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For the week of Apr. 12 through Apr. 18, 2000

Return of the wolf

Wolf relocation into central Idaho sparks confrontation between ranchers and wolf advocates

the gray wolf

The gray wolf is said to be the most efficient predator in North America. Critics say its legendary hunting prowess is impacting livestock and wildlife. Supporters say the wolf harvests the weak and old, ensuring that future generations of elk and deer will be strong and healthy.  (Photo courtesy Sawtooth National Recreation Area)

"The wolf management plan has to protect the wolf first. If it doesn’t every environmental group in America will file law suits."

- Lynne Stone, Conservation activist

Express Staff Writer

Some are happy about the wolf’s return to the mountains of central Idaho.

Others would like to see the predator go already.

As the controversy surrounding wolf reintroduction in central Idaho heats up, both sides are drawing battle lines while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tries to keep the peace.

Ranchers and critics of wolf reintroduction say the wolf must go, by lethal means if necessary. Fearing that history will repeat itself, pro wolf groups argue that the wolf is an endangered species protected by law.

Fish and Wildlife tries to balance management and control of troublesome wolf packs with its goal of ultimately removing the wolf from the federal endangered species list.


After being virtually annihilated by government predator control programs by the 1930’s, the gray wolf has returned to its former range in central Idaho.

Some consider this a blessing, others a curse.

Horace Axtell was only a child when the last of the wolves were driven from their Idaho homeland some 70 years ago.

Having come full circle, Axtell, the Nez Perce nation’s elder and spiritual leader, was there when 15 wolves were released back into the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness in 1995 after an absence of many moons. Today, there are over 160 wolves in the Gem State.

Chanting an ancient song of hope and strength, Axtell prayed for the wolves and at the same time rejoiced in their restoration.

"I blessed the wolves when they returned like welcoming back a friend who’d been gone a long time,"Axtell said.

To the Nez Perce, who have been given responsibility to manage the wolf’s recovery in coordination with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the wolf symbolizes the "Circle of Life," an ancient respect for all living things and their place in nature. It is the underlying philosophy that has enabled the tribe to live in harmony with the wolf for thousands of years.

Ecologists, biologists and wildlife conservationists see the wolf as a missing piece in nature’s puzzle, a strand in the web of life that helps maintain balance in the ecosystem and the overall scheme of things.

Cattleman and outfitters in the ranching and tourism communities of Stanley, Clayton, Challis and Salmon are hardly as enthusiastic about the wolf’s return.

human response to the presence of wolves in Central Idaho
The wolf country of central Idaho isn’t far from the Wood River Valley’s back doorstep. The territory of the Twin Peaks and White Cloud Packs is found near the East Fork of the Salmon River, 25 miles, as the crow flies, from the SNRA headquarters north of Ketchum. Last month, a wolf was observed south of Bellevue in the first confirmed wolf sighting in the valley. Wildlife officials speculate the wolf might have come from the White Cloud Pack. (Illustration by Gavin McNeil)

In Stanley and Challis, ranchers and hunters sport bumper stickers on pickup trucks and SUV’s that read, "SAVE AN ELK—KILL A WOLF."

The opinion of a Clayton, Idaho resident
This sign, seen last month in a Clayton storefront window underscores the deep seated controversy sparked by the wolf’s return to the mountains of central Idaho. (Courtesy Photo)


Last month, a sign in a storefront window in Clayton read, "Kill all the GODDAMN WOLVES and the people who put them here!"

Such warnings are a testament to the deep-seated controversy sparked by the wolf’s return.


Ron Gillett is an outfitter in Stanley who has run float trips down the Salmon River for 30 years. Gillett grew up on a ranch in Hailey and is a steering committee member for the newly formed Central Idaho Wolf Coalition.

The coalition’s focus, Gillett said, is to unite all groups against reintroduction in an effort to get rid of the wolves.

"The coalition’s sole objective is the immediate removal of the gray wolf from central Idaho because of the catastrophic slaughter of our big game herds, serious livestock depredation and loss of wildlife viewing—causing unnecessary and extreme economic hardship to ‘mom and pop’ businesses," he said in an interview.

According to Gillett, the coalition is a grassroots organization founded by citizens of central Idaho where the wolf was reintroduced and, Gillett said, is causing economic problems.

"We’re concerned about the wildlife in Stanley because we’re a tourist-driven economy," Gillett said. "People don’t realize the damage the wolf is doing."

Gillett said the gray wolf, the most efficient predator in North America, is decimating elk calves and fawns at a rate that threatens future populations

"What’s going to happen when the wolves kill all the big game and there’s nothing left but wolves?" Gillett asked. "People like to see elk in the meadows and fawns running across the fields. They don’t want to see elk carcasses."

Gillett said the wildlife and livestock of central Idaho cannot coexist with the wolves given the current reintroduction situation.

"Our ecosystem cannot stand the shock that the wolf is causing and we can’t live with the severe restrictions imposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service."

