Friday, December 31, 2010

‘Protection’ was watchword for 2010

Wolves, whitebarks and wilderness make environmental headlines


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, releases a spawning sockeye salmon into Redfish Lake Creek south of Stanley on the morning of Aug. 13. The sockeye is an endangered species, one of five species that were either given, denied or considered for federal protection throughout 2010. Photo by David N. Seelig

This year's environmental buzzword? Protection. The most talked-about environmental stories of 2010 mostly centered on efforts to protect and preserve, whether it was species such as wolves and whitebark pines or 332,775 acres of proposed wilderness carved out of two national forests.

Wolves

Wolves first made news in early January, when hunters in the Southern Mountains region of Idaho reached a quota of 10 wolves and closed the season. Of these, two were members of the nearby Phantom Hill pack, the status of which is still unknown, according to biologists at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

As hunts continued, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy deliberated whether wolves in Wyoming were improperly left out of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's removal of wolves from protection under the Endangered Species Act. Molloy ruled in August that the northern Rocky Mountain wolf population was illegally delisted, ending state management until Wyoming could develop a federally approved plan.

Gov. Butch Otter, Idaho legislators and sportsmen greeted Molloy's ruling with frustration, saying Idaho's wolves should be under state management.

"It's disappointing that he didn't just leave it the way it was and tell Wyoming to hurry up and catch up," said Ken Enslinger, spokesman for the Idaho branch of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife.

Otter withdrew state support for wolf management as legislators launched a battalion of bills in Congress that would remove wolves from federal protection. None passed, to the relief of those who worried about threats to the act's integrity.

"It opens up a huge potential hole in the [act] if every person feels like they can get Congress to make special rules," said Andrew Wetzler, spokesman from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

CIEDRA

Another bill that failed to get approval was Rep. Mike Simpson's Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act. Simpson, R-Idaho, developed the bill for 10 years only to see it die in committee in the House in 2004 and in the Senate this year.

CIEDRA would have created 332,775 acres of wilderness to the north and east of the Wood River Valley. The land is part of the Salmon-Challis and Sawtooth national forests. This designation would have closed 35 miles of trails to mountain bikers and all motorized use.

The bill was opposed by Otter and Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, who said he had introduced the bill in the Senate as a "favor" to Simpson. CIEDRA never made it out of the Senate Subcommittee for Public Lands and Forests. It could be reintroduced.

Record returns

Sockeye salmon returns to the Sawtooth Valley hit record highs this year, with the best return since 1956. Almost 1,300 of the fish made their way to Redfish Lake by mid-September, far more than last year's 833.

Idaho Fisheries Bureau staff and sockeye advocates said the returns were encouraging, but not a sign of a recovered population. Many of the returning fish were from hatcheries, meaning the jury is still out on wild sockeye.

No protection for species

The news was not as encouraging for two rare Idaho species, wolverines and pygmy rabbits, which were denied protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2010.

While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that wolverines need federal protection, they stated earlier this month that other species had higher priority. The service denied protection for pygmy rabbits based on a lack of data showing a long-term decline. Both species are eligible for reconsideration.

Pines' fate still in flux

The rare whitebark pine is also being considered for protection under the act, as the population struggles to maintain its niche under threat of mountain pine beetles and encroaching subalpine pines.

Recovery efforts for the pines are under way, but Charlie Webster, founder of the Ketchum-based Sawtooth Whitebark Pine Restoration Project, said he still worries about the pines' fate.

"The mortality is absolutely unbelievable," Webster said in September. "You can't even believe how many are gone."

A decision is not expected before next September.

Battling beetles

Whitebark pines weren't the only trees suffering this year. The Ketchum Ranger District launched two attacks—in May and June—on beetles damaging Douglas fir trees on Bald Mountain. Crews dropped pheromone pellets meant to keep beetles from nesting in the trees. A similar pheromone treatment was used to help keep mountain pine beetles from nesting in whitebarks.

The Forest Service also oversaw a thinning operation on Bald Mountain meant to prevent the beetles' spread. Thinning the trees cut down on the trees' competition, and healthy trees are more able to fend off beetle attacks.

2010 fire season

The biggest fires in the area this year were intentional, as the Forest Service conducted two prescribed burns totaling more than 4,000 acres to reduce fuel for fires and to improve aspen habitat. One burn near Hailey and another in the Salmon-Challis National Forest reached 1,000 and 1,750 acres, respectively.

The Forest Service predicted a busy fire season, but serious wildfires spared the lower Wood River Valley.

Valley residents saw smoke in August, though, as the 2,365-acre Banner Fire raged for 10 days 15 miles west of Stanley. The nearest major inferno was the 306,133-acre Long Butte Fire near Hagerman, which was contained in early September.

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com




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