local weather Click for Sun Valley, Idaho Forecast
 front page
 last week
 express jobs
 about us
 advertising info

 sun valley guide
 real estate guide
 sv catalogs



Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
208.726.8060 Voice
208.726.2329 Fax

Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited. 

For the week of June 4 - 10, 2003


Sawtooth Valley wolves pioneer new haunts

Protection could dwindle
as feds give up control

Second in a series of two

Express Staff Writer

The renewed presence of wolves in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and its surrounding acreage has rekindled an enduring debate over how the predators and the public lands they inhabit should be managed.

Proponents of wolves are hailing the development as another victory in the federal government’s effort to reestablish the endangered species in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. At the same time, federal officials are preparing for conflicts as ranchers prepare to move thousands of sheep and cattle into high-mountain summer pastures in the heart of Idaho’s wolf country.

Caught in the middle of the debate are the appointed managers of Idaho’s wolves, those who are charged with maintaining a viable population of the canines while operating under an order to control wolves that prey on livestock.

"My feeling for wolves, any more, is I kind of have a sympathy for them," said Carter Niemeyer, Idaho wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. "They’re just trying to survive. Ranchers and agriculture people say you can’t control these things. Yeah, we can."

Curt Mack, gray wolf project leader for the Nez Perce Tribe, said he believes the key to successful wolf management lies in changing a set of ideas long held by many Idaho residents that wolves and livestock are mutually exclusive.

"The big issue is social change, changing generation-long attitudes about wolves and grazing interests," Mack said. "There are some people saying, ‘We got rid of wolves a long time ago, why do we have to go through this?’"

A new pack of wolves that has established itself in the SNRA, along with two other groups of wolves just outside the SNRA’s northeast boundary, will inevitably be at the center of ongoing discussions over how Idaho wolves are managed.

The new pack—still unnamed—has established itself near Champion Creek and the western foothills of the White Cloud Mountains, immediately adjacent to pastures where thousands of sheep will soon graze with permission from the U.S. Forest Service.

The Buffalo Ridge pack, established in the Squaw Creek area south of Clayton, is already suspected by USFWS officials of preying on cattle in local pastures. Niemeyer said earlier this month that the USFWS will consider employing lethal and nonlethal control measures against the pack if it is linked to a livestock kill in the coming months.

A third group of wolves in the region, a pair in the East Fork of the Salmon River area that has yet to be confirmed as a viable pack, is ranging in areas that include private pastures and public grazing allotments issued by the Forest Service.

Mack said he believes the debate about wolves inhabiting public lands should not necessarily be centered solely on wolves and their predatory habits. "In the SNRA, wolves are the catalyst for getting to the issue about grazing on public lands," he said.

The Forest Service in April tentatively proposed to reduce by roughly half the size and scope of grazing allotments on the east slope of the White Cloud Mountains. However, SNRA Area Ranger Debora Cooper earlier this month said she cannot mandate that sheep—or cattle—be moved away from their historical pastures in the Sawtooth Valley and surrounding mountains to reduce potential wolf-livestock encounters.

"We can meet with permittees and advise them on the matter," she said. "But it’s very clear I cannot force land-use changes in favor of the wolves."

Cooper noted that there are approximately 100 special-use permits for various activities in the SNRA. Grazing permits—of which there approximately 30—are not generally subject to "buyout," as are development rights in the approximately 756,000-acre SNRA, she noted.

By a federal court order issued in April, the wolves inside the SNRA cannot be killed for any reason, yet those that range outside of the recreation area are still subject to lethal control measures.

Defenders of Wildlife, a national environmental organization based in Washington, D.C., has implemented a program to compensate ranchers for 100 percent of the value of livestock lost to "confirmed" wolf kills and 50 percent of the value of "probable" kills. Mack said that despite the program, wolf managers in Idaho cannot alter their mandate to control packs that kill domestic animals.

Last year, Idaho wolf kills confirmed by the USFWS totaled 10 calves and 15 sheep, while 14 wolves were killed in depredation control actions.

Ranchers are not the only interest group in Idaho that is concerned with wolf populations and how they are managed. Niemeyer said groups of hunters have called for wolves to be culled, asserting that the animals drastically reduce the number of elk in the state.

However, Mack said studies have indicated that out of approximately 125,000 elk that inhabit the state, hunters each year kill 17,000 to 20,000 of the game animals, while wolves take down between 2,500 and 5,000.

Wolves, he noted, typically are opportunistic killers, testing different elk herds before seizing upon the more vulnerable prey animals, such as calves or sick individuals.

While wolves are not subjected to control measures for preying on elk—their primary food source—the approximately 300 wolves in Idaho will soon garner even less protection than what they have now.

Currently, the animals are listed as "threatened" under the federal Endangered Species Act, which affords listed animals generous measures of protection, both in the field and the courtroom.

But, the federal plan to reintroduce wolves into the northern Rocky Mountains calls for the USFWS to manage the populations until they are viable enough to be removed from the endangered-species list. The stated goal of maintaining 30 breeding pairs of wolves in the three-state recovery area was met at the end of last year, paving the way for wolves to be delisted.

The federal government is planning to delist wolves and turn wolf management over to the individual states once the states have approved an acceptable wolf management plan. "We anticipate the federal government will hand over responsibility in the next two to three years," Mack said.

While Montana and Wyoming have not approved such a plan, Idaho approved its plan earlier this year.

"Once wolves are removed from the list, the state will have full authority to manage wolves," Mack said, noting that the Nez Perce Tribe is seeking a memorandum of understanding with the state to stay actively involved in wolf management.

The state plan notes that Idaho Fish & Game will manage wolves, under the Governor’s Office of Species Conservation. It states that "wolves will be classified as either a big-game animal, furbearer, or special classification of predator that provides for controlled take after delisting."

Management of Idaho wolves will be based on the number of viable packs in the state. If there are fewer than 15 packs statewide, "depredations will be addressed with nonlethal control unless unusual circumstances" occur, the plan states. Otherwise, wolves will be managed "similar to black bear and mountain lions," with depredation control "treated like all other large mammalian predators."

Niemeyer said the state plan appears to be "a workable plan," but raises questions about whether wolf-hunting permits will be issued. USFWS will monitor the state’s management of wolves for five years to ensure wolf populations are not poorly managed, but lawsuits related the planned delisting are anticipated, Niemeyer noted.

Mack said he believes wolves have a place in Idaho’s backcountry, despite the state’s official position that it wants the federal government to remove wolves from within its boundaries. "I really do believe we can have livestock, ungulates and wolves."



City of Ketchum

Formula Sports


Edmark GM Superstore : Nampa, Idaho

Premier Resorts Sun Valley

High Country Property Rentals

The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.