Wolves Or Taters?

If there's anything that will get animal activists howling, it's talk of killing wolves.

So when game and fish managers in Montana and Idaho recently authorized hunts for timber wolves in their states, the reaction was predictable.

Back east, Friends of Animals president Priscilla Feral called for a national boycott of Idaho potatoes to protest the state's plan to take out 255 timber wolves beginning in September. That could affect Idaho growers, who produce about one-third of the potatoes consumed in the United States.

Idaho wildlife biologists recommended the reduction in the wolf population to alleviate excessive predation of domestic stock, elk calves and other wildlife. Up until a couple of decades ago, free-ranging wolves were not seen as a problem in the Rocky Mountain states.

However, a concerted effort to reintroduce wolves on remote federal lands by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was wildly successful. Though Yellowstone National Park in the corner of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming was ground zero for the wolf comeback, the predators have since reestablished themselves in areas where they haven't been welcomed by ranchers, hunters or wildlife managers. In May, FWS removed gray wolves in Idaho and Montana from the endangered species list after the two states provided management plans that would conform to population goals.

Wyoming's wolves are still on the endangered species list, if only because that state hasn't come up with a management plan that suits the FWS. Consequently, Idaho and Montana can reduce the wolf population in their states as long as they maintain population goals of about 500 and 400 animals, respectively. Friends of wolves contend that the canids aren't nearly as numerous as the states purport them to be, and the planned hunts are slippery slopes to wolf extirpation.

U.S. Circuit Court Judge Donald Malloy said that opponents of the wolf hunts in Idaho and Montana (where 75 wolves are on the hit list) will have the opportunity to present their case in a hearing slated for Monday (Aug. 31). If Malloy decides to grant the latest in a long line of injunctions halting wolf smackdowns, the hunts slated to begin on Sept. 1 will be stopped.

Earthjustice, a non-profit law firm that represents various organizations, has three hours to convince Malloy that wolves should be spared. Among the groups represented by Earthjustice are the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council and 10 other organizations dedicated to preserving wildlife.

Since Idaho wolf tags went on sale in mid-August, more than 6,000 had been purchased. Much to the chagrin of Friends of Animals, even Idaho Gov. Butch Otter expressed his enthusiasm for the hunt and obtained a permit.

Vexed by what she perceives to be the governor's cavalier outlook on wolves, Feral said in a press release that "Gov. Otter's enthusiasm for wolf killing not only demonstrates a complete lack of conscience and understanding of the word 'respect,' it shows a lack of respect for nature and the ecosystem. As long as Idaho is in the business of killing wolves, the nature-respecting public should stop buying potatoes there."

In his defense, Otter said that he didn't want to see all wolves destroyed, just the ones that were making nuisances of themselves. "You can still hate them [wolves] and respect their cunning and their place in nature," observed the governor dryly.

If Malloy decides to let the hunt run its course, wolves will be tagged and reported once they're killed, and the state will close the hunting season when the quota has been reached. Beside the 220 permits issued to statewide hunters, another 35 were provided to the Nez Perce tribe.

The Idaho Fish and Game Commission reckons that there are 800-1,000 gray or timber wolves inhabiting the state's rugged hinterlands, and the proposed hunt would reduce their numbers by about one-quarter.

In Montana, where an estimated 475 to 500 wolves reside, the population has been growing at an annual rate of about 20 percent. With the increase in wolf packs have come a commensurate number of depredation complaints from ranchers who own sheep, horse and cattle, as well as big game hunters convinced that in the predatory scheme of things wolves are taking more than their fair share of elk cows, elk calves and deer.

To wildlife preservationists, one dead wolf is too many. Because of their predictable reaction, various attempts to reduce wolf populations have been nixed by federal judges over the years, rankling wildlife agencies and state legislatures. Perhaps that explains why one Idaho legislator sought to establish a middle ground where wolves are shipped rather than shot.

Operating under the premise that probably the people who complain that wolves shouldn't be killed are the people who don't have any wolves around them, Sen. Gary Schroeder (R-Moscow) introduced legislation last spring to require Fish and Game to contact other states and offer them Idaho wolves. His bill passed with one dissenting vote in the 35-member Senate and by a margin of 53-12 in the House.

Presumably, Connecticut, the home state of Friends of Animals, was among the first to hear from Idaho after Schroeder's bill was signed into law. Certainly, if the aim of animal rights groups is to see the return of wolves to their original haunts, it pretty much includes all of North America.

"As I understand it, we got back responses from 27 states declining our offer to locate, tranquilize and send them our surplus wolves. The rest of the states ignored us," says Schroeder, who chairs the Idaho Senate's Resource and Environment Committee. "That's no big surprise, though it didn't matter to the feds (FWS) that very few people in Idaho wanted wolves when they decided to put them back in here.

"Let's be fair about it, though. Let's make sure that wolves are reintroduced everywhere there once were native populations. There are lots of state and national forests and parks in the East, aren't there?"

Schroeder, a big game hunter who settled in Idaho many years ago after leaving his home state of Wisconsin, thinks wolves are in Idaho to stay and his tongue-in-cheek proposal aside, hopes that common sense will prevail eventually.

"Look, we manage [black] bears and we manage cougars. We've got to manage wolves, too," he notes. "A while back Fish and Game ran a radio-collar study of cow elk in an area along the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area. Within three years, wolves had killed 56 percent of the radio-collared cows. That's crazy. With the exception of Alaska, no state has more resident hunters per capita than Idaho. Hunting is huge here; we can't have any wildlife populations getting out of control, especially not major predators."

So far, there have been no takers on Schroeder's free-wolf-to-a-good-home proposal. Meanwhile, the boycott of Idaho potatoes looms, arguably a greater threat to the well being of the nation's French-fry-loving fast food aficionados than the general welfare of gray wolves.