Friday, April 21, 2006

Anti-wolf initiative wastes time, paper and votes

Guest opinion by J. Robb Brady


J. Robb Brady is the former publisher of the Post Register and a member of the Idaho Falls newspaper's editorial board.

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Asking Idaho voters to give wolf recovery a thumbs down is more than a futile gesture — it could be counter-productive.

But Ron Gillette will not be deterred. Gillette, president of the Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition, is trying to get the issue on the Nov. 7 general election ballot. He's going to have to scramble. He needs 43,000 signatures from registered voters by May 1 — and recent reports suggest he's got a long way to go.

Launched more than 10 years ago, wolf recovery is hardly popular with groups such as Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, the Idaho Farm Bureau, the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association and the Idaho Cattle Association. Yet all are opposed to Gillette's approach.

Why?

Gillette's initiative won't get rid of the wolves. It could, however, undermine recent efforts to give Idahoans more control over managing the species.

Like it or not, the federal Endangered Species Act protecting wolves is the law of the land. So the wolves, reintroduced in 1995, are here to stay. The question is who should manage them pending formally removing the animals from the endangered species list. In January, the feds gave Idaho increased management prerogatives over the wolves.

Gillette's initiative would rescind the state's wolf management plan, put the feds back in charge and shut down the state's Office of Species Conservation.

Much as they dislike the wolves, groups such as the Farm Bureau detest the feds even more.

Besides, Gillette doesn't have a case.

You'll hear, for instance, that wolves are devastating elk and deer. Not true. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game's own surveys show that deer have increased in the state from 44,900 in 2003 to 54,080 in 2005. During the same period, elk have increased from 18,900 to 21,520.

Even where Fish and Game agrees with the argument that wolves are responsible for declining elk numbers — the agency wants to kill 43 wolves in the Lolo Pass area — critics say habitat problems may be more to blame. Habitat is a critical issue for all wildlife, hunted or not. Every year, habitat is lost somewhere as human activity invades. Yet the Bush administration has undermined habitat protection as it systematically curtails the nation's environmental laws.

Anti-wolf initiative backers argue wolves are a major problem for the livestock industry. Where's the proof? State and national wildlife agencies report exceedingly small livestock losses. Fish and Game says the state has lost only 190 head of cattle and about 600 sheep in the past 10 years. Within the three-state region of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, the numbers are similar — 528 head of cattle and 1,318 sheep since 1996.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says wolf threats to livestock in Idaho led to only 116 wolves being killed since 1995.

It also appears that natural selection is keeping wolf numbers under control. Yellowstone National Park officials report 40 percent of the northern wolf population died last summer from a virus disease that wolves originally contracted from dogs. So disease may play a significant factor in controlling wolf populations of the future.

Gillette and his crew resort to bumper stickers declaring "I like my wolves fried." But one catchy bumper sticker doesn't plug all the holes in this idea. If someone asks you to sign Gillette's initiative, refuse. If it gets on the ballot, vote against it.

This isn't about wolves. It's about common sense.




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