Wednesday, January 5, 2005

New federal rules allow ranchers and wolves to coexist

Since their reintroduction to the Frank Church - River of No Return Wilderness in January 1995, wolves have been a lightening rod for parties on all sides of the reintroduction issue. While still bound to rankle a few, new federal rules released Monday by Interior Secretary Gail Norton will take a step toward the goal agreed upon in 1995: that ranchers and wolves will find a way to coexist.

Virtually exterminated from the West by the 1970s, wolves were reintroduced to central Idaho in 1995. Fourteen wolves were introduced with the provision that they could be killed if they killed livestock. The wolves have done quite well. Idaho now has an estimated 420 wolves in 28 packs.

The new rules, which go in effect 30 days from tomorrow, give ranchers and private landowners more leeway in killing wolves to protect their livestock or pets. The rules also allow state officials, with consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to kill wolves if it can be shown that elk, deer and bighorn sheep populations are not meeting state population goals and will not recover without removing some wolves.

The rules change is the first step in turning wolf management over to the states, specifically Idaho and Montana. Wyoming is excluded from the rules change, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have not approved its management plan.

Specifically the rules state:

· Wolves in the act of attacking livestock, guarding animals or dogs on private land can be taken immediately.

· On public land, ranchers or outfitters can kill wolves if they are in the act of attacking livestock, guard animals or dogs.

· Wolves that are threatening livestock or pets can be killed or harassed by ranchers or pet owners, provided they can demonstrate the threat. All kills must be reported.

Sounds like a lot of killing. But Ed Bangs, a wolf recovery coordinator for USFWS, estimates that 10 percent of the wolf population will be killed legally each year, about double what it has been in the past. Given that a wolf pair usually has five pups each year, the population can easily withstand the 10 percent losses.

It is a reality that wolves are back in Idaho. It is also a reality that ranchers are still part of the state's heritage and economy. Both have to eat. Ranchers should be able to protect their livelihood, and wildlife managers closest to the wildlife should be able to manage the population.

Skeptics will say this is a political coup for Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, who proposed the idea to the Bush administration. Perhaps it is, but Kempthorne's stated goal is the delisting of the wolves. If that ends up being the case, then the wolves will have won, too.

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