Wolves Thrive but Animosity Keeps Pace
Since the first captured Canadian gray wolves bounded out of their cages 10 years ago and disappeared into the trees, the animals that were once hunted to near extinction throughout the West have become a rare success story for the Endangered Species Act. Thanks, in part, to strict federal protection, today nearly 900 wolves roam in scores of packs across their historic range.
The wolf’s comeback is all the more remarkable given the hatred that heralded their reintroduction, followed by a campaign of shooting and poisoning that continues today. There is still so much local antagonism that federal wildlife managers are hesitant to remove wolves from the endangered species list, even though the population is many times greater than required to delist.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Dec. 28, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday December 28, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 70 words Type of Material: Correction
Gray wolves -- An article in Tuesday’s Section A about tensions over the federal effort to reintroduce wolves into parts of the West wrongly attributed to Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal a statement that Wyoming considered the Endangered Species Act no longer in force and “now considers the wolf as a federal dog.” The statement, which was circulated on the Internet, was purportedly from Freudenthal but was in fact a hoax.
Of all the recent reintroductions of native animals, none has provoked as much opposition as the wolf. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released 66 radio-collared wolves into central Idaho and Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and 1996. Some wolves were immediately killed by hunters opposed to reintroduction, but most flourished, coming together in the wild to form new and surprisingly resilient packs.
The animals are now scattered across parts of Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado, a region where earlier this century the much-reviled predator was hunted for bounty and ranchers tacked wolf skins and skulls to their fences.
But now, as the Fish and Wildlife Service ponders a delisting plan that would turn over management of the wolves to the states, federal officials are balking at plans they fear would allow hunters to exterminate whole packs.
In Wyoming, for example, Gov. Dave Freudenthal last April decreed that the Endangered Species Act is no longer in force and that the state “now considers the wolf as a federal dog,” unworthy of protection. The governor’s declaration reflects the views of hunters and ranchers that the wolves are decimating elk herds and devouring cattle and sheep. Some rural residents say they fear that wolves may prey on children.Idaho, home to the largest population of wolves in the West, has been the least welcoming. Officials say hundreds of wolves have been shot, in violation of federal law. A recent spate of poisonings has not only killed wolves, but dozens of ranch dogs and family pets that ingested pesticide-laced meatballs left along wildlife trails, state wildlife managers say.
Idaho’s anti-wolf crusade is expected to intensify in coming weeks with the federal trial of Tim Sundles, an ammunition maker from Carmen, a rural town of 600 in northeast Idaho. He is charged with attempting to poison wolves in the Salmon National Forest last winter, and with placing a pesticide on federal land without permission, both misdemeanors.
Sundles, 47, operates an anti-wolf website that provides detailed instructions on how to “successfully poison a wolf.” In a recent interview, however, Sundles said he is innocent of the attempted poisoning charge and decried the law-enforcement search of his home as a “Gestapo-style raid” by “an out-of-control federal agency.”
Sundles dismisses the poisoning of pets as “collateral damage” and blasts federal wildlife managers for “dumping” wolves in the state.
“I’m shocked that human blood hasn’t been spilled on this issue,” Sundles said in an interview. “I’m surprised there hasn’t been a gunfight. I’m surprised that the feds who’ve done this haven’t been hunted down and killed,” he said of the reintroduction of the wolves.
Sundles is the latest face of Idaho’s campaign to eradicate wolves from the state. Ron Gillett, co-chairman of the Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition, is another.
“Let me tell you something. We will get rid of these wolves, one way or another,” Gillett said, his index finger stabbing the air, during a recent interview in Lakefield, a hamlet east of Boise.
“We are law-abiding citizens. We will try it legally. But I’m not going to live with no elk, no deer, no bighorn sheep and no goats, just because some environmentalist someplace wants to hear a wolf howl. No. You either give up or move over, because we are going to run over you. No compromise. No negotiation. No Canadian wolves in Idaho.”
But Steve Nadeau, wolf coordinator for Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game, said the state’s elk population has been stable for years. This year “has been a banner year for elk and deer. Really good hunting,” he said.
Nadeau estimated that wolves are responsible for about 1% of elk deaths in Idaho. According to many wolf biologists, hunters aren’t seeing as many elk because wolves are driving them into higher country, which is less accessible to humans.In Idaho, data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service indicate that only 35% of sheep deaths are attributable to predators, with wolves accountable for only 0.4% of sheep kills by predators. The data indicate that domestic dogs are responsible for nearly 20 times more sheep kills than wolves.
The same numbers hold true for cattle, where wolves are responsible for 0.6% of predator kills.
As far as the threat to humans, a 2002 study by Alaska wildlife officials found that there have been only a handful of documented wolf attacks on humans in North America since the 1800s. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police suspect wolves in a fatal attack on a man in Saskatchewan last month. If true, it would be the first such recorded death in 100 years, according to the Alaska study.
Fears about wolves aren’t borne out by the facts, insists Suzanne Stone, of the group Defenders of Wildlife.
“It’s almost impossible to discuss it rationally,” Stone said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with logic or reason, it’s so steeped in myth. And this mythical wolf really doesn’t exist.”
Stone runs the Defenders’ compensation program, which has paid more than a half-million dollars in the region since 1987, she said. In many cases, the compensation has not softened the attitudes of ranchers who have lost livestock.
Sheep and cattle rancher Mick Carlson said he has lost about 300 animals on his ranch on the Salmon River to wolves in the last two years and has been compensated for most of them by Defenders. Yet he said he would not hesitate to use lethal methods to stop one.
“I live in a small town of about 400 people,” said Carlson, 70. “I guess you could talk to any man in town, and he’d shoot a wolf on sight.”
Wolf biologists say that 90% of documented wolf kills are at the hands of humans.
Some of it is done legally, when, for example, a wolf pack habitually attacks livestock. But most wolf killing is not legal, and federal agents who investigate rarely find enough evidence to bring charges.
“These are, without a doubt, the most difficult cases I’ve ever worked on. It’s been extremely frustrating at times,” said Craig Tabor, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s lead law enforcement agent in Idaho. He and his agents put together the Sundles case -- the rare instance, the agents said, where evidence was available.
“The typical scenario is that we have a dead animal in a very remote area that, by that time we find out about it has already been there for weeks or months,” Tabor said. “If there are witnesses, generally speaking, they tend to be unwilling” to cooperate.
A statewide tip line offering a $5,000 reward for assistance in wildlife cases has received one wolf tip call in four years. That came in an incident in which a hunter killed a wolf, cut off its tail and bragged about the conquest to so many people that authorities required little help to make a case.
Assistant U.S. Atty. George Bretsameter, the prosecutor in the Sundles case, said that in his 19 years in the Boise office, he’s taken four wildlife cases to trial.
Officials hope that once wolves are removed from the endangered species list and legally hunted, some of the anger here will dissipate. But there is also a fear that delisting could lead to the sort of unregulated hunting that all but erased wolves from the West.
“I have spent a career presenting facts on deaf ears,” said Carter Niemeyer, Fish and Wildlife’s wolf coordinator based in Boise, who spends much of his time trying to debunk myths about wolves.
“It’s like Groundhog Day: You get up in the morning and start all over again. That’s one of the reasons I’m looking forward to retiring. I’m spinning my wheels.”