Gillett said that due to the protection of the Endangered Species Act, wolf populations are doubling every year and lack of control is creating a threat to livestock and wildlife.

Gillett said there’s a place for wolves, but not in central Idaho.

"We’re not just wolf haters, we have the facts. The wolf experiment has not worked in Idaho. We want the wolf out of here before there’s nothing left."

Gillett said wolf reintroduction will be the hottest political issue in Idaho for the next couple of years, and that he expects the wolf coalition to have 80,000 to 100,000 members within the next couple of months.


Ketchum resident Lynne Stone is the executive director of the Boulder-White Clouds Council, a conservation group that supports the reintroduction of wolves in central Idaho.

Stone said she’s discouraged by the intolerance that ranchers and outfitters in central Idaho have for wolves and their unwillingness to compromise

"The spotted owl is an endangered species just as the wolf," Stone said in an interview. "The spotted owls stopped the harvesting of timber and shut down mills, yet we didn’t shoot the owl. We haven’t seen one sacrifice or compromise that ranchers have made for this endangered species."

Stone said she’s concerned about the Fish and Wildlife’s management and control of problem wolves which, she said, has resulted in the demise of two of Idaho’s 13 wolf packs.

"The wolf management plan has to protect the wolf first," Stone said. "If it doesn’t every environmental group in America will file lawsuits."

Ed Bangs, Fish and Wildlife’s regional wolf recover leader, said that in the latest control action by his officers, four wolves in the White Cloud Pack were removed from their territory in the East Fork of the Salmon River and relocated in the Lolo Pass area to the north earlier this month. The action came after two calves were killed by wolves.

The East Fork of the Salmon is located on the north side of the Boulder Mountains, a mere 25 miles, as the crow flies, from the Sawtooth National Recreation Area headquarters north of Ketchum.

Earlier this year, four wolves from the Twin Peaks Pack were shot and killed by Fish and Wildlife officers; and lethal control was authorized for the rest of the pack by Roy Heberger, wildlife biologist and assistant supervisor of the agency’s Boise office, after a fifth calf was killed on a ranch outside of Clayton.

The pack’s alpha male and female (the pack leaders) were captured and relocated to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area. According to a report in the Challis Messenger, Heberger said that since the Twin Peaks Pack has more than "three strikes" against it, the protocol under the Endangered Species Act’s "non-essential, experimental" wolf management regulations allows federal managers to shoot the remaining wolves.

For her part, conservation activist Stone fears that the White Cloud Pack will suffer the same fate as the Twin Peaks Pack.

"This is the one pack in the wild Boulder-White Clouds that we had hoped for," Stone said. "Now it’s being wiped out because two calves were killed. We’re outraged beyond belief."

Fish and Wildlife regional official Bangs said the pregnant alpha female and her mate, along with the two other members of the White Cloud Pack, were relocated to Lolo Pass where there is no ranching—an attempt to keep the pack intact and minimize damage to livestock.

Bangs said if the remaining pack members kill livestock again they too will be relocated or killed if their is another incident of livestock depredation.

Bangs said management regulations allow Fish and Wildlife to do anything to reduce the chances for wolf depredation of livestock.

"The bottom line is we don’t let wolves kill livestock," Bangs said. "The rules are set up to protect the interests of ranchers. If wolves keep killing livestock, we’ll have no wolves. It’s a tough job to get the wolves recovered and minimize conflicts."

Stone declared the Boulder-White Clouds Council supports the White Cloud Pack and wants to see it stay where it is.

"We think the people of America do too and want to know what’s going on here," Stone said. "We’re going to elevate the issue to the national level like it has been done with the salmon."

Stone said the wolf is an incredible animal and must be protected.

"The wolf [symbolizes] wild country and wild places," Stone said. "We can grow cows in Florida. This is one of the wildest wildernesses in the Lower 48 states. If we can’t have wolves here where can we have them? As soon as a wolf eats a cow or sheep the guns start shooting."

Stone said that until the stranglehold that ranchers have on land in the west is broken, wolf packs will continue to be broken up and destroyed.

"The Endangered Species Act brought the wolf back to the Boulder-White Clouds and made a lot of people so happy. We we’re thrilled to hear the wolf howl and see the tracks in the snow," Stone said.

"Now I feel like I’ve been robbed. My right to see an endangered species has been taken away from me, taken away from my son."

Picabo rancher Katie Breckenridge owns and ranches the 200 acre Buster Back Ranch located in the Stanley Basin.

When asked if she thinks the wolf can coexist with ranchers and livestock Breckenridge said it was possible "as long as I can deal with wolves that attack my livestock and as long as the rancher respects the wolf and the wolf respects the rancher."

As for the controversy over wolf reintroduction and lack of compromise, Breckenridge said there’s strong opinions on both sides of the issue.

"It’s no wonder there’s no compromise," she said. "It’s the fanatics that are keeping us divided with no way to find common ground."


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