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Idaho may kill wolves to help elk

BOISE, Idaho -- As explorers Lewis and Clark tramped across northcentral Idaho in mid-September 1805, game was so scarce they named one waterway "Hungery Creek" and another "Colt Killed Creek" for a foal they shot and devoured.

This paucity of wildlife such as elk in the steep, forested Clearwater Basin persists today, and some are pinning their hopes on an Idaho Fish and Game proposal that could change things. The agency has proposed killing some wolves that hunters believe are devouring the herds at an unsustainable pace.

Thirty-five wolves were reintroduced to central Idaho in 1995, and now there are about 600 in the state. An estimated 30 are believed to roam the Clearwater.

Last week, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne took the wolf-management baton from U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton, giving the state more control over its growing population of predators that have federal protections under the 1973 Endangered Species Act.

On Wednesday, the state Fish and Game Commission, meeting in Boise, will get its first look at a plan that would remove some wolves to help restore elk populations southeast of Lewiston.

"That's one of the areas of the state where we've had our biggest struggle with elk numbers," said Fish and Game Director Steve Huffaker last week. "Can we say wolves are decimating this elk population? Not specifically. But we can say there are a lot of wolves in that area."

The plan isn't public yet. The number of wolves that may be killed has not been released.

Idaho has already slashed the price of tags to shoot black bear and mountain lion in hunting areas near the Lochsa and Clearwater rivers. Those predators also kill elk.

And state officials have cut back on the number of elk that can be shot by hunters.

When Lewis and Clark passed through here 200 years ago, they encountered steep trails, thick forests -- and little to eat.

They acquired dogs from American Indian tribes and killed horses so they wouldn't starve.

"Proceeded on up the Hungery Creek, passing through a small glade at 6 miles, at which place we found a horse," Meriwether Lewis wrote on Sept. 19, 1805. "I directed him killed and hung up for the party after taking a breakfast off for ourselves, which we thought fine."

In 1910, however, a massive wildfire wiped out trees in the area.

What followed was good hunting for much of the remaining century, because the blaze opened up large swaths of open ground -- good habitat for elk that hunters prize.

By the early 1990s, however, the thick forests of Lewis and Clark's day had gradually returned, crowding out large game, Huffaker said. Many elk also starved in recent years in deep snow.

Now, Huffaker is working with the U.S. Forest Service to improve elk habitat in the Clearwater National Forest, he said.

Wildfires, managed properly, could again remove trees.

More must be done, he said.

"While the Forest Service is working on disturbances" to clear trees for elk, "we need to manage our predator-prey relationship," Huffaker said.

But Idaho can't just start shooting wolves.

Even after the state assumed management authority, it still must petition the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before it can kill the predators to boost wildlife herds, said Carter Niemeyer, the federal agency's Idaho wolf recovery coordinator, in Boise.

The state must provide scientific data backing up its concerns about wolf predation.

To this end, Idaho biologists have been studying Clearwater Basin elk populations with radio collars.

The public, including wolf advocacy groups such as Defenders of Wildlife, will also get a chance to weigh in on any kill plans.

"It becomes a management issue for the state," said David Allen, Fish and Wildlife's regional director in Portland, Ore. "They're going to seek a balance."

Allen doesn't think control efforts will lead to significant reductions in wolf packs that now number 61, according to the Idaho Office of Species Conservation's 2005 estimates.

Huffaker eventually plans to have a limited wolf hunting season -- after central Idaho's animals are removed from the list of federally protected species, a step Idaho, Montana and Wyoming are advocating.

Still, he acknowledges there will be fierce opposition.

Wolves have successfully recovered in central Idaho, Huffaker said. "You could take a significant number out, and next year they would return. Politically, it's more difficult."




Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:15 AM  Pacific

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