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Strong Feelings on All Sides About Hunting Wolves

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Strong Feelings on All Sides About Hunting Wolves

One side wants to kill wolves, one to protect; they both think the agency charged with managing Idaho's wolves is on the wrong track.

East of St. Maries along the St. Joe River, two sheet metal wolves howl from atop a ranch gate.

The wolves are hand painted blue and gray in acrylic. They have been there for years.

Despite a public sentiment in this area that is vocally anti-wolf, the renditions have not been vandalized.

The St. Joe River country, a mountainous backwoods section of the Idaho Panhandle where anti-government rhetoric flourishes as easily as the beer Friday night from the tappers at the local Calder Cafe, is a place of big pickups, logging trucks that trail dust and signs pock-marked by target practice with high-powered rifles.

Twenty-five miles upriver from St. Maries at the town of Calder, John Walters eats a burger in the cafe. On his table by the window newspapers are opened to pages with wolf pictures. A recent ruling by the Idaho Fish and Game Commission that establishes the latest attempt at a hunting season for gray wolves in Idaho is the top story.

Walters, one of the directors of the Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition, planned to be first in line to buy a hunting tag when they went on sale for $11.25 per resident last month.

He called his attorney a few days before an injunction was filed August 20 by Earthjustice to stop the hunt. Thirteen groups were named in the suit.

He asked his attorney whether he could sue Fish and Game for fraud if the heavily advertised wolf hunting season didn’t transpire.

“He said no, because an injunction hasn’t been filed yet to close the season,” says Walters, between bites of his burger.

He has been fighting for years for the right to kill wolves, or sue the federal government for what he calls an illegal introduction of wolves into the state.

Walters, a barrel of a man with long hair going gray, is a former construction worker who was injured on the job and now collects disability. He and his family live upriver at Marble Creek.

The Coeur d’Alene, Idaho native moved to the St. Joe Country in 1983 after years of advocating for the Fish and Game department that he is now at odds with.

“I spent hundreds of hours as a volunteer,” he said.

His father was a Fish and Game hunter safety instructor for 36 years, and as a Boy Scout Walters took part in a variety of projects that spurred his interest in hunting and the outdoors.

His father bought a tag in the state’s first elk hunt in 1948 a few years after the animals were introduced from Yellowstone Park and, because of a lack of predators, began expanding their range, similar to what has happened with the gray wolf since its reintroduction in 1995.

“My family has supported Fish and Game for 63 years,” he says.

But the department, he says, has let him and the rest of Idaho’s hunting public down by allowing wolves to deplete the state’s elk herds, a revenue source for a Fish and Game department that relies solely on hunter dollars to survive.

“They are supposed to be the ranchers of our ungulates,” Walters says.

The agency, in Walter’s opinion has turned tail on the hunting public that buys the hunting licenses and who expect the department to manage the herds so hunters can bag bulls and bucks.

“Until we have a 90 percent success rate for deer, and a 50 percent success rate for elk, Idaho Fish and Game is failing,” he says.

The gray wolf that was “dumped” into Idaho by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1995 is a super predator, Walter says, and it is the reason for the decimation of the elk herds in at least two of the state’s wildlife management units.

For the past two winters he has shot pictures of the dead elk he has found with the nose and hindquarters eaten, a telltale sign, he says, of a wolf kill.

“If a wolf didn’t kill them,” he says, “having their nose and ass chewed off sure didn’t help them any.”

He has a stack of photographs so high, he says, gesturing with a hand raised 10 inches from the table top. The dead elk were emaciated before they were taken down by wolves.

The latest debate is about wolves and elk, surely, says Walters. But the bigger picture is a push by environmental groups for a massive Yukon to Yellowstone biological corridor that includes vast tracts of land reserves that aren’t open to the public.

Once the elk are gone there will be little reason to hunt, the land will be locked up, he contends, and an American tradition will take a back seat to preservation.

“It’s about the Wildlands Project,” he says. “Wolves are just a tool.”

The gray wolf of the 1993 reintroduction, Walters, and many others contend, is not the same wolf that lived in the Rocky Mountains when Lewis and Clark trekked West in the early 1800s. The Canada gray wolf is much larger than the wolves that were exterminated from the territory more than half a century ago.

“The Rocky Mountain wolf that was here was a smaller wolf that was timid and not a whole lot bigger than a coyote,” he says.

The statement draws a chuckle from Stephen Augustine, a nemesis of Walters in the Idaho wolf debate.

Walters and Augustine are opposites in many ways.

Augustine is one of the early members of the Sandpoint-based North Idaho Wolf Alliance, a group that sprang up last year during hearings on a state wolf management plan. Where Walters and his Marble Creek neighbors have relied for years on a steady winter larder of elk and deer meat to feed their families, Augustine is a vegetarian who raises bees in a subdivision with a view of Lake Pend Oreille.

