above an absolute minimum of 100 animals with 10 breeding pairs, although the feds would start talking about relisting when the numbers dropped to 150 animals and 15 breeding pairs.

Even if all 220 allowed wolf kills happen this season, the surviving wolf numbers will be well above those figures, and Idaho officials know from experience that if they get careless in their duty, the feds won’t hesitate to step back in.

That doesn’t comfort ranchers and hunters who know that wolves are responsible for killing thousands of elk and livestock, and who, like Otter, would prefer a population of zero or as close to it as possible.

But the conservationists who have taken the matter back to court to bring the hunt to a halt are just as unreasonable.

This hunt is being closely monitored, so state game officials will be able to end it promptly if and when the 220th wolf is taken. It’s not the hunting that needs to come to an end now, it’s the litigation.

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