Friday, August 21, 2009

The fight between two predators

The fight over wolf reintroduction has polarized people and roiled passions in Idaho. The fight has only just begun.

Reintroduction raised the question of whether wolves or humans would be the No. 1 predator in the wild reaches of the state—lands that have become less and less wild with every year that passes.

Sprawling subdivisions, intensive livestock grazing on public lands, mining and aggressive agriculture have destroyed wetlands, streamside habitat and steppe vegetation beloved by deer, elk, moose, antelope, bighorn sheep and upland game birds.

The state's wild game animals and birds today cling to remnants of lands that once sustained them or to rocky high country protected as wilderness.

Enter wolves, reintroduced to Idaho in 1995 as part of a recovery plan for the endangered species. Successful reintroduction put 880 wolves in Idaho today—a number far higher than the 15 breeding pairs and 150 animals the federal government originally sought to ensure a healthy population.

Enter the anger of human hunters and commercial outfitters who saw big game become more wary, harder to target and allegedly less numerous. Suddenly, humans lost their place as top predator on the block.

Enter Fish and Game, the state agency now charged with managing wolves and concerned that fewer opportunities for human hunters will pinch purchases of hunting licenses that support the efforts of conservation officers and biologists.

On Monday, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission voted 4-3 in favor of the state's first hunting season on wolves with a kill limit of 220 animals, 25 percent of the wolves in the state.

Enter wolf advocates who believe the wolf population is threatened by lack of genetic diversity and who may again challenge the hunt in court. But their chances of success are receding fast. Even they know they ultimately will be unable to prevent hunts when wolves become habituated to humans or kill large numbers of domestic livestock.

Then, there's this: Hunters in Alaska and Canada have found wolves to be difficult to find, let alone to kill by conventional means—on foot with high-powered rifles.

It is likely that Idaho hunters won't bring down anywhere near the limit of 220 animals in the scheduled hunts. Consequently, the perceived problem of too many wolves and not enough game for both man and wolves will persist.

Then, the call will go up to allow wolf baiting and aerial hunting to reduce populations.

That's when the really nasty fight between predators will begin.

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