Editor’s note: A coalition of conservation groups represented by Earthjustice has filed suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore Endangered Species Act protections for wolves and stop planned wolf hunts in Montana and Idaho, where tags went on sale Monday (and sold briskly). U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy will hear the suit Aug. 31. The fate of wolves and wolf hunts in the Northern Rockies hangs in the balance.
East of St. Maries along the St. Joe River in Idaho, 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 in 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 Monday for $11.25 per resident. He called his attorney a few days before an injunction was filed Aug. 20 by Earthjustice to stop the hunt. Thirteen conservation groups joined 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.
Walters 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. A barrel of a man with long hair going gray, he’s 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 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,” Walters says.
His father was a Fish and Game hunter safety instructors 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. Because of a lack of predators, the elk began expanding their range, much as the gray wolf has 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 Walters’ opinion, has turned tail on the hunting public — people who buy hunting licenses and who expect Fish and Game to manage the herds so hunters can bag bulls and bucks. “Until we have a 90 percent success rate [in terms of bagging animals] for deer, and a 50 percent success rate for elk, Idaho Fish and Game is failing,” he says.
As Walters sees it, the gray wolf was dumped into Idaho by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1995, leaving elk herds at the mercy of a super predator. The wolves are the reason for the decimation of the elk herds in at least two of the state’s wildlife management units, he says.
For the past two winters he has shot photos of the dead elk he’s 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.
In Walters’ view, the bigger picture in the wolf controversy is the 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. The elk herds will be depleted, the land will be locked up, and hunting, an American tradition, will take a back seat to preservation, he contends.
“It’s about the Wildlands Project [renamed the Wildlands Network],” he says. “Wolves are just a tool.”
The gray wolf of the 1995 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, he believes.
“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 Wolf Advocate
In many ways, Stephen Alexander is the opposite of Walters in the Idaho wolf debate.
Alexander is one of the early members of the Sandpoint, Idaho-based Northern 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, Alexander 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 Alexander’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, Alexander says. He concedes that during the reintroduction effort 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, Alexander is slight and trim. His dark, animated eyes spark when his compassion is piqued — which it often is, when it comes to wolves.
A computer scientist who works from home for a Virginia aerospace company, Alexander 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 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 to the animals’ persecution.
“There are almost no other animals that have been persecuted to the extent that wolves have,” he says. “All this discussion has to do with us as human beings,” he continues. “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. “Out-of-state tag sales are down,” he says, “because of the misconception that wolves are chewing up the elk here.” He cites a letter from Idaho Fish and Game that urges out-of-state hunters to buy an Idaho elk tag and take advantage of the hunting opportunities.
At Alexander’s dining room table, Rich Hurry, who moved west from Michigan this summer, sits in his chair as Alexander’s small daughter comes out from a room in the modest home, and crosses the carpet to tell her dad she’s hungry. Alexander 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,” Hurry 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,” Hurry says. The number chosen by commissioners “was more palatable and would not trigger lawsuits.”
What riles Hurry and Alexander 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 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 Alexander. “That’s what we take offense to.”
Alexander hikes to see 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.
“We need to direct where we’re going if we want to be a civilized people,” he says. “We’re still lingering in barbarism.”
The Fish and Game Commissioner
Although Alexander and Walters are on opposite sides of the wolf issue, a target of their ire is the same: They both 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, became an Idaho Fish and Game commissioner after his retirement as cadre commander at the University of Montana’s ROTC department.
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 Alexander’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 says. “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 says.
“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, he says 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 an effort to reach a further compromise, the commission in 2008 called for between 500 and 700 wolves in Idaho for 5 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.
In the meantime, he says, environmental groups seem to have the ear of a federal judge, who last year stopped the delisting process because of the conservationists’ argument 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, Idaho, showed up 200 miles north of Calgary, in Canada, he says. 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 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 huge problem in North Idaho if management isn’t granted,” he says.
Unhappily Ever After?
To Walters and his neighbors, meanwhile, 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 Aug. 24 at 10 a.m. Walters was the first person in St. Maries to pay for a tag and the 159th person in the state to do so. 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,” Walters says.
Sportsmen are tired of watching wolves eat the elk they like to hunt. The elk, despite a positive forecast by Fish and Game, are virtually on their way out, he contends.
Alexander disagrees, and believes he has science, conservationists and animal-lovers on his side.
And McDermott? With his stocky build and barrel chest, he seems almost ideally built to hoist the scales of balance — if balance is something Idahoans demand. But he admits 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,” McDermott 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.”
A former editor, Ralph Bartholdt is a freelance writer and photographer living in Northern Idaho. You can read his blog, skookumfoto, by clicking here.