Letters From the West

Nez Perce’s Miles calls Idaho’s secret Lolo wolf killing arrogant

A wolf bounds through the snow in Yellowstone National Park (National Park Service photo)

A wolf bounds through the snow in Yellowstone National Park (National Park Service photo)

The first time Nez Perce Tribal Natural Resources Director Aaron Miles heard that the federal government and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game were killing wolves in his back yard was late Friday.

Reporter Eric Barker called him and told him that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services had killed 23 wolves in the Lolo zone under contract for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. The tribe, which still gets federal funds to help monitor wolves and was the primary manager of the wolves in the early years of reintroduction, didn’t even get a courtesy call.

“It took me by surprise,” Miles said Monday. “It’s bold and its arrogant.”

The tribe and the state were co-managers under an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service until delisting. But the state has moved forward with its aggressive control actions against wolves in an effort to help increase elk numbers over the objections to the tribe.

“There’s still questions for big game that have to deal with about habitat, not wolves,” Miles said. “Those things need to be fully vetted before you start shooting wolves.”

Since 2009 Fish and Game has worked with Wildlife Services on aerial gunning to reduce wolf numbers in the Lolo Zone, which includes part of the Nez Perce Reservation and lands the tribe ceded to the United States under treaty near the Montana border in north-central Idaho.

The wolves were killed Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday Wildlife Services staff using its own helicopter. Todd Grimm, Idaho director of the federal agency said the action had not been planned except that Fish and Game had told them to watch for opportunities.

“The helicopter was available and the weather was right,” he said.

He estimated the cost at about $30,000, far less than past actions when a private helicopter was rented.

Forest Service officials also were not contacted, said Joyce Thompson, a spokeswoman for he Clearwater-Nez Perce National Forest. Usually Fish and Game gives them a heads up as a courtesy before hand but it is under no obligation to do so, she said.

Wolves are an important part of Nez Perce tribal culture as are the diverse species that were in the area when Lewis and Clark came through in 1805, Miles said. He’s hopeful that the tribe and Idaho can find a common ground for future management.

“There’s a way to be able to blend our view and our culture with sportsmen and whoever lives on this land,” Miles said.

But if the state won’t work with them then the tribe will push its goals through the Forest Services planning revisions process for the Clearwater-Nez Perce national forests, he said.

Fish ad Game said in its press release Friday that the killing is consistent with Idaho’s predation management plan for the Lolo elk zone. It aid predation is the major reason elk population numbers are below its own management objectives.

Since it began in 2010, Fish and Game and Wildlife Services have done six wolf killing campaigns in the Lolo zone, killing 25 wolves before the current 23.

Hunters and trappers have taken 17 wolves in the steep, dense region during the 2013-14 season. The trapping season ends March 31, the hunting season ends June 30.

The agency estimates there were 75 -100 wolves in the Lolo zone at the start of the 2013 hunting season with additional animals crossing back and forth between Idaho and Montana and from other Idaho elk zones.

Its goal is to reduce that Lolo zone wolf population by 70 percent.

The Lolo elk herd, once the state’s most valuable that attracted hunters from across the world stood at an estimated 16,000 elk. But as the forest grew up after fires in the 1930s, the quality of the elk habitat dropped.

In 2010 the population had dropped to roughly 2,100 elk and Idaho Fish and Game biologists said the population would not rise unless wolf, black bear and mountain lion predation was reduced. The tribe believes that habitat is the major problem, Miles said.

“We’ve always stood by the best available science and that we do things properly,” Miles said.

Fish and Game’s own predation plan says programs to aid elk and deer population by reducing predators can’t be temporary.

“Wolf populations tend to compensate for low removal rates, potentially within a year,” said a report from the National Research Council included in the predation plan.
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“Where higher levels of removal occur and wolf populations decline, the wolf population would be expected to return to pre-removal levels rapidly once removals end,” the report said. “Consequently, after a wolf population is reduced to a desired level, it is necessary to sustain a removal level during subsequent years to maintain reduced wolf abundance.”

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.

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