April 15, 2002
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed that the entire Whitehawk gray wolf pack in central Idaho’s Boulder-White Cloud Mountains have been killed in three incremental removals this month due to livestock depredation. Ten animals in all were killed, according to Carter Niemeyer, USFWS Idaho wolf recovery coordinator.
News of the action was circulated by Hailey, Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project, which noted the wolves included the pregnant alpha female of the pack, dubbed the “white wolf of the Sawtooth Valley.”
The action, according to WWP, was a consequence of one sheep and two calves being killed in the East Fork of the Salmon River, upstream of WWP’s Greenfire Preserve.
However, Niemeyer, in a telephone interview with Cyberwest, said, “the pack had a long rap sheet of livestock depredation … it was not just two dead calves and a sheep.” The last straw for the pack was a calf kill on private land in the East Fork of the Salmon River near Clayton, Idaho on April 5, the third livestock kill by the pack in one week. After confirmation that the calf was killed by a wolf by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services, three yearlings and the pack’s alpha pair were “lethally controlled.”
Wolves were reintroduced in central Idaho, northwestern Wyoming and southwestern Montana in 1995-1996. According to Niemeyer, the controlled wolves in central Idaho will be replaced in the drainage by other wolves. “There will be wolves there forever,” he said.
Several non-lethal mitigating actions were undertaken, said Niemeyer, to keep the Whitehawk wolves from livestock, including human barriers, provided by Defenders of Wildlife; electric fencing; helicopter hazing; and live rifle fire into rock cliffs in an (unsuccessful) attempt to disperse members of the pack.
In addition, nine radio-activated guard (RAG) boxes were deployed on East Fork ranches, and records generated by the boxes indicated that several wolves of the pack had triggered the devices multiple times. In the so-called “incremental removals” conducted by the USFWS, specific animals that had triggered the devices were targeted.
Niemeyer said the removals were undertaken under the guidelines and rules governing the recovery program. “We were tolerant and went way beyond the rules,” he contended, adding, “we’ve been more than fair.”
Currently, “we have an estimated 260 wolves in Idaho,” said Niemeyer, although the actual number is a point of contention, with some believing there are half that many while others believing there are twice the 260 figure. According to the USFWS, there are 17 known wolf packs in Idaho, 16 of which produced pups in 2001.
In the complete reintroduction areas, which include Montana, Wyoming (including Yellowstone National Park) and Idaho, Niemeyer said wolf counts are approaching 600.
“It demonstrates that biologically, they’re a very resilient animal,” said Niemeyer. “Wolves can live anywhere humans allow them to live.” Ultimately, though, he said, “we as humans are going to determine where we’re going to tolerate wolves.”
“We’ve placed wolves in an island of habitat in an ocean of people.”
Still, Niemeyer said, “if we manage them, we can live with them.”
As part of the re-introduction plan, ranchers are compensated for livestock kills, with ranchers and Defenders of Wildlife negotiating a price, with the previous year’s fall market value a factor.
Management of wolves is made more complex as public land grazing and public land ownership issues are considered. The WWP, for example, stated that wolves are being killed in reintroduction areas because of the presence of domestic livestock often where they do not belong environmentally or economically.
Clearly, the wolf reintroduction program stirs emotions on both sides of the issue. Niemeyer expressed disappointment at caustic remarks, name-calling and personal attacks. There is significant potential for conservation easements to be negotiated with ranchers, said Niemeyer, but “name callers are absolutely jeopardizing any kind of negotiations to solve land management issues.”
Traditionally, acknowledged Niemeyer, the livestock industry has always been opposed to wolf re-introduction. But, Niemeyer said, “I’ve seen a change in attitude.” Some have taken the position that wolves are here, and “this (the reintroduction program) is bigger than us.”
Ranchers generally “don’t like being put in a position of villains in this thing … they just want to be on the land,” said Niemeyer.
One of the justifications for reintroducing wolves has been the “restoration” of natural predators of deer and elk, helping to control herds. Niemeyer noted that elk are indeed a major component of the diets of wolves, but he believes “the jury is still out” about the role of wolf reintroductions on elk herds.
Some believe aspen trees are beginning to grow back in portions of Yellowstone National Park as wolves have chased elk back into higher elevation areas, and more generally, kill rate studies have indicated wolves have been very good for elk populations. On the other hand, some hunting guides, outfitters and sportsmen believe wolves will decimate elk herds. “It’s a real mix of attitudes out there whether wolves are good or bad,” said Niemeyer.
The wolf program has also been marked by a number of “suspicious” deaths of wolves, although the actual number of these cases isn’t clear. “A number of wolves in Idaho and Montana have been killed by illegal means,” confirmed Niemeyer, either by shooting or poisoning. Several cases are now being investigated, with the help of a forensics lab in Ashland, Oregon.
The Nez Perce tribe, said Niemeyer, has an annual contract worth $400,000 with the USFWS and is responsible for the field aspects of the wolf reintroduction program in Idaho, conducting monitoring, radio collaring, wolf pup counts, wolf den identification and other duties. Early on in the program, the hope was to pass the responsibility on the Idaho Fish and Game department, but it was effectively legislated out of participation by the Idaho state legislature. The Nez Perce tribe stepped forward and expressed willingness to fulfill the role of monitoring. “For the most part, they’ve done a really good job,” said Niemeyer.
Changes in the program, however, may be around the corner. In March, the Idaho Conservation League reported that the Idaho Legislature approved a “Idaho Wolf Conservation and Management Plan” that included provisions allowing wolves to expand their range, with the stipulation they not cause “unacceptable conflicts.” According to the group, the plan directs the state of Idaho to manage wolves to ensure viable, self-sustaining populations and provide for a “balanced” wolf education program.
In addition, WWP is researching legal means to bring pressure to change the current management of wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains which it said has deteriorated into a cottage industry with one objective: killing wolves.