Idaho politicians respond to wolf´s return to endangered list

Sep 24, 2010

Nearly eight weeks after Judge Donald Molloy issued a decision in Missoula, MT, returning northern gray wolves to the endangered species list, ranchers and sportsmen in the Northwest remain unsure as to how the increasing wolf population will be handled under federal control. Many still contend that, prior to the ruling, both Idaho and Montana had wolf management plans in place that were acceptable, and that control of the species was inappropriately taken out of their hands. Now, politicians in both states have taken up the issue, taking action not only in the federal arena, but at the state and county level as well.

Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter was the first to defend his state’s ability to manage wolves. In August, Otter sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Ken Salazar requesting that wolves in Idaho be placed back under state con trol.

That was followed by a personal meeting between the two, after which Otter issued an ultimatum: if an agreement is not reached by Oct. 7, the governor has indicated that the state will no longer participate as a designated monitoring agency, nor will it provide enforcement or investigative services for wolf-related issues. According to Otter spokesman John Hanian, one concern is that putting money into a wolf management program that may never be realized constitutes a poor investment for taxpayers. “The concern is that we’re spending a lot of time and treasure, not to mention sportsmen’s dollars, on a process that we believe we’ve demonstrated can work, but it’s being stymied by this effort right now in the courts and the judge’s decision,” said Hanian. “What the governor has said is that we’ve spent a lot on this effort, and if this is our reward, we’re going to reassess and reevaluate our participation in this program.”

Hanian also says that the governor’s ultimatum, which may seem outlandish to some, will hopefully convey the need for a hasty resolution, rather than a drawn out political process. “What the governor wanted to impress on those involved in this issue is a sense of urgency; we need to get this resolved. It’s not just about frustration, it’s about the fact that we’ve demonstrated that we can responsibly manage these predators, and that they are obviously having an impact on our ungulate herds, as well as domestic livestock.”

The impact of wolves is being felt particularly hard, according to locals, in Idaho County. Idaho County, the state’s largest, reaches from the Snake River to Idaho’s border with Montana, and encompasses 8,500 square miles, much of it wilderness. According to an Idaho Fish and Game Report (IDFG) earlier this year, elk populations in the region have been reduced by 57 percent since 2006, largely due to the abundance of wolves in the area. According to Idaho County Commissioner Skip Brandt, this reduction has led to a significant downturn in revenue related to hunting and guiding, a major staple of the rural county’s economy, and created an economic situation that he says cannot be allowed to continue.

“(Idaho) county is wolf central; we have to have something happen,” says Brandt.

“We don’t have the option of waiting another three or four years for political and judicial wrangling.”

Frustrated at the damage they feel wolves are inflicting on their county, the commissioners, on Sept. 16, officially declared Idaho County a disaster area and requested that the governor’s office recognize the declaration at the state level. Though a disaster declaration at the state level does carry some hope of direct relief, Brandt points out that the primary goal of the declaration is to help the governor gain recognition, at the federal level, of the impact being felt as the result of wolf protection.

“If you just look at the elk herd in the Lolo, and the real aspects of what that has done to our outfitting and guiding industry, you can directly correlate that to outof-state tag sales by IDFG, which have just plummeted. Outside hunters no longer coming in, local hunters not hunting, livestock producers losing cows, it all has an economic effect,” says Brandt. “We are to the point that we are asking the governor to do something rash.”

Under Idaho County’s resolution, disaster declaration at the state level would include returning Idaho County’s wolves to ‘managed predator’ status under the state’s own wolf management plan, essentially reverting to the situation prior to Molloy’s ruling. Though a county ordinance regarding wolves may be in the works, Brandt confirms that state involvement is necessary to manage the wolf population correctly.

“We’re a small population,” he says, “There’s no way we could make a dent in those wolves. We need the bigger agencies to help us deal with it.”

Officials at the governor’s office confirm that the request from the county was received. However, though a response is pending, it had not been issued by press time last week.

Idaho Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo are also calling for changes at the federal level. In a bill introduced by Risch on Sept. 22, the two called for an exemption from the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for wolves in Idaho, Montana, and parts of Oregon, Washington, and Utah.

“Essentially, what this bill does is to try to return us to the situation prior to the ruling that overturned the management regime,” said Crapo.

“In effect, it codifies the situation as it was before the court order.”

Crapo stresses that the bill makes no attempt to alter the ESA, rather it simply returns wolves in regions where state management was previously regarded as acceptable to state control. According to the senator, the bill is unlikely to see action from Congress prior to the next election cycle, which begins in two weeks.

“However,” he says, “I do believe that the urgency of the issue makes it one which will see continued pressure, and that more and more senators and congressmen from impacted areas are going to want to see this resolved.” — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent