Some call it a weapon against the big bad wolf, others call it a big bad plan. But the Idaho Fish and Game officials called good the wolf management proposal intended to protect dwindling elk herds in remote Northern Idaho. The proposal outlines plans to control Clearwater wolf packs in accordance with Endangered Species Act provisions, giving states the authority to control wolf populations if "predation is having an unacceptable impact on (wildlife) as determined by the respective state." Control measures outlined in the Clearwater plan call for the lethal removal of 75 percent of wolves--about 45 animals initially--in the Lolo Zone near Lewiston.
The Commission unanimously approved the draft without debate at the Jan. 13 F&G Commission meeting. "If this seems like a quick decision, believe me, it's not," said chairman Cameron Wheeler, noting the decision follows years of extensive study. The proposal now goes before the public for comment at February hearings slated for Boise and Lewiston. From there the plan goes to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for final approval. Fish and Game plans to post the plan on its Web site within two weeks.
The Commission's approval came just days after the transfer of wolf management power from the federal government to the state and more than a decade after the reintroduction of gray wolves as an experimental population under the Endangered Species Act. Thirty-five wolves were introduced in 1995 and by 2005, an estimated 600 wolves populated Idaho from the northern Panhandle to southeastern regions.
For outfitters watching big game and revenues dwindle, a control plan can't come soon enough. Grant Simonds, executive director of Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association, estimates elk hunting declined by about 50 percent since wolf reintroduction in the Clearwater region.
"We want to maintain the present opportunities to hunt out there and in order for that to happen we need some active management," he said.
A plan that's good for hunters could give ranchers more piece of mind, said Karen Williams with the Idaho Cattle Association.
"We feel like we can live with wolves in the state as long as we can manage them," she said.
In 2004, wolves were the confirmed killers of only 22 cattle and 170 sheep statewide, according to the Department of Agriculture. Williams said exact numbers are unclear because physical evidence of a wolf kill isn't always found.
Declining elk numbers could also be skewed, said Suzanne Stone, with Defenders of Wildlife. She said a 1910 fire in the Clearwater region altered the forest landscape to one more habitable for grazing animals, resulting in a temporary jump in elk herds. Recent reforestation replaced the elk rangeland, accounting for what seems to be a dwindling elk population. A rushed management approval process hasn't shed light on all the variables associated with wildlife declines and could set precedence for hasty management decisions in the future, Stone said.
"The wolves are being used as a scapegoat for declining elk populations."