Wednesday, July 26, 2006

As captive wolves die off, Winchester center ponders the future


WINCHESTER, Idaho -- The Wolf Education and Research Center, opened in 1997 to showcase wolves in their natural habitat, is at a crossroads now that populations of the native predators in Idaho have rebounded through a federal reintroduction program. At the end of the month, the center's board of directors will meet to plan for the future.

"We still feel there's a need for the center to be there," said staff member Nick Fiore, who works at the center's Lewiston office. "We feel like we still have a purpose when it comes to education about the wolf."

Currently, only one wolf remains from the center's original pack of eight. That pack was featured in Sun Valley filmmaker Jim Dutcher's documentary "Return of the Legend." Three other wolves at the center are offspring of the pack's original alpha male and female. The lone survivor from the inaugural pack, Motomo, is now 14, and the three pups - Piyip, Ayet and Motoki - are fully grown 10-year-olds. The wolves are all healthy, Fiore said, but they are reaching the end of their life span. For captive wolves, that's usually between 10 and 16 years, she said.

The center rents about 300 acres from the Nez Perce Tribe. The 15-year lease began in January 1997, and will expire in 2011. Fiore said the tribe will likely renew the lease when it expires, but nothing is certain. "We have a lot of researching to do before approaching the tribe," Fiore said. "I can't think of a reason in my mind why they wouldn't want us here, but we still need two plans."

If the tribe renews the lease, the center's board of directors would have to decide whether to buy new wolf pups. "When you bring pups in you have to have round-the-clock coverage for at least six weeks," Fiore said. "You only have about a week to form a bond with wolf pups and humans." Another option would be to transfer in 2- or 3-year-old wolves from other overcrowded wolf reserves throughout the West.

When the center opened in 1997, handlers developed a unique policy of minimal contact between staff and wolves, allowing the animals to live as they would in nature. Aside from immunizations, they did not receive veterinary care.

In 2000, the staff altered the philosophy after the deaths of two wolves, Kamots and Weyekin who were rejected by the pack. "After June 2000, there was a whole change of policies," Fiore said. "I think it was a good thing the organization adapted to that. Now if we feel there's an issue with the safety of an animal we will take them out of there." A second 2 1/4-acre enclosure was built to accommodate wolves spurned by the pack. Staff transferred two wolves, Matsi and Amani, to the safe area.

The center is far from a petting zoo, but biologist, Jeremy Heft, fears the policy shift could spell a marked change in mission if the center acquires more wolves. Heft, who has worked at the center for more than eight years, said he disapproves of the captive breeding of wolves. Captive pups might act more like domestic dogs than wolves. "The whole organization could change completely," he said.

All future plans will also fit into a strategy of bolstering visits. The center averages about 3,000 visitors per year, down from the 5,000 annual visits in the early years. The problem is, sometimes visitors will leave without ever having seen a wolf. "If the wolves want to come down they come down. If they don't, they don't," Fiore said.

So Fiore is aiming to add other exhibits to complement the live wolves. One of the goals is to build several yurt-style structures, which would hold interactive displays on large predators, water sheds and the Nez Perce Tribe's history. "Being an educational facility you have to move forward," he said. "I see a lot of promise for the center as far as development of other interpretive centers on the site."

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