Idaho Legislature passes emergency wolf bill

Apr 15, 2011

One of the Idaho Legislature’s final actions before adjourning an 88-day session in Boise on April 7 was to enact a wolf emergency bill that would authorize Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter to recruit law enforcement officers to help reduce the number of controversial predators in the state.

Idaho livestock ranchers, big game hunters and outfitters have complained that proliferating packs of marauding gray wolves are decimating cattle, sheep, deer and elk herds in the state, killing dozens if not hundreds of the animals, including hunting dogs.

There are estimated to be at least 800 wolves in Idaho, or about half the entire population of 1,650 wolves in the northern Rockies, which are descended mostly from 66 wolves trapped in Canada and released into remote areas of Idaho and Wyoming by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) about 15 years ago.

Otter said he likes what he sees in the last-minute legislation, but he and his staff are still analyzing the measure to review legal issues and other details before he signs it into law. The Republican governor declined to indicate whether he would declare a wolf disaster state of emergency in Idaho as allowed by the Legislature, similar to declaring a natural disaster for wildfires.

Otter has said in the past that wolves should be under state control, not federal control.

The bill, sponsored by a dozen Idaho senators, would allow Otter to take "rapid steps" against wolves until they are delisted as endangered "or the emergency no longer exists." It says the wolves jeopardize public safety and harm the state’s agriculture and hunting industries.

Only two hours after the bill left committee, the Idaho Senate voted 27-8 to approve the measure on April 6 despite concerns expressed by some legislators that it expands the powers of the executive branch beyond what is stipulated in the state constitution.

Opponents say there are no recorded cases of the wolves attacking humans since they were reintroduced in Idaho in 1995. They likened the bill to declaring war on wolves. In 2010, Idaho County unsuccessfully asked Otter for authority to shoot wolves on sight.

The Senate Resources & Environment Committee heard from more than 50 angry, frustrated and fearful ranchers, hunters and residents before voting 7-2 to move the bill to the Senate floor on April 6. The House approved it on April 5 by a 64-5 vote.

On April 1, Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, a small ranching community, told a hastily organized meeting of the House Ways and Means Committee that state residents feel threatened by the wolves. Boyle is one of the state’s most ardent wolf opponents.

During House debate, Speaker Lawrence Denney declared, "Folks, this is an emergency. ... If we don’t take care of this problem soon, we won’t have any wildlife to hunt or to look at. They will be gone." Rep. Lenore Barrett, R-Challis, said, "The wolves eat better than anyone else in Custer County. ... They’re killers. They do it for sport, and then they leave their victim still alive for a lingering death."

Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, an avid hunter, said it’s been months since the Idaho Department of Fish & Game sought approval from USWFS to kill dozens of wolves blamed for killing elk in north-central Idaho. "The population of elk in that one zone is no longer sustainable," he said.

The Idaho Cattle Association (ICA) supported the efforts to alter wolf management in the state, although the group continues to push for delisting, saying: "Regarding House Bill 343, the Idaho Cattle Association supports the efforts of the Idaho Legislature to alleviate the burdens placed on livestock producers from the out-of-control wolf population. The ICA’s policy seeks immediate delisting of Idaho’s wolves and also state control of the population. To the extent that this bill will help us reach these goals, we support it."

All of this comes as Congress considers a bitterly debated proposal in Washington by western senators and representatives to lift federal endangered species protection for wolves in the Intermountain West—an unprecedented move in the Endangered Species Act’s history. The wolves were reintroduced to central Idaho and Yellowstone in the mid-1990s despite objections from ranchers and hunters.

Wolves in Idaho and Montana were delisted twice in 2008 and 2009 from the endangered species list. A federal judge in Montana, who relisted them last August after environmentalists filed suit, is now deliberating whether to approve a deal struck between USFWS and 10 conservation groups last month that removes wolves again from the endangered list in Idaho and Montana.

Officials in those two states argue wolf numbers far exceed populations needed to ensure the species’ survival and should be reduced by licensed hunting. — Mark Mendiola, WLJ Correspondent