Friday, February 27, 2009

State hopes to target Lolo wolves

Officials will seek federal permission to kill wolves to protect Clearwater elk herd

Express Staff Writer

Idaho Department of Fish and Game officials are poised to pitch a plan to the federal government seeking permission to kill up to 80 percent of the gray wolves living in the upper Clearwater River drainage in north-central Idaho. Photo by Mountain Express

Within a week or two, the Idaho Department and Fish and Game will ask federal officials for permission to remove as many as 100 wolves from the remote Clearwater region to take pressure off its elk herds.

Fish and Game biologists have been gathering data to support the planned kill, the agency's large carnivore manager, Steve Nadeau, said Thursday. Recent revisions to the federal 10(j) rule—which governs the management of gray wolves south of U.S. Interstate 90 in Idaho and Montana—provide for such control actions if the state can prove the predators are "a major cause" of declining ungulate numbers.

Since the reintroduction of wolves to Idaho in 1995, Fish and Game has expressed concerns about declining elk numbers in the agency's Lolo elk zone—which covers big game units 10 and 12—in the north-central part of the state. Fish and Game blames wolves for the herds' inability to rebound.

Up to 80 percent of the wolves in the Lolo zone could be killed under the plan.

Because new wolves would most likely re-occupy the resulting void after the plan was carried out, additional wolves would have to be targeted, Nadeau said.

"Wolves hate a void," he said. "It would have to be a multiple-year type of effort."

The state's planned kill-off of wolves in the Lolo zone follows the release of a Fish and Game report that claims Idaho wolves are hurting the state's economy. Statewide, Idaho could be losing as much as $24 million annually in hunting-related revenue due to wolves' killing deer and elk, the report states.

The report relies heavily on a 1994 environmental impact statement related to the introduction of wolves to the northern Rocky Mountains, and then extrapolates from those numbers.

"This is a projection," said Lance Hebdon, intergovernmental policy coordinator with Fish and Game. "Is it realistic to think we would have more elk hunters if we had more elk in some units? I think that is a reasonable assumption."

The report released earlier this week was requested by Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, who earlier this month sponsored a bill—approved 31-1 in the Senate—to offer Idaho's wolves to surrounding states.

"I think this at least gives us some data with some science behind it," Schroeder, chairman of the Senate Resources and Environment Committee, told the Lewiston Tribune. "The question is, as wolf numbers increase, are we going to have to curtail hunting opportunities? Anytime I see something that drives business away, that's important to me."

Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project blasted the report.

"They're cooking the books on it," said Brian Ertz, the conservation group's media director. "It seems to me what Gary Schroeder is doing is political grandstanding."

Ertz suggested that Schroeder should be considering other possible explanations for declining numbers of wildlife.

"If he's really concerned about wildlife in Idaho, why is he not concerned about public lands ranching?"

The report said hunters are less likely to hunt if they don't think game is available, and assigns a value of $127.40 for each day a hunter spends pursuing game. It's called a hunter day. Hebdon said the dollar amount came from a 2002 report from the Wildlife Society, a professional organization of wildlife scientists.

The report estimates there could be more than 180,000 hunter days lost because of wolves, adding up to as much as $24 million. The report puts the low end of lost hunter days at 120,000, adding up to about $15 million.

The state sold 93,000 elk tags in 1998, a number that dropped to 80,000 in 2008. Sales of deer tags have increased in the last decade, going from 122,000 in 1998 to 127,000 last year. Nonresident tags are capped.

Officials said they have no way of determining whether big game tag sales would have increased if wolves were not in the state.

"This is a very simple analysis," Hebdon said. "It's simply providing the public and the Legislature with information that there are economic costs to these foregone hunter opportunities."

The Fish and Game report also used a second method to estimate the state's economic loss due to wolves. With that method, the report put an economic value on elk killed by wolves. The report estimated that 824 wolves in Idaho kill 9,517 elk a year.

The report estimated that 20 percent of those elk — 1,903 — would likely have instead been killed by hunters. The value of a harvested elk, the report said, was $8,000, giving an economic loss to the state of more than $15 million.

Hebdon said the agency didn't feel pressured to put out a report reflecting any particular view about wolves.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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