Wolves Running Wild in the West

The Great Wolf Debate

Since they lost federal protection, about 70 wolves have already been killed. But Idaho and other Western states are planning to permit the killing of hundreds more, allowing hunting for the first time in modern history. Environmentalists are asking a federal court to put wolves back on the endangered species list.

"Unfortunately, we hoped this would be a time for celebrating the recovery of wolves, and we know now that their future is really at risk," said Suzanne Stone, from Defenders of Wildlife.

Steve Nadeau of Idaho Fish and Game disagrees.

"If we are going to have wolves in the state, we are going to have wolf management, and sometimes that means lethal control and sometimes that means population management," he said. "They are not a benign creature. You can't just let them run loose and do what they want."

For hunters, who see wolves as competition for elk and other prized game, the relaxed state rules are welcome.

"I think it's necessary," said Brent Dunn, a hunter. "It's the only way we can annihilate a few of 'em. And it'll be a small portion compared to what's out there already."

Some Idaho hunters say they believe the season on wolves should last all year long, as it does right now in Wyoming.

"If you're lucky enough to see one in the woods, you should be able to shoot it, any time of year," said Greg Hill. "Not just in season. I'm not only a hunter, but I'm a rancher, too."

Alternate Methods

But not all ranchers feel so threatened. At a giant sheep operation in the Pioneer Mountain Valley, a concerted effort is under way to protect the livestock without killing wolves.

Mike Stevens, the president of Lava Lake Land and Livestock, believes that ranchers and wolves can coexist.

"We have seen the wolf numbers in our area increase dramatically since 2001," he said. "And we have really minimized the number of losses to wolves that we've experienced."

Some of their techniques are as old as the hills. The flocks are tended, day and night, by sheepherders and big guard dogs. But they also take advantage of technology, tracking wolves from their radio collars.

"It's an incredibly important tool for us because certainly the best proactive method is avoidance of the conflict in the first place," said Stevens.

And if wolves are nearby, the sheep are herded into pens specially rigged with solar powered electric fences, and fitted with flags.

"Our understanding is that wolves don't like the sight or sound of these fluttering flags," said Stevens.

Environmentalists consider this "nonlethal" approach a model that could be adopted across the West. But state officials doubt it could work across the wide open range.

"It's very, very expensive," said Steve Nadeau, the wolf program supervisor for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. "You have to have people right on top of it chasing wolves around all the time. And it doesn't work all the time. It simply cannot work all the time. So that is a 'Polyanna'-type view of wolf management."

"People are starting to realize, wolves are back, and if we manage them well we can coexist with them," wolf advocate Suzanne Stone said. "We just need to learn how to do that. There need to be people willing on both sides to make that happen."

The states have agreed not to let their wolf populations drop below the bare minimum needed to sustain the species, but they must also juggle the human constituencies that have staked claims on the future of the wolf. And that may prove a far more difficult task.

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