Friday, May 19, 2006

Wolf foes howl at state managers

Emotions run high during Fish and Game meeting in Hailey

by STEVE BENSON - Express Staff Writer

Sheep, elk and dog carcasses, bones, skulls and wolf tracks the size of a human head—that's what two Croy Canyon residents claim is scattered around their property six miles west of Hailey. "Our dogs were bitten by wolves at three o'clock in the afternoon," said Jennifer Swigert, who lives with her husband Kevin, a fifth generation Idahoan, in a remote area of Croy Canyon. "I love animals, I always have, but this is insane—people are at a total risk of getting fanged up."

The Swigerts, who attended a wolf management meeting Wednesday night with Idaho Fish and Game officials in Hailey, claim wolf numbers are growing in Croy Canyon and the animals are becoming increasingly aggressive towards dogs, horses, and humans.

"The behavior of these animals is not what it's made to be," Kevin Swigert said. "They are not the benign, wonderful animals people like to think they are. They are gigantic, very aggressive animals."

Kevin said he and Jennifer lived in Stanley in the early 1990s—prior to the 1995 reintroduction of 15 wolves in central Idaho—and frequently heard and saw what they referred to as "true" native wolves. "When we lived in Stanley, we thought it was the coolest thing in the world," Kevin said. "They were part of the ecosystem. But (their reintroduction) is a fiasco, a horrendous fiasco."

The Swigerts, who were part of a sizable anti-wolf presence at the meeting, complained that Fish and Game officials aren't telling the public the truth about the dangers of wolves. They believe someone is going to get hurt or killed if the wolves aren't removed.

An equal number of wolf supporters were also present at the meeting, which drew about 50 people.

The Swigerts complained that elk populations have also dropped significantly in recent years, and hunting is not as productive as it once was.

Roger Olson, a conservation officer with Idaho Fish and Game, said it's no secret that wolves are roaming the sage hillsides in remote sections of Croy Canyon, but that an established den has never been found. He said wolves are wild animals and must be treated accordingly. Dogs should be kept on a leash or at heel, he said. "This isn't anything new," he added.

The Swigerts said they own 12 shelter dogs, 15 horses and a pet coyote.

"Wolves—like moose, bear and mountain lions—view dogs as wild animals," Olson said. "And they're very territorial."

Lynne Stone, a wolf advocate and leader of the pro-wilderness Boulder White Clouds Council, said wolves are essential to "keep the balance" in Idaho's vast, wild ecosystem. She said the fact wolves primarily prey on weak, sick or old elk "increases the overall health" of the herd. Furthermore, Stone said wolves "were here to start with and they are one of the most beautiful, charismatic (animals) we have."

Idaho Fish and Game officials Steve Nadeau and Michael Lucid kicked off the meeting Wednesday with presentations on the status of wolves in Idaho. Sixty-six wolves were reintroduced to Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and 1996. Nadeau, the state's large carnivore manager and wolf program supervisor, said the total wolf population in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming now exceeds 1,000. The targeted recovery for wolves in the three states was 30 breeding pairs for three consecutive years.

"This is the sixth year in a row that recovery goals have been achieved," Nadeau said. "There are six times the number of animals required in Idaho for delisting purposes. Our goal over the next few years is to de-list wolves and manage them as a big game animal...while maintaining a minimum of 15 packs of wolves in Idaho forever."

Idaho Fish and Game assumed daily management authority of wolves in January 2006. Montana has also been granted state management authority of the large carnivores. But since Wyoming wants to classify wolves as a predator, meaning they can be killed on sight out of wilderness areas, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reluctant to lift their status as a federally protected species. As long as wolves are still protected by the Endangered Species Act, they can not be managed as a big game animal, nor can they be opened to hunting.

"Clearly we would like to delist wolves, that's not anything we're keeping a secret," Nadeau said. He added that the main challenge today is not managing wolves, but managing conflicts, which are becoming increasingly heated between wolf supporters and opponents.

Lucid said he thinks people are opposed to wolves because of their perceived impact on elk and other big game. "A lot of people complain that the feds came in and reintroduced wolves," Lucid said. "And a lot of people don't like the idea of wolves coming in and eating game."

But Nadeau said elk, which comprise 77 percent of a wolf's diet in Idaho, generally aren't suffering as a result of wolves. "Of the 29 elk populations in the state, only three are not meeting management objectives," Nadeau said. But, he added, much of the decline can be attributed to habitat changes.

Nevertheless, Ron Gillett, chairman of the Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition, thinks that's a lie. A week ago Gillett angered a group of onlookers in Stanley, including Stone, when he approached a wolf that was feeding on a freshly killed elk in a meadow across the Salmon River from the town. He was carrying a small-caliber rifle. Gillett countered that he was on private property and was carrying the rifle as protection against the animal.

On Wednesday night, Gillett, who's a former hunting outfitter, verbally attacked Jon Marvel, executive director of the Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project and a wolf advocate. He also blasted Nadeau and other Fish and Game officials for not controlling wolf populations.

"Until wolves are delisted, we can't manage populations," Nadeau said. "All we can do is manage conflicts."

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