The street sign near his yard that reads “Ponder Point Drive,” is apropos for the philosophical debates about wolves that are common at Augustine’s dining room table.

The idea that the gray wolf whose population is spreading to the far reaches of the state is somehow a “super wolf” is ridiculous, says Augustine.

He concedes that the wolves were brought to Idaho from Canada, but there is a reason for that.

“It’s the same wolf,” he says. “They were just all wiped out here.”

Unlike Walters, Augustine is slight and trim.

His dark animated eyes spark when his compassion is piqued. He is passionate about wolves.

Augustine, a computer scientist who works from home for a Virginia aerospace company, first learned about wolves in the 1990s when he left Pennsylvania to visit his wife’s family in Missoula. He was handed a book by author Rick Bass called “The Nine-Mile Wolves,” read it, and joined a burgeoning group of people in the U.S. who wanted to see an end, as he says, to the persecution of wolves.

“There are almost no other animals that have been persecuted to the extent that wolves have,” he says.

He was quoted in an Associated Press article during the state’s wolf debates and his comments were targeted as weird by the anti-wolf crowd, he says.

“All this discussion has to do with us as human beings,” he says. “It’s about us and what is our relationship to the natural world.

“We are the super predators. We don’t tolerate competition very well.

This is more of a self examination about us as a species and where we are going.”

Wolves, he says, belong in the ecosystem; they evolved with the animals they kill and eat, and the populations of both elk and wolves will balance once an equilibrium is reached.

“The hunters’ claim that the wolves will decimate the elk herds is untrue,” he says. “Wolves and all prey animals have evolved hand in hand for a million years. To say wolves will wipe out the elk is a ridiculous fallacy given they have evolved together.”

The fallacy, though, has taken root in hunters throughout the West, including the many who have traditionally come to Idaho to hunt.

He cites a letter from Idaho Fish and Game that urges out-of-state hunters to buy an Idaho elk tag.

“Out of state tag sales are down,” he says, “because of the misconception that wolves are chewing up the elk here.”

At Augustine’s dining room table Rich Hurry, who moved west from Michigan this summer, teeters in his chair as Augustine’s small daughter comes out from a room in the modest home, crossing the carpet to tell her dad she’s hungry.

Augustine goes to the kitchen to prepare a plate and Hurry tells how he traveled as a concerned citizen to the Idaho Fish and Game Commission meeting in Idaho Falls last week where the state’s wolf hunting quotas were set.

He wanted to comment, he says, but there was no public comment period.

“It was like a kangaroo court,” he says. “All that was left was to set a target quota for how many wolves to kill.”

Among what he calls a sea of camouflage, he was one of the few people in sandals, shorts and a T-shirt to speak on behalf of the wolves.

At the meeting, the commission considered three options: Setting a state wolf kill quota at 130, 220 or 430.

It decided on a quota of 220 wolves to be killed in Idaho with no more than 30 dead wolves in the Panhandle for the 2009 season.

“They were afraid that a high target would invite an environmental injunction,” he said.

The number chosen by commissioners “was more palatable and would not trigger lawsuits,” he said.

What gripes Hurry and Augustine about the wolf hunt is not just the unnecessary killing of a beautiful animal, but that by having a wolf hunt the state game department is catering solely to hunters, money and politics instead of listening to science and the concerns of people like themselves.

“They are trying to achieve a desired number of elk according to politics instead of science,” says Augustine. “That’s what we take offense to.”

Although Augustine and Walters are on the opposite side of the wolf issue, the target of their ire is the same: They think that Idaho Fish and Game is on the wrong track.

Enter Tony McDermott, a 30-year Army veteran who as a young helicopter pilot was shot down twice in Vietnam and who, reluctantly, after his retirement as cadre commander at the University of Montana’s ROTC department, joined the ranks of Idaho Fish and Game as its commissioner.

McDermott is known as McMule to his email buddies and the moniker bespeaks his straightforward persona as much as the mules he pastures on his rural mountainside property not far from Lake Pend Oreille’s Garfield Bay.

To say that the commission doesn’t hear public comment just plain pisses him off.

He has read Augustine’s letters and responded to them, he says, and as far as comment is concerned, in the past four years, he has pretty much heard all there is to hear from the public about wolves.

“I probably know more about Idaho’s wolves than 99 percent of the people in this state,” he says.

It isn’t because he asked to.

He is a member of the commission’s wolf subcommittee and is therefore obligated to be in the know.

“This is the most contentious social, political, emotional, irrational subject that I have ever been involved with,” says McDermott as he paces in his stocking feet across a kitchen floor white with sun.

