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Victims of Their Own Success

Idaho's wolf population booms, but at a cost to its own

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As director of Snowden Wildlife Sanctuary, Linda DeEulis is in charge of an impressive menagerie of broken down animals. The 58-year-old and a single intern tend daily to a one-eyed Great Horned Owl, a timid fawn on the mend, a cranky ferruginous hawk with one-and-a-half wings and a small fleet of impaired kestrels, some of which will fly again and some that will never be released. DeEulis has also seen larger animals like elk, black bears and cougars come through her 36-acre facility near McCall since she founded it in 1989. But right now, what DeEulis really wants is a wolf-and specifically, a young female and two puppies from the mountains just outside of Hailey.

A few years ago, she might have gotten her wish. After all, in 1999, the sanctuary held the Bass Creek Pack, consisting of a pair of adult wolves and a litter of eight puppies from Montana, for nearly six months before Fish and Wildlife Service agents returned the pack to their home area. The service offered the pack under the assumption that in Snowden, the pack would face no temptation from livestock and have a better chance surviving to maturity.

When DeEulis heard that FWS agents had killed six members of the Central Idaho-based Copper Basin Pack for repeated livestock deaths (or "depredations"), leaving three young survivors with questionable hunting skills, she thought her turn might have come again. She even had a new wolf pen ready-nearly two acres, and built with $60,000 in grants and weeks of volunteered labor. It sits empty, and probably will for the foreseeable future.

"The theory was, if we brought them in and kept them here until they were about 90 pounds, and then put them out, there wouldn't be a problem (with depredation)," DeEulis explains. "I'm just afraid they're going to have to depredate out of necessity."

DeEulis may be correct in her suspicions. But in the eyes of those in charge of managing Idaho's wolves, 2005 is a very different time than 1999. "Early on in wolf recovery, when we were trying to get this population to grow, every wolf was valuable," explains Carter Niemeyer, FWS wolf recovery coordinator for Idaho. "Now, we have wolves all over the backcountry. We don't feel it's necessary to go out and raise wolves in captivity, or relocate them."

Niemeyer gave the order to kill the Copper Basin pack on July 20, after nearly a year of trying to keep the wolves away from livestock with everything from radio-collar-activated noisemaking devices to rubber bullets. He and other FWS agents were also responsible for relocating hundreds of wolves away from livestock in the years following the 1995 reintroduction of 35 gray wolves to Idaho. But they don't relocate wolves anymore; Niemeyer says Idaho's wolves have multiplied so dramatically, there's nowhere left to release them where they won't face brutal competition from already established packs. The cruel irony in this situation, he says, is that "killing wolves demonstrates the success of wolf recovery."

Just how successful are wolves in Idaho? Currently, according to the 2004 Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Report, put out by FWS, the original 35 have expanded to well over 400. The service's original goal of 30 breeding pairs throughout central Idaho, Northwestern Montana and Yellowstone National Park was met in 2002-today, 30 pairs reside in Idaho alone. And though FWS agents killed 30 wolves linked to depredation in 2004, and despite estimates of between 44 and 65 wolves killed illegally by private citizens, the state's population has grown by eight new packs since 2003. According to Suzanne Stone, the Rocky Mountain field representative and wolf specialist for the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife, that success has produced a genetically strong, healthy wolf population-as well as some expansions into troublesome areas.

"The population is amazing," Stone says. "It's turned around so much, you can find wolves all over the wilderness areas and government land." While opposed to keeping wolves in captivity, Stone also says she doesn't find fault with Niemeyer's decision to lethally control the Copper Basin pack in this case, calling it "an awful situation, when you've got 18,000 cattle running around them like that." Idaho's population has flourished, she says, largely because agents like Niemeyer and Rick Williamson, the Department of Agriculture Wildlife Service wolf management specialist for Idaho, have shown in their other cases a level of restraint that is unique in grazing-heavy mountain states.

"They've saved more wolves than they've killed," she says. "If these wolves were in Montana or Wyoming, they would all be dead already."

Stone's group also plays a large role in helping to give ranchers non-lethal options to protect against the wolf population. First, they develop and help ranchers pay for cutting edge methods to scare away wolves. Second, Defenders compensates ranchers for depredations when those non-lethal options fail-to the tune of $500,000 in payouts since 1987. Stone says more ranchers than ever are open to utilizing the Defenders' services-which can be seen as surprising, since after wolves were classified by FWS to be a "nonessential experimental population" in February of this year, ranchers are no longer required by law to get a permit, or to exhaust non-lethal options, before using a gun.

"They're tired of being the bad guys," she offers as explanation. Of course, the compensations don't hurt, either.

Possibly as a result of these methods and a few changing attitudes, wolf depredations have remained level in Idaho during the population explosion. In 2004, wolves were the confirmed killers of only 22 cattle and 170 sheep statewide-a fraction of the amount taken by disease, lightning, theft and even coyotes (who accounted for 10,500 sheep deaths alone). But these wolf statistics come with a caveat: Those affected by them are usually affected repeatedly and often have a legitimate "wolf problem."

Margaret Soulen-Hinson, proprietor of Soulen Livestock, has felt the nip of depredation more than most. Last year alone, she claims to have lost over 300 of her over 8,000 sheep to various predators in the Payette National Forest north of McCall-although many were unable to be confirmed, due to advanced states of decay. And while Soulen believes her operation to be one of, if not the most depredated in the state, she continues to steadfastly exhaust all non-lethal measures before calling in the FWS cavalry.

"You want to do everything you can to prevent depredation in the first place," she explains, which in her case means hiring extra shepherds and up to four Great Pyrenees and Akbash guard dogs per band (1,000 head) of sheep. Soulen admits to being frustrated by wolves during what looks to be a year of heavy losses, but she says her fellow livestock producers are not as trigger happy as they seemed a decade ago-for now.

"Most ranchers are really trying to prevent depredation," she says. "But as that population is basically exploding, there's going to be more conflict. The tolerance level of people will drop."

At press time, Williamson with the USDA was on his way up to Copper Basin to investigate another depredation-on the order of three calves. "We're not really sure who is doing it," he admitted, acknowledging the possibility that the deaths could have come from as of yet unknown members of the pack, or from nearby isolated individual wolves. Niemeyer also told BW that he had issued several "shoot on sight" permits to ranchers around Copper Basin, and would kill the remaining wolves if they were found to be connected to the depredations.

"There will be more to take the place of others," he promises calmly. "You remove them, and others will drift in."

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