When the first Canadian wolves were introduced to Idaho in 1995, a new era of controversy began in the Idaho mountains. The animals flourished, spreading rapidly throughout the state, taking a definite liking to the roadless terrain. The wolf issue has found passionate support on both sides of the spectrum. One thing that is important in today's political world is the middle of the road. Centrism is often considered weak but fighting and cussing at town hall meetings doesn't get us anywhere either.
On the one hand, environmental groups and the U.S. government were trying to right an injustice of the 1800s when most of America's wolf population was wiped out thanks to traps, bounty hunts and poison. On the other hand, Idaho's economic landscape has changed. Logging and living off the land is no longer the most important industry in Idaho. Tourism pays most of the bills in Idaho's secluded rural towns.
Those opposed to wolf reintroduction say that the Canadian wolves are much bigger and more powerful than Idaho's original wolf population and that this is just another example of the federal government and Eastern lawmakers telling Westerners how to live their lives. They are definitely pissed. As Ron Gillette, head of Idaho's Anti-Wolf Coalition put it in an interview last week, "If someone takes my livelihood away, I'm going to knock the shit out them."
Gillette owns a whitewater business in the summer and runs outfitted hunting trips for big horn sheep in the fall. He also owns commercial cabins he rents to out-of-state hunters. He claims that his rentals are down 50 percent.
"These animals are decimating our elk populations because they kill for sport," he said. "I can't stand to walk out in the meadow near my home and find an elk calve still alive with its legs decapitated and the mother standing close by with her guts hanging out." Gillette wants wolves completely eliminated from Idaho.
But Jim Little, a more moderate landowner who has had experience with reintroducing the species, disagrees.
"[Gillette] is flat out wrong about the number of elk," says Little. "There is no doubt that the wolves are displacing elk and making them move more. But we are having more trouble than ever with elk (eating feed) on our land. There are still plenty of the animals around."
Little was on a task force that analyzed reintroducing wolves to Idaho in the late 1980s. He has worked closely with the Idaho Fish and Game to improve riparian areas for upland game birds. The Little family owns land north of Emmett and throughout central and southern Idaho. In 1987, he took a trip to Minnesota to analyze the reintroduced wolf population in that state.
"To be honest with you, it didn't go very well," he said. "The wolves caused no end of trouble because the population grew so fast."
Little says that the same has been true in Idaho with his sheep herding friends (Little runs cattle). He claims that one of his peers lost 80 to 90 lambs in the last two weeks.
"It's really hit these people hard," he said. "People who make their living off the land are always going to be opposed to this kind of thing."
So what is the answer? Idaho Fish and Game large carnivore biologist Steve Nadeau says that the wolf population reached its reintroduction requirement three years ago and is five times that now.
"Clearly the answer is to have the animals de-listed to a big game animal," he said.
The problem, adds Nadeau, is that Wyoming is standing in the way. Idaho, Montana and Wyoming went into the wolf reintroduction program together and the federal government will not hand over wolf management until all three states' management plans meet federal approval. State officials in Wyoming want the wolf listed as a predator, meaning that they can be shot anytime like a coyote. As soon as the three states agree to de-list with the same classification across the board, then the Fish and Game will start regulating hunts like any big game animal.
Right now, the issue is hot and extreme views such as Gillette's are resonating with people who otherwise would be content with wolves playing their part in Idaho's ecosystem.
"People feel like their hands are tied because they aren't in control," Nedau said. "Wolves need support from the hunting community and until they can hunt them they won't like them. As soon as this happens it will relieve some pressure and people can learn to live with them like bears, lions and other animals." :