Wednesday, April 7, 2010

State biologist clarifies wolf myths

Gray wolf spotted near elk in Greenhorn Gulch

Express Staff Writer

Deirdre O’Connell, who works for both Sun Valley Trekking and Defenders of Wildlife, left, and Jon Rachael, state big game manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, inspect a piece of elk hide from a recent wolf kill in Greenhorn Gulch on Saturday. Photo by Jon Duval

As if it knew Idaho's wolf hunting season had recently come to a close, a gray wolf traipsed out in the open along a south-facing hillside in Greenhorn Gulch on Saturday, in close proximity to both the road and a herd of elk.

The elk continued grazing, seemingly undaunted as the wolf strolled lazily through the sage, its attention less on its prey than the group of people a few hundred yards away.

The group, equipped with binoculars and spotting scopes, was being led by Sun Valley Trekking co-owner Francie St. Onge as part of her wolf-tracking and ecology program.

In its second year, the program brings together state game officials, conservationists and interested members of the public to locate wolves in the Wood River Valley and hold a general discussion about the animal's reintroduction into Idaho.

Participants on the first of two scheduled trips this month got lucky early, after a short drive up Greenhorn Road from state Highway 75—north of Hailey—turned up about 70 elk and the accompanying wolf.

Given its marked difference from the all-black members of the Phantom Hill pack, which gained notoriety last winter as it ranged near residential areas in Elkhorn, East Fork and Greenhorn Gulch, it was unknown to which pack this lone wolf belongs.

Jon Rachael, state big game manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, estimated that the wolf was between 6 and 8 years old, given its size and appearance.

Rachael, a biologist and wolf expert, said it's difficult to judge the sex, age and weight of a wolf without actually being able to touch it. This is one reason, he said, that many people who spotted or hunted wolves throughout the winter overestimated the weights of the animals.

According to Rachael, the average weight of the 188 wolves killed in Idaho between Sept. 1 and March 31 was under 100 pounds, helping dispel the rumors that Idaho had extraordinarily large wolves.

After continuing the search for more wolves with a snowshoe trek north of Ketchum, Rachael said plenty of misinformation has been floating around during Idaho's first wolf hunt since the animal was removed from the endangered species list.

With his job positioning him at the forefront of wolf management in the state, Rachael said one of the most frequent myths he heard was that the wolves released in Idaho in 1995 and 1996 were the wrong species for the area.

"That's just pure silliness," he said to the 14 people seated in a backcountry yurt just south of Prairie Creek.

Another fallacy Rachael said he has heard over the course of the season is that wolves are solely responsible for the decline in the state's elk population.

While the predators have surely had a hand in thinning herds, Rachael said, many people have ignored a number of other significant factors, including the state's history of wildfire suppression. Fewer wildfires have resulted in denser forests, inhibiting the ability of elk and deer to find food.

This has led to a natural decline in these prey species, which saw peak populations while wolves were being reintroduced to the state.

"It was really unfortunate timing," Rachael said.

Rachael said this year's hunt went well, with the number of wolves killed falling 32 short of the limit of 220 set by the Idaho Fish and Game Commission last summer.

"We were not expecting a certain number of wolves to be killed," Rachael said. "We wanted to set a limit that we wouldn't go over, but it was the first year so we weren't sure what to expect."

As the season wore on, Rachael said, he heard fewer concerns from both sides of the controversial hunt. Rachael said that with fears of a wolf slaughter proving unfounded, concerns from some vocal conservationists decreased, as did those of hunters who were previously unable to hunt wolves while they were stalking elk or deer.

However, Rachael said that could soon change as a decision is still pending in a lawsuit brought by a coalition of conservation groups fighting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to remove wolves in the northern Rockies from the protections of the Endangered Species Act.

Last fall, the groups failed in an attempt to convince U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy to keep the hunt from going forward. But while Molloy allowed the hunt, he stated that a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to not allow a wolf hunt in Wyoming might affect the entire hunt next season on the grounds that the Endangered Species Act does not allow decisions to be based on political boundaries.

Hearings for the suit are scheduled to take place this spring. Rachael said he expects the debate to heat up again once a decision is rendered.

Jon Duval:

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