Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Wolves recovered, myths persist

Experts weigh in on wolf hunting, biological recovery

Express Staff Writer

In this Express file photo, wolf expert Carter Niemayer lets out a wolf howl in the mountains near Clayton, in Custer County. Photo by Mountain Express

Want to become informed on wolf issues? Don't turn to the Internet, say wolf experts.

"If you really want to get misinformed, go on the blogs," Carter Niemeyer, former wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told a group of Idaho Conservation League members during the group's annual conference at Redfish Lake Lodge last weekend. "It's bullisome, it's hostile, it's intimidating. There's a real attempt to misinform, and so people are totally confused about wolves."

Niemeyer was joined by John Rachel, Idaho Department of Fish and Game big game manager, and John Robison, Idaho Conservation League public lands director, in a discussion on the myths and realities of wolves and wolf management.

One of the major obstacles to understanding wolves is the emotion involved, Robison said in his introduction.

"When you talk about wolves, you're not really talking about wolves," he said, adding that activists on both sides of the issue tend to focus on concepts such as traditions and freedom, even the right to property, rather than treating wolves as another game species.

"Wolves are fairly simple, but people are complex," he said.

Niemeyer agreed, saying that people tend to treat wolves as angels or devils rather than animals. While he said wolf talk on both sides is prone to "sensationalism," all three men focused on dispelling anti-wolf rhetoric.

"When you read the paper this fall, as whenever we have a hunting season, you'll be reading about a 250-pound wolf," he said.

In reality, the largest wolf trapped in Idaho was 143 pounds, and Niemeyer said most wolves range from 70 to 120 pounds.

"A 120-pound wolf is a pretty big guy," he said.

While wolves that feed on larger ungulates such as bison tend to be bigger, Niemeyer said, the largest wolf he has ever seen tipped the scales at 141 pounds.

Niemeyer also strove to dispel myths regarding wolves and livestock. According to a report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 588 Idaho cattle have been confirmed killed by wolves since 1987. As an estimated 5.5 million head of cattle roam Idaho pastures each year, Niemeyer said that statistically, wolf depredation is not as large a problem as some make it out to be.

"[Wolves] do kill livestock," he said. "Certainly they kill livestock. But it's not a huge, huge loss for the livestock industry."

Much of Niemeyer's 25-year career working with wolves centered on livestock depredation and determining the cause of death in cows, sheep and other animals suspected of having been killed by wolves. Niemeyer said wolves have a distinct hunting style, grabbing the animal between the front legs and inflicting huge amounts of trauma in order to bring it down. The key to accurate depredation data is accurate documentation that supports the animal's cause of death, he said.

"I wanted to be a forensic expert," he said. "I wanted to treat [a depredation] like a human homicide. We need to keep doing that."

Despite Niemeyer's obvious disdain for "anti-wolfers," he said he is not opposed to state management or even a hunting season, especially since he considers wolves to be biologically recovered.

"Seventeen hundred wolves is a viable wolf population," he said, referring to the number of wolves found in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

Niemeyer said that wolves are recovered enough in Idaho that most territory is already occupied by packs, and when a pack loses a breeding male or female, there are enough other wolves to fill in the gaps. As a result, he said, a hunting season would likely do more good that harm.

"Maybe a hunting season will lower blood pressure and calm folks down," he said.


Rachel, who helped develop the environmental impact statement for wolf reintroduction in 1994, said a hunting season was always in the cards for wolf management.

"Success [in reintroduction] would be measured by recovery, and recovery means treating wolves like any other species," Rachel said.

Such species include mountain lions or black bears, both of which are subject to public hunts in Idaho.

However, Rachel said hunters may not be entirely successful in helping to manage the wolf population through a traditional hunt alone. He said that in areas of dense vegetation or especially remote areas, wolves can be extraordinarily difficult to shoot. This difficulty may necessitate a trapping season to manage populations, he said.

"Trapping was a tool identified years ago," he said. "Hunting alone won't do it."

But traps set for wolves can also catch domestic dogs, including hunting hounds, as well as ungulates and other unintended prey. Both Niemeyer and Rachel said trappers would be required to take a course.

"There's going to have to be some kind of education involved," Niemeyer said.

Rachel said there would be a public hunt for wolves this fall, which would be used to manage wolves to the goal set forth in the state's 2002 wolf management plan. When asked why the state is choosing to use the 2002 plan rather than the 2008 plan, which calls for a population of about 700 wolves rather than 150, Rachel responded that the 2002 plan is the only one approved by the Legislature.

The Legislature also sets the fee schedule, he said, which is why the price for wolf tags—$11.75 for residents—is "way below par."

But even though a hunting season will placate some, neither Rachel nor Niemeyer expressed hope for an end to wolf conflict any time soon.

"I still find myself in the naïve position of thinking I'll never hear anything new or more extreme about wolves," Rachel said, adding with a laugh, "People really have some interesting thoughts about wolves."

"There's wolf wars going on," Niemeyer said. "I always kind of enjoy the turmoil, but I'm still just looking for good wolf management."

Katherine Wutz:

2011 Wolf Management

The Idaho Fish and Game Commission laid out its direction for wolf management last week, setting the stage for a public hunting season this fall. During its meeting last Thursday, the commission directed the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to manage wolves in a way consistent with other big game species such as mountain lions and black bears, as well as to carry out control actions when wolves threaten livestock or human safety.

The commission's framework calls for managing wolves to a level that would prevent relisting—a minimum of 150 wolves or 15 breeding pairs, according to the Legislature-approved 2002 Idaho Wolf Conservation and Management plan.

The strategy directs the department to develop hunting season recommendations, including recommendations for a trapping season, for consideration at the commission's meeting on July 28.

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