Inside Idaho's War on Wolves

The state's political leadership is determined to oppose anything, even a native species, with the taint of the federal government on it.

Gray wolves. (Photo: Reuters)

Richard Conniff is the author of The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth and other books.

Something is loose in Idaho. Possibly a screw. The state’s ranchers and politicians, including the governor and the commissioner of Idaho Fish and Game, have somehow convinced themselves that they are at the mercy of roaming bands of savage sheep- and baby-snatching monsters, also known as wolves. 

This notion has made Idaho anti-wolf activists so fearful and belligerent that they sound at times like New Jersey suburbanites in a gated community fretting about urban youth. Only more deadly.

Last month, Gov. C. L. “Butch” Otter signed a law creating a wolf control board with the explicit purpose of killing all but 150 of the state’s remaining 650 wolves. State officials would have preferred total extermination: “If every wolf in Idaho disappeared I wouldn’t have a problem with it,” the new fish and game commissioner declared at his confirmation hearing in January. But when the federal government, which reintroduced wolves to Idaho in 1995, agreed to turn over management of the wolf population to the state, it stipulated 150 as the rock-bottom number of wolves the state needed to maintain. Idaho has apparently chosen to honor the letter rather than the spirit of that agreement. One anti-wolf group spokesman has even proposed radio-collaring 150 wolves to ensure that the state does not fall below that minimum and “trigger the feds coming back in.” 

The newly authorized slaughter follows the killing of more than 1,000 wolves in Idaho since 2009, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first removed wolves from the endangered species list. This February alone, Idaho Fish and Game, together with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services, used helicopters to gun down 23 wolves. In December, it sent a hired gun to kill nine wolves in the federally protected Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness Area. (The U.S. Forest Service, never a profile in political courage, pretended not to notice what was going on in an area Congress directed it to keep “untrammeled by man.”) Also that month, in the nearby town of Salmon, an Idaho hunting and gun rights group sponsored a wolf-killing derby.  

“I’ve been doing wildlife work for a long time, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Jamie Rappoport Clark, a former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and now president of Defenders of Wildlife. “There is a vendetta against wolves that is not only unseemly, it’s reckless” and “bordering on a vigilante movement.” Instead of seeking to moderate it, political officials have been egging it on. “This is politics gone rogue, and in the gun sights are wolves, who don’t deserve it,” she said.

In one remarkable example of institutionalized lawlessness, Idaho County Sheriff Doug Giddings in 2011 sponsored what he called the “308 SSS Idaho County Sheriff's Wolf Raffle.” He claimed that the abbreviation SSS stood for “safety, security, and survival.” But in rancher parlance, “SSS” means “shoot, shovel, and shut up”—that is, kill the wolves, bury the evidence, and never mind what the law says. To drive home the point, Giddings posed with a Winchester .308, a shovel, and a smile.  

Since then, much of Idaho seems to have turned to shooting, shoveling, and shouting about it. The decision to abet this process with $400,000 a year in taxpayer funds comes in response to confirmed killings by Idaho wolves of 46 cattle and 413 sheep in 2013. Even taking top market rates of $900 for cattle and $150 for sheep, that adds up to just $103,350 in losses, for which the federal government now provides compensation funding. In the 25 years from 1987 to 2011, compensation paid to ranchers in Idaho for wolf losses totaled $1.4 million—less than the state now plans to spend in the first four years of its new killing program. So much for fiscal responsibility for Idaho Republicans like Otter.

The vendetta against wolves is particularly odd because wolves are vastly outnumbered in Idaho by other predators, including 30 grizzly bears, 3,000 mountain lions, 2,000 black bears, and 50,000 coyotes. The coyotes alone kill up to 10,000 sheep annually, said Suzanne Stone, a Boise resident and the wolf specialist at Defenders of Wildlife. That’s up to two dozen times as many as wolves kill. While ranchers with their .308s certainly fight back, their animosity toward these other predators doesn’t come anywhere close to the irrational hatred and spite they feel toward wolves. The policy also ignores what science is learning about the outsize role wolves play in maintaining healthy ecosystems.

Instead of exterminating wolves or paying compensation, Stone argued that it would be far cheaper to prevent killings in the first place. At the Wood River Valley Project, on 1,000 square miles of federal land in the Sawtooth Mountains, sheep grazers, government agencies, and Defenders of Wildlife collaborate to keep wolves away from livestock with nonlethal methods, including guarding dogs, sound devices, lighting, and flagging. One participant, Lava Lake Land and Livestock, boasts of “grazing a band of 1,000 sheep for a month in the immediate daily presence of a wolf pack with no losses of sheep or wolves.” Over six years, according to Stone, the program has lost just 30 sheep—about 1 percent of herds grazing there—without killing a single wolf.

Why not invest in that success? Or why not make wolves the basis for new jobs in the tourism economy, as has happened at Yellowstone National Park? Idaho’s political leadership, caught up in fairy-tale notions about wolves and a fanatic determination to oppose anything, even a native species, with the taint of the federal government on it, seems determined instead to drive this magnificent state down in a self-destructive cycle of hatred and killing.  

For Idaho’s many wildlife-friendly residents, this may bring ruefully to mind a recent remark by comedian Stephen Colbert: “Idaho has just raised its speed limit to 80 miles an hour. Now you can get out of there even faster.” Instead, state residents should sign a Defenders of Wildlife petition demanding that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service begin an immediate status review of Idaho’s wolves. (So far, the nation’s premier wildlife management agency has been timidly looking in almost any other direction.) Then state residents should get to work electing a government that enacts policies that accurately reflect their conservatism.

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