Friday, January 2, 2009

Wolves in the hills, red fish in our rivers

From Canis lupus to swarming sockeye, the environment was big in 2008

Express Staff Writer

Rick Williamson, Idaho wolf management specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services, tests for a spark on an electrified sheep enclosure on the North Fork of the Big Wood River last June. This summer, local sheep ranchers used the portable “night pens” in a successful effort to help keep their sheep safe from roaming wolves. Photo by Chris Pilaro

     Once again this year, howling wolves and howls over wolves dominated Idaho’s environmental headlines. Other notable issues stirring local emotions and leading to upset letters to the editor in 2008 ranged from the arrest and subsequent trial of anti-wolf activist Ron Gillett of Stanley and calls for adding cellular phone coverage at Galena Summit.

     Here’s a rundown of the year’s top local environmental issues:


Living with wolves

    No surprise here—northern Rockies gray wolves were in and out of the headlines during 2008. The dialogue hit a high note in late February when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took the long-anticipated step of removing protections for wolves in the northern Rockies under the federal Endangered Species Act. Just as anticipated was a move by environmentalists several months later to file a lawsuit challenging that decision, which removed federal protection for wolves living in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and portions of Washington, Oregon and Utah.

     Then, in July, a federal judge in Missoula, Mont., ordered that northern Rockies wolves should be given protected ESA status once again. U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy seemed particularly concerned, like environmentalists, with whether wolves could continue to interbreed if their numbers were cut down significantly by hunters, who could have targeted up to 428 wolves.

     In early December, word came down that the Fish and Wildlife Service was poised to try again to delist wolves. Environmentalists claim the agency is trying to remove federal protection before the Bush administration leaves office on Jan. 20.

     “It looks like this administration is pushing this mess into the courts again,” said Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies representative of Defenders of Wildlife.

     There was some news helpful to wolves this year, at least locally. This summer, in the upper WoodRiverValley northwest of Ketchum, Defenders of Wildlife spearheaded an innovative grassroots effort involving three sheep-ranching outfits, officials from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the SawtoothNational Forest and the federal Wildlife Services. The intent of the Wood River Wolf Project was to keep grazing sheep and wandering wolves from the Phantom Hill wolf pack separate and alive. Except for the death of one sheep, it succeeded. In 2007, well before three field assistants with Defenders of Wildlife began tracking the wolves’ proximity to sheep bands, officials claimed the Phantom Hill wolves killed at least a dozen of the wooly critters. 

     Praising the open lines of communication between forest officials, sheep operators and conservationists last July was Kurt Nelson, Ketchum District Ranger for the SawtoothNational Forest.

     “I think the level of cooperation is unprecedented,” Nelson said.


Sockeye swarm the Sawtooths

     This was also the year that the SawtoothValley’s imperiled sockeye salmon made a valiant return to RedfishLake. In all, 636 of the famous “red fish” arrived home to the SawtoothValley this summer, far more than the previous high of 257 that came back in 2000, which was the next highest return since 1985.

     Idaho’s 2008 sockeye run was just a tiny fraction of a much larger run, numbering just shy of 214,000, that coursed through the Columbia River system this summer. The vast majority of these fish were headed upriver to spawn in lakes in Washington. Out of the entire Idaho run, less than a third had hatched naturally, with the remainder coming from hatchery programs. Still, the returns mark a high point in a last-ditch recovery effort that witnessed the return of just 77 wild sockeye salmon to Idaho during a 14-year period between 1985 and 1998. But does this mean recovery? The short answer is no.

     Eventually, Idaho fisheries biologists hope that as many as 2,000 naturally spawned sockeye will migrate back to the SawtoothValley each summer. RedfishLake sockeye (Oncorhynchus nerka) were listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act in November 1991.


Wolf foe arrested

     A long-running rift between two stalwart foes on the wolf debate exploded in March when well-known anti-wolf activist Ron Gillett was arrested for allegedly attacking pro-wolf activist Lynne Stone. The arrest stemmed from an altercation both sides admitted took place, but disagreed over who was to blame. Stone said Gillett searched her out and attacked her near the ValleyCreekBridge near Stanley without provocation, while Gillett claimed he only grabbed Stone to prevent her from attacking him with a camera she was waving in his face.

     “She was doing the camera thing. I didn’t know if she was going to try and take a picture or hit me in the face,” Gillett testified at his late August trial in Challis.

     Stone said she was minding her own business, about to walk her dog, when Gillett pulled up and blocked her vehicle on that snowy March day.

     “I had a sinking feeling because I knew who it was,” she testified.

     In the end, the six-member jury couldn’t decide whether to convict the 67-year-old director of the Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition for assault and battery. In light of the hung jury, the Stanley prosecutor decided he would not seek a second trial.


Calling Galena Summit

     Those who support cellular coverage at Galena Summit say it’s an issue of safety. Those against it claim having partial cell coverage at the scenic ridge isn’t worth sacrificing this popular backcountry destination. Each side has waged a very public battle over a local company’s bid to erect a 90-foot, self-supporting cellular tower.

     The remote area inside the 756,000-acre Sawtooth National Recreation Area lacks cell coverage. Backers of the facility that Ketchum-based Idaho Tower Co. hopes to build have consistently claimed that providing coverage would add a measure of safety to the traveling public in the rural area marking the divide between the Big Wood and Salmon river drainages

     Last July, Sawtooth National Forest Supervisor Jane Kollmeyer denied the proposed “stealth” tower, citing the “substantial impairment” the project would produce on the scenic ridgetop. Soon after, Idaho Tower Co. appealed the decision.

     Earlier this fall, a regional U.S. Forest Service official reversed Kollmeyer’s denial on the grounds that the forest had failed to provide adequate notice and opportunity for public comment. Officials say they will reopen public comment on the visual quality standards aspect of the application soon.

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