Letters From the West

Idaho Wolf Control Board hearing lines up in traditional divide

Photographer Larry Thorngren of McCall shows the Bradford Plate Collection of his photographs of wolves in Yellowstone he says show wolves are worth money if the state manages them right. Rocky Barker/Idaho Statesman

Photographer Larry Thorngren of McCall shows the Bradford Plate Collection of his photographs of wolves in Yellowstone he says show wolves are worth money if the state manages them right. Rocky Barker/Idaho Statesman

The House Resources and Conservation Committee hearing Monday on a proposed wolf control board cut through the middle of the great divide of wolf management in Idaho.

The two sides, wolf advocates and ranchers, were talking past each other. Wolf lovers see the bill, which was sent to the House floor on a 14-4 vote, as simply a bill to spend more money to kill more wolves.

Ranchers see the bill as a way to continue the wolf depredation work of the federal USDA Wildlife Services agency that responds when wolves kill livestock. They see it as a necessary government service to keep wolves from driving many livestock growers out of business.

The bill was a compromise between sportsmen and livestock interests with the wolf advocates and other environmental groups left on the sidelines. The compromise was driven by a bill introduced last year that would have taken the money for the program solely from hunters’ license dollars.

This bill makes cattle and sheep ranchers pay for half of the annual costs and sportsmen dollars the other half. That why the discussion includes talk about spending money to control wolves that eat lots of elk, one of the many problems environmentalists have with the idea.

Hunters and trappers have done well reducing wolf numbers – dropping the minimum from 850 to about 600, a 30 percent drop, since 2009. Since wolves are so prolific, even the most rabid wolf haters on the committee acknowledged they won’t be able to drop the numbers dramatically lower than they are now and can only hope to keep them at their current levels.

But the proposed board’s real task is killing wolves that eat livestock, which brought several lawmakers to ask why more preventive measures – such as non-lethal control methods like dogs and noisemakers – are specifically ruled out. Members of the advisory committee that proposed the bill said there was adequate funding available for non-lethal methods through groups like Defenders of Wildlife.

But the money remains the hardest pill to swallow for both sides. Gov. Butch Otter has proposed putting $2 million into the board’s start-up fund. That Idahoans have to spend a dime to manage wolves irks Republican Rep. JoAn Wood of Rigby, who fought hard in the 1990s to keep the Idaho Department of Fish and Game from doing anything to help bring the wolves from Canada in 1995.

“We never wanted our sportsmen or livestock growers to pay for shoving them down our throats,” Wood said.

Others like Democratic Rep. Ilana Rubel of Boise saw the issue as one of budget priorities.

“Please don’t steal from our children,” said Fawn Tomlinson of Boise, who also called for non-lethal methods.

Idaho Conservation League public lands director John Robison asked perhaps the most powerful question of all: Why not just do this through the existing Animal Damage Control Board?

With a Legislature full of people skeptical of setting up a new agency, Republican Sen. Bert Brackett, a rancher himself, pointed out a sunset provision written into the bill ends the the board after five years unless the Legislature renews it. That step was probably necessary just to get the bill passed.

Despite the strong committee support, many who voted yes expressed concerns about what the end game is – where ranchers, sportsmen, wolf advocates and the wolves can coexist.

“I just don’t see an end to this,” said Republican Rep. Ken Andrus of Lava Hot Springs.

Republican Sen. Jeff Siddoway, a sheep rancher who fought wolf reintroduction for years, appeared ready to begin talks with wolf advocates about an end game earlier this year. But non-lethal control is central to the advocates’ long-term solution. Imagine if the talks started now, with such methods missing from the wolf control bill.

Suzanne Asha Stone, the representative for Defenders of Wildlife, got the relatively easy job of getting two dozen people to come out against the bill and decry the underpinning of wolf killing to reduce livestock losses.

“We think its largely ineffective,” Stone said. “Simply killing wolves does not address future livestock losses.”

Imagine if the bill also did include non-lethal control and the board seriously tested all approaches to wolf control.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West