The news about an Idaho town offering a big load of cash for a big dead wolf reached far beyond the Continental Divide. Salmon's so-called 1st Annual Predator Derby, held Dec. 28-29, 2013, attracted some 260 hunters, and more than its share of headlines across the globe.
"Wolf and Coyote Derby Turns Small Idaho Town Into a Battleground," wrote Guardian Liberty Voice.
"Two-Day Holiday Killing 'Derby' in Idaho Targets Wolves and Coyotes," wrote the Huffington Post.
The news triggered protests and, according to law enforcement, some threats.
When Boise Weekly visited Sheriff Lynn Bowerman in his Lemhi County Courthouse office, the lawman said that some Salmon business owners had received threats leading up to and during the derby. The sheriff also confirmed that he had conferred with the FBI about possible violations of Idaho statutes regarding harassment of "any person who is, or was engaged in the lawful taking or control of fish or wildlife."
Bowerman said most of the threats had apparently come from out of state and even abroad--via telephone or Internet--and "are unlikely to be pursued further."
"I knew it would be controversial," Bowerman said of the derby. "I asked the organizers, 'Is this really what you want to do? At least don't put phone numbers on the poster.'"
But names and phone numbers did appear on the poster, which stated the derby was, "Brought to you by: Idaho for Wildlife, Salmon Chapter."
"Some people have strong beliefs and believe in protecting animals that are not on the [endangered species] list anymore," Bowerman said. "So, I knew what the reaction was going to be."
The sheriff told BW that he has advised the alleged victims to keep records of communications, which can be passed along to the U.S. Attorney's Office for review.
A Salmon couple told Boise Weekly that they were reluctant to comment on the record, but confirmed that they had been counseled to remain quiet about the furor until results from Bowerman's investigation were received.
"I wanted to document things," Bowerman said. "All of our hotels received threats and a couple of the restaurants and sporting goods stores. Plus, the sponsors had threats."
John Cranney, owner of Rawhide Outfitter in Salmon, was not one of the Salmon businesses that sponsored the derby, but said he was still dismayed by the reaction.
"You can't imagine the flak people have gotten," Cranney said, adding that the issue is more complicated than most people understand. "It isn't what people think. Some people have the impression that wolves are standing around here."
Bowerman, nearly 63, has worked in law enforcement much of his career, including an early stint as Boise County sheriff, where he killed a troublesome predator in 1981--a bear that had been ransacking vacant cabins. A photo of the sheriff and the dead bear hangs in his Lemhi County office. Bowerman also served as Ada County deputy chief coroner for 20 years, and said he worked as an "undercover agent" for the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Licensing Board--work that introduced him to Salmon.
"Working here, undercover, helped me fall in love with the place," he said. "This is God's country."
Throughout BW's visit to Salmon, residents shared their great affinity for the mountains and valleys that surround their town, known as the birthplace of Sacajawea. In particular, they expressed their affection for "The Frank"--the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness--the neighboring 2.3 million acres of rugged, boundless backyard that some said was "their church."
When BW visited Salmon in mid-January--two weeks after the controversial derby--the only real buzz in town was being generated by a local hockey tournament that had attracted several teams from other parts of Idaho and neighboring states.
"It's a lot of fun to be here," said 22-year-old Luke Nicks, who joined friends to chat by the fire at an outdoor rink adjacent to the Salmon Valley Business Development Center, with views of the valley and the mountains that form the Continental Divide. Taking a break from a hockey match to talk with BW, Nicks said that despite the controversy, he believed like many people in town that the derby was "a good event."
The mounting debate
Some, like Ketchum Democratic Sen. Michelle Stennett, question whether the Idaho Department of Fish and Game is taking into account all the factors impacting wildlife--including wolves--such as new developments and wildfires that have torn through habitat in recent years.
During a recent meeting of the Idaho Senate Resources and Environment Committee, Stennett questioned Fish and Game Commission gubernatorial appointee Brad Corkill about whether his service would suffer from a conflict of interest since he said he would like to see "all wolves removed from Idaho."
Corkill, who, if approved, would represent the Idaho Panhandle region, said his view on wolves would not impede his management responsibilities.
"I understand the wolf is here to stay," Corkill said.
After the hearing, Stennett said that she wants to make sure that prospective IDFG commissioners understand that there is more to managing wildlife than wolves.
"It makes it lopsided if we just focus so much on wolves," Stennett said, explaining that she doesn't want a wildlife management regime that acts "at the expense of other species."
Adding fuel to wolf-hunting opposition was the recent discovery that Idaho Fish and Game had a Salmon-based hunter and trapper in its employ to actively hunt wolves in the Frank Church Wilderness, only a few miles west of Salmon. The hunter has reportedly utilized the U.S. Forest Service's Cabin Creek wilderness airstrip, and his access by government plane and use of a Forest Service cabin for his hunting operations has more than irked conservationists, who typically support Fish and Game's management plans wholeheartedly.
"Seemingly covert predator control actions like this erode the public trust and disenfranchise wildlife supporters who are critical to the department's long-term success," wrote John Robison, public lands director for the Idaho Conservation League, in a statement which he read at a Jan. 15 IDFG hearing in Boise.
Idaho Fish and Game officials were, at first, reluctant to talk to BW about the agency's contract with the professional wolf hunter, but in an email sent Jan. 17, IDFG spokesman Mike Keckler wrote that the agreement involved "a single employee going into the wilderness in early December to help determine the effectiveness of trapping wolves."
"Fish and Game is not seeking to get rid of wolves from the Wilderness," wrote Keckler. "Fish and Game is taking action to see if it can alleviate the impact of predation to help recover the elk population in the Middle Fork zone. The Middle Fork elk herd has declined by 44 percent since 2002 (from 7,485 in 2002 to 4,223 in 2011). The recent ratio of calves to cow elk during winter was less than 13 calves per 100 cows. Since 1998, the cow-to-calf ratio has been too low for the annual reproduction of calves to replace the adult cow elk that die annually. This low level of reproductive success is well below that needed to recover the herd, and at its current level, the elk population will continue to decline. We attribute this decline largely to predation on elk by wolves."
IDFG Director Virgil Moore said any actions taken in the Frank Church Wilderness "are my responsibility."
"Now, if we have overstepped our bounds with the Forest Service, well, the courts will help sort that out," said Moore.
A group of conservation advocates even sued, asking a federal judge to immediately stop the efforts of the professional hunter, but on Jan. 17, U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge denied the temporary restraining order, ruling that the "evidence in the current record shows that the IDFG program for hunting results will not result in the loss of the species as a whole." An attorney for Earthjustice, representing the groups, has already filed an appeal with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Robison weighed in on the matter in the form of a cartoon, published on ICL's website, advising Fish and Game administrators to "retake Hunter's Education."
"Be sure of your target and what is in front and what is beyond it," the caption reads. The cartoon depicts a Fish and Game officer shooting holes through a row of "targets." The first one is of the alleged wolf packs to be killed in the wilderness area. Behind that a second target, also blasted through, says "Wilderness values and River of No Return." Behind that, a third shot-through target reads "IDFG Credibility and Wildlife Summit Goals," and a fourth ruined target reads "Public Trust and Transparency and Accountability."
Meanwhile, Salmon outfitter John Cranney said he still thinks that government-sanctioned hunting and/or trapping in "The Frank" will have little effect on the wolf population.
"It's immeasurable," he said. "It's like taking an aspirin for a brain tumor."