- An OpEd by Green Groove contributor Mike Bickley
Many of you may already be aware that the State of Idaho (US) is allowing the legal hunting of wolves this fall for the first time in decades, there has been a quota of 220 wolves established. If you lived in Idaho as I do you would have also heard stories of wolves being everywhere, decimating the big game herds, threatening humans and that livestock producers will soon be a relic of the past. Idaho presently has about 1,000 wolves, for a state of 83,557 square miles, that figures out to be about one wolf per 83.5 square miles, it hardly seems like we could be overrun with wolves. The game herds in Idaho are also doing quite well, Idaho Department of Fish & Game states that elk (the primary prey of wolves in Idaho) numbers in Idaho are above the Departments long term management goals. There have been no wolf attacks of humans in Idaho. Human elk hunters in Idaho are doing quite well too, 68,275 hunters killed 10,859 elk in the 2008 season. Livestock losses have been lower than biologists predicted prior to the re-introduction of wolves, in fact losses to coyotes, bears, mountain lion and feral dogs have been greater. Stock growers are also compensated for confirmed wolf predation losses. Will killing 220 wolves in Idaho bring disaster to the recovery project, probably not. Will it placate the vocal opponents of wolves, probably not, they hated wolves when we only had 30. But there appears to be no sound biological reason to kill wolves while on the brink of recovery either, maybe at some future time there will be. So, you may ask, what's the problem?
Ask any Idahoan about wolves and you will most likely hear one of two answers with little middle ground. Wolves are the devil or they are angels, they are either loved or despised. How did we arrive at such divergent views of wolves. Some at least seem based in the livestock culture of the West. Growing up in Idaho you soon learn a values system of sorts as it relates to the worth of wild things and wild places. Animals like elk which can bring an outfitter, rancher or guide $10 to $15 thousand dollars each are revered and are a good thing, a wolf which can kill and eat a $15 thousand dollar elk is a bad thing. Jack rabbits are bad, they have no economic value and they eat livestock food and are generally shot and left where they die. Sage brush is bad, it competes with grass for livestock food. Wilderness itself is bad, you can't mine, log or graze livestock in a designated wilderness. It seems our value of wild things and wild places is solely based on our economic interest.
When the debate to reintroduce wolves to the west began it was argued that the wolf was the missing and key link in the establishment of complete ecosystems as they existed before human intervention. Modern science has established that predator/prey relationship is such that prey numbers ultimately control predator numbers. If predators could wipe out prey populations wouldn't they have done so eons ago before man was evolved? Wolves have had the intended impact on the ecosystems that scientist envisioned and some surprises as well. Researchers in Yellowstone National Park have discovered that elk with no apex predator like the wolf became complacent. They could eat and stay wherever they chose. As a consequence some areas were greatly overgrazed. Riparian areas which should have supported willow, cottonwood and beavers had none. Quaking aspen groves were all old with little regeneration as elk ate the new growth before it could become established. Today in Yellowstone you see new willows and beavers returning to areas they have been absent from for decades. Young aspen are seen growing on the hillsides. Wolves keep the elk wary, elk spread out more and herd into smaller groups. Elk are becoming the wary and magnificent animal they once were. Wolves and elk evolved together, elk are the animal they are because of the wolf not in spite of the wolf. So every thing should be great... right?
Politics... with the Idaho legislature dominated by livestock and agriculture interests. The Governor a rancher and ex employee of an extractive/mining industry. The Idaho Fish & Game Department is at the mercy of the legislature and Governor. They may know the science and how to apply it, but they also know not to as well, especially if you want to keep your job. So we end up with the State policy for wolf management based on 14th century beliefs of wolves as devil and demon killing machines vs. peer reviewed science. Wolves are neither good or bad, neither devil nor angel, They take no pleasure in killing, they suffer no regret, they are simply wolves doing what wolves have done for perhaps millions of years. If we can keep politics at bay maybe they will be able to continue shaping our wild places for many more years to come.
So, you ask, why am I preaching to you in Chicago, New york or Nashville? Idaho is approximately 70% federally owned land, United States Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land owned not just by Idahoans but by all U.S. citizens... even Texans. On private lands there is a mechanism in place to handle wolf related problems. Wildlife Services, a division U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, will and does control issues at the request of land owners. Wildlife Services has killed approximately 150 wolves this year on private land. You as a U.S. citizen have right to a voice in this issue just as legitimate as any Idaho resident if you choose to do so and I hope you will. Call or email our Senators, Representatives and Governor and let them know how you feel about Idaho's management of wolves on YOUR land.