Saturday, September 23, 2006

Feds reject Idaho plan to kill wolves

By JOHN MILLER - ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

BOISE, Idaho -- Federal officials have rejected Idaho's plan to kill up to 43 wolves in north-central Idaho to boost elk numbers, saying scientific data gathered by the state do not justify the action. At a recent meeting, federal officials told Steve Nadeau, Idaho Fish and Game Department's large carnivore manager, that state studies of elk declines in the Lolo region didn't adequately demonstrate wolves are the primary cause.

"We agreed the wolves are playing an important role in limiting recovery. The question comes down to whether or not there's an unacceptable impact," said Jeff Foss, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service field supervisor in Boise. "Based on the information that was provided at the meeting, the service didn't feel it had enough at that time to draw (that) conclusion."

The Idaho agency said the federal decision means the plan will not be put into effect this winter, but research to gather supporting data will continue.

"The department would have liked to move forward by this winter," Jim Unsworth, the department's wildlife bureau chief, told The Associated Press. "That's not likely."

Last January when the state's proposal was unveiled, conservation groups came to the same conclusion as the federal scientists. They argue that poor habitat, not wolves, is the main reason Lolo elk now number less than a quarter of the 16,500 counted in the region north of the Lochsa River in 1989.

Fires in the early 20th century cleared heavy timber there, creating good elk habitat. In recent years, however, once-grassy hillsides that supported thousands of elk have filled in with lodgepole pine, red fir and western cedar, they said.

While the Idaho Conservation League backs removing federal protections from wolves in the state because their numbers have met recovery goals in Idaho's wolf management plan, spokesman Jonathan Oppenheimer said plans to remove specific wolves such as those in the Lolo still should be scientifically sound.

"Regardless of whether they have to get the OK from Fish and Wildlife or whether they get it (through) delisting, if you want to have more elk, you've got to have the habitat to support them," Oppenheimer said.

State officials, including Gov. Jim Risch, say Idaho is collecting new information to support its aim of reducing wolves in the Lolo elk management zone on the Idaho-Montana border by 75 percent. But they said their main focus now has shifted to getting the Interior Department to lift federal Endangered Species Act protections from gray wolves in the region.

Since January, Idaho has had day-to-day management over central Idaho wolves - including the Lolo pack - that are considered "experimental, nonessential" and thus not fully protected under the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service still manages wolves north of U.S. Interstate 90 in the Panhandle, where the animals are listed as endangered.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering removing federal protections in most of Idaho and Montana, where wolves number 800. If that happens, Idaho would no longer need permission from the federal agency to start killing wolves in the Lolo or anywhere else in the state.

That's the state's main desire, Idaho Office of Species Conservation Director Jim Caswell said. But he added the state is still committed to its proposal to reduce the Lolo pack - a stance he acknowledges has political risk. "It could cause people to fight against a potential delisting proposal," Caswell said. "Sure, it's a concern. It's always been a concern."

  • Seattle Post-Intelligencer
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