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Beyond the Howling

Why Idahoans might learn to love the hunt

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For millennia, you've had your hunter-gatherers and your settled agriculturalists. The hunters got a slight nod in 1995, when 15 wolves were released into the central Idaho wilderness, but the settled agriculturalists who dominate the Idaho Legislature still bark the loudest.

This settler mentality is evident in the glee many displayed following the announcement that Idaho wolves would soon be removed from the federal endangered species list. It also crops up in the way that lawmakers seek to protect farmers who are trying to domesticate elk.

The delisting announcement on wolves has set into motion a carefully choreographed dance in which the Idaho Department of Fish and Game will eventually assume responsibility for the creatures.

For those of you watching the elegant alphas and cuddly pups on the Discovery Channel, that means in a year, or a few years' time, folks will be shooting wolves and hanging them up on their walls.

If you care about wolves, says the chairman of the Senate Resources and Environment Committee, this is something you should be proud of.

Once Idaho wrangles control over canis lupus back from the feds, the yelping of the wolf-haters will be drowned out by the bragging rights earned by any Idahoan stealthy enough to sneak up on a wolf and pull the trigger, Moscow Republican Sen. Gary Schroeder figures.

In other words, real Idaho hunters will stop resenting wolf reintroduction and start treasuring the critters--just like they do mountain lions and bears.

"If they think we are killing too many cougars, you hear it all the time," said Schroeder, a fur trader and experienced hunter. "Oh, the cougar numbers are down," he says, mimicking a whiny cat hunter. "They better not issue as many tags this year."

This sentiment is echoed by Ted Koch, one of my hunting mentors and the former Idaho wolf recovery project leader for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Koch was present when the first 15 reintroduced wolves ran off to mate in the timber. He says hunters saved the North American bison way before the Endangered Species Act was dreamed up. They did it so they would have an opportunity to go out and shoot them.

"The North American wildlife conservation model is based on people paying money to grow animals so that they can go shoot them," said Koch, who is still a Boise-based endangered species biologist for Fish and Wildlife.

This is a notion often lost on environmentalists or animal-rights activists. But it is also poorly understood by the large agribusiness block in the Idaho Legislature, a group that makes frequent claims to the hunting heritage, but often demonstrates a base understanding of the chase.

Consider the words of Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter on hearing the news of imminent delisting. Otter told a crowd of hunters and assorted wolf haters that he supports reducing wolf numbers down to a bare minimum, like 100 animals.

That's in stark contrast to the way Nez Perce tribal natural resources manager Aaron Miles talks about delisting, a notion the tribe is still getting used to.

"We have always viewed the wolf as a brother," Miles said. "They were seen as a teacher to us."

That is, a fellow predator, out there trying to make a buck (or doe).

Koch, Otter and Miles all have an interest in shooting wolves, but for different reasons.

Koch finds some poetic justice in restoring wolves to the wild to a point where they can be sustainably hunted. Otter told the crowd he wants to put in for the first wolf tag to help with "management."

The Nez Perce, who stepped up to the plate in 1995 to manage the wolf reintroduction when Idaho refused to cooperate with the Endangered Species Act, have a negotiated right to up to 50 percent of the wolf harvest. They use wolf hides in ceremonies and on dance regalia.

Schroeder's committee was set to meet February 14 to consider a bill that sets up a hunting tag system for wolves. The Legislature will likely put the tag system in place so that after a 60-day comment period, a lengthy court battle and the ultimate delisting, the Fish and Game Commission can decide where and when wolves can be hunted.

"Should we manage wolves aggressively?" asks Idaho Office of Species Conservation director Jim Caswell. "Yes, we should, absolutely."

But that does not mean Idahoans will systematically decimate the thriving wolf population, Caswell said.

"It's a little bit of a knee jerk for people to react to some of the rhetoric," he added. Wolf management has, "got to be driven by the biology and the need."

Biology and need ought to be driving the other hunter-farmer debate at the Legislature--the perennial domesticated elk debate, scheduled in the Senate Agricultural Affairs Committee this week.

David Langhorst, a Boise Democrat I have watched kneel in a puddle of elk urine before sneaking up on a herd, is trying to rein in the domestic elk industry with double fencing, an importation ban and a halt to the practice of inviting wealthy tourists to shoot the large-antlered but fenced-in creatures on their farms.

The industry is fighting back with a bill that imposes stricter licensing and a nominal fee on elk ranchers, but does not dramatically change the way elk farms are supervised by the Idaho State Department of Agriculture.

Hunters like Schroeder and Langhorst disdain high-fence elk hunting. In fact, they won't call it hunting. Elk ranchers have now taken to calling their operations "harvest ranches," to make them more palatable, though their clients still think they are going hunting.

In the Legislature, settled agriculturalists who see wolves as competition rather than brother hunters also tend to view the domestication of elk as natural and inevitable.

Any stepped-up regulation of elk ranchers appears unlikely, though sportsmen's groups are threatening to bring a citizen's initiative if nothing is done.

Elk are wild and should remain wild, contends Langhorst. Some people have the feeling that everything has to be tamed and domesticated, he said.

"Idaho is proof that in a modern society you can still have wild ranging big game on public land where the average Joe has a chance to go out and mingle with them."