He is making coffee, piling some deer jerky from the refrigerator onto a plate, but the topic and the accusations against Fish and Game have his full attention.

“The irrationality on both sides of this astounds me,” he says.

Most of the letters, emails and comments he receives are from the outer fringes of the debate, he states.

“I’m a huge environmentalist, but I’m not wacko,” he says. “Both ends of this spectrum are a little bit irrational.”

On one side are those who see wolves as a cult figure and a demagogue, he says. To others, wolves are a bane of Idaho’s natural resources and must be exterminated.

“People who think wolves are sacred religious symbols are misinformed; they don’t understand the issue and they don’t want to,” he says, sipping coffee from a big mug and chewing on jerky. “People who want wolves out of Idaho don’t understand the issue and don’t want to.”

Twenty percent of Idahoans hunt, says McDermott. The majority of those resident hunters, 170,000 of them, combined with 25,000 out of state hunters, understand the issue, he believes.

“They want wolves managed,” he says. “The general population of Idaho wants wolves managed.”

Idaho has 40 breeding wolf pairs with 90 packs making up approximately 1,200 wolves, up 400 from last year’s estimate of 850, he says.

The quota set by Fish and Game was extrapolated using a formula that would allow killing the number of wolves that the department thinks is added each spring during the whelping season.

If met, the current wolf-kill quotas would stabilize the population of the predator in the state.

Originally, he says, Fish and Game bested a federal plan that called for 100 wolves in the state with 10 breeding pairs. The department instead called for 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs. In 2008 the commission, in an effort to reach a further compromise, called for between 500 and 700 wolves in Idaho for five years after the wolves were delisted this spring.

He doesn’t think the wolf harvest quota will be met. He thinks the state’s wolf population will continue to grow, in part because wolves will be difficult to hunt in the state’s brushy, mountain terrain.

“Hunters aren’t effective when it comes to wolf control,” he says.

And because of the opposition from environmental groups that seem to have the ear of a federal judge, who last year stopped delisting because of an argument by environmental groups that the state’s wolf population wasn’t genetically viable: That it didn’t mingle enough with an outside gene pool.

McDermott disagrees.

A wolf tagged by Fish and Game near Hailey showed up 200 miles north of Calgary, he says, and another, tagged in central Idaho, was found wandering in Colorado.

“So how can they say there is no genetic dispersal?” he asks.

Last year he says the Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services killed 84 problem wolves in Idaho. In Montana, 150 wolves were killed.

The numbers aren’t often reported and don’t seem to have made a ripple in wolf dispersal in the state, or in wolf predation.

“Every wolf eats approximately 16 ungulates, a combination of deer, elk and moose,” he says.

In Idaho, 80 percent of a wolf’s diet is elk. In two of the department’s wildlife management zones, including the Lolo and the Sawtooth Zone, he says wolves are preventing a depleted elk herd from recovering.

“We also have a huge problem in the Salmon Zone and we’re going to have a huge problem in North Idaho if management isn’t granted,” he says.

To Walters and his neighbors, however, the problem is already out of hand.

He and his wife Renee used to watch elk from their porch, and they often had friends from out of state visit during the hunting season. The friends don’t come anymore.

“Nobody wants to come here to see wolf tracks and scat,” Walters says.

When the sale of wolf tags opened August 24 at 10 am, Walters was the first person in St. Maries to pay for a tag and the 159th person in the state. When the next hunter at the counter of St. Maries’ Blue Goose Sporting Goods bought a tag a minute later, more than 300 tags had already been sold in the state. By noon the number was in the thousands.

“Animosity is driving these sales,” he said.

He contends that sportsmen are tired of watching wolves eat the elk they like to hunt, while the elk, despite a positive forecast by Fish and Game, are virtually on their way out.

Augustine enjoys seeing elk. “I like to take pictures of them,” he says.

But he also enjoys seeing wolf tracks and hearing the howl of the animals that have become his passion.

Augustine agrees that killing wolves is a lesson in animosity, but, he says, animosity isn’t a positive human trait.

“We need to direct where we’re going if we want to be a civilized people,” he says. “We’re still lingering in barbarism.”

McDermott, with his stocky build and barrel chest, seems almost ideally built to hoist the scales of balance, if balance is something Idahoans demand.

He admits that he doesn’t know if balance can be achieved in the state’s debate over wolves.

Given the latest injunction he is dismayed that once again a judge will decide if there will be an Idaho wolf hunt.

“I will have a lot of heartburn with the legal process if an injunction is granted,” he says. “If there’s an injunction, the Endangered Species Act is a farce that has been totally hijacked by environmental organizations for their self-serving purposes.”

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Ralph Bartholdt Ralph Bartholdt is a freelance writer and editor

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