U.S. officials balk at moving gray wolf from protected list

Species rebounded from near-extinction but remains target in West


BOISE, IDAHO -- Since the first captured Canadian gray wolves bounded out of their cages 10 years ago and disappeared into the trees, the animals that once were 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, nearly 900 wolves now roam in scores of packs across their historic range.

The wolves' comeback is all the more remarkable given the hatred that heralded their reintroduction, followed by a campaign of shooting and poisoning that continues. There is 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.

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 were killed almost immediately by hunters opposed to reintroduction, but most flourished, coming together in the wild to form new and surprisingly resilient packs.

The animals now are scattered across parts of Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado, a region where once 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 considers 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.

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 killed not only 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 come to a head 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 Salmon Challis National Forest last winter and placing a pesticide on federal land without permission, both misdemeanors.

Sundles is the latest face of Idaho's campaign to eradicate wolves from the state. Ron Gillette is another.

"Let me tell you something. We will get rid of these wolves, one way or another," Gillette 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," he said. "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 percent 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 indicates that only 35 percent of sheep deaths are attributable to predators, with wolves accountable for only 0.4 percent of sheep kills by predators. Domestic dogs are responsible for nearly 20 times as many sheep kills as wolves.

Similar numbers hold true for cattle, with wolves responsible for 0.6 percent 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.

Wolf biologists say humans are responsible for 90 percent of the wolves killed.

Julie Cart writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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