A flurry of political activity has surrounded the Rocky Mountain wolves since early August, when a decision by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled that the region's wolves must be relisted under the Endangered Species Act.
But the congressional session is due to end within the month with bills still languishing in committee, and questions remain unanswered about what the state of the species will be in 2011.
"I think we're all wondering the same thing. It's getting pretty late in the game here," said John Motsinger, spokesman for national conservation group Defenders of Wildlife.
The most immediate question is whether wolves in Idaho will lose federal protection any time soon. However, wolves may not even be discussed on the floor of the Senate before the session ends.
"There's no time on the calendar that they can see where wolves will be part of the discussion," said Brad Hoaglun, spokesman for Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho. "It doesn't look like anything will happen."
Susan Wheeler, spokeswoman for Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, agreed.
"The likelihood of that legislation passing is extremely low," Wheeler said of the five bills that have been introduced in Congress so far.
The proposed bills fall into two categories: ones that remove federal protection from all gray wolves, and those that remove protection only from wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountain region.
In late September, Crapo and Risch drafted and introduced a bill to remove Northern Rockies wolves, though not those in Wyoming, from federal protection. Wyoming has not drafted a wolf-management plan acceptable to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Wheeler said Crapo also supports a bill from Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, also introduced in late September, that would remove all wolves in the United States from federal protection. Risch and Crapo attempted to bypass the committee process and have this bill passed by unanimous consent on Tuesday, but it was objected to by Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, and their effort failed.
The "State Sovereignty Wildlife Management Act," a similar bill co-sponsored by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, is also still in committee.
All legislation that does not pass during a session dies before the start of the next, and Wheeler said a more likely route for management rests in the talks among Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and the governors of Wyoming and Montana.
"So far, they have no solution, but they're continuing to work on it," Wheeler said.
On a state level, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game is no longer monitoring wolf populations, following an announcement in October from Otter that Idaho would no longer spend "sportsmen's dollars" on wolf management if a public hunt is not a control option.
Wolves are now monitored and controlled by U.S. Wildlife Services and the Nez Perce tribe under the oversight of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Because of this change in power, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission suspended its 2008-12 Wolf Management Plan, which was based on the delisting of wolves, to one last revised in March 2002.
The plan is based on a joint memorial passed by the Idaho Legislature in 2001 that asks the federal government to remove wolves from the state.
The plan was also based on the assumption that wolves are listed under the act, but the data included is significantly outdated. In 2001, there were an estimated 261 wolves in 12 packs in Idaho, and the state's goal was to manage for 100 wolves and 15 breeding pairs.
According to Idaho Fish and Game, there were 38 breeding pairs in Idaho at the end of September 2010. The most recent estimate is that there are roughly 850 wolves in Idaho alone, far more than the original recovery goal of 300 wolves in three states.
A concern, said wolf advocate Garrick Dutcher, is that the state may choose a management goal closer to the lower numbers set out in the 2002 plan.
"It doesn't mean that they are absolutely going to do that, but it gives them the flexibility," Dutcher said.
Still, Dutcher said, he and other wolf advocates do not necessarily oppose state management as a general concept.
"We're not against delisting and state management, as long as it's done for the right reasons and the state management is sound," he said.
Wildlife Services has also revised its environmental assessment for wolves in Idaho. The assessment made waves when it was released in August, as it called for the gassing of pups in dens and sterilization of breeding pairs that had been involved in livestock depredation. Those options for management were removed in the assessment released in early December.
"I think that was probably a sound decision," Dutcher said. "It's not really something that would be very widely accepted in this day and age."
These control actions may have been eliminated as possibilities, but wolves still face more nebulous threats from sportsmen and politicians.
Former gubernatorial candidate Rex Rammell told Idaho County residents to organize a hunt and start killing wolves in mid-December, saying he wanted to eliminate wolves from the state.
Though the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service immediately responded by saying it would act to prosecute any acts of wolf poaching, anti-wolf sentiment is still strong in Idaho County. The county Sheriff's Office is holding a "308 SSS Wolf Pack" raffle for a package including a Winchester rifle and a shovel, items that seem to confirm Dutcher's opinion that the "SSS" stands for "shoot, shovel and shut up." That saying is a rallying cry for anti-wolf activists and is a common bumper sticker.
Sheriff Doug Giddings said that the "SSS" stands for "Safety, Security and Survival," but admitted he chose the name because of its double meaning and because it would create more interest in the raffle.
"We're really smart about this," Giddings said. "I mean, we used our heads."
Other threats have included the use of Xylitol, an artificial sweetener that is toxic to dogs and wolves, to sweeten gut piles left behind by sportsmen. Toby Bridges of the anti-wolf website Lobo Watch stated in a press release that Xylitol is being used to reduce wolf populations, though it poses a threat to hunting dogs and should therefore be used with caution.
"We've heard lots of chatter about this, about poaching, about shoot, shovel and shut up," Motsinger said.
Whether it's happening or not, he said, "it's disheartening to hear people encouraging it."
He said it's that sentiment that makes him think that the next legislative session will be interesting for wolves.
"It seems like the sportsmen's groups are pretty riled up about getting something passed," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised to see something next Congress, but who knows?"
Katherine Wutz: email@example.com