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Frustrated hunters lead anti-wolf movement

Sportsmen say predators are decimating elk herds, but views on fixing issue differ

Rocky Barker

The Idaho Statesman | Edition Date: 06-20-2004

The hair stands up on the back of Warren Johns' neck when he hears a bull elk bugle.

Johns and other hunters say they are hearing that haunting scream far less these days. Increasingly, they are hearing another sound cut through the morning mist — the howl of wolves.

State and federal officials are hearing a growing wail from hunters that the reintroduction of wolves in Idaho in 1995 and 1996 threatens big game.

So far, there is scant biological evidence that wolves threaten the state elk herd or even its harvest. But hunters who say they are seeing and hearing fewer elk are skeptical. Many are flocking to support a growing anti-wolf movement in Idaho that is pressuring state and federal officials to act now to reduce or eliminate wolves.

"When we started holding meetings we might have had 10 people show up," said Jack Oyler, who helped found the Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition in 1999. "Today when we go to meetings, there are 300 to 400 people there."

The movement has three faces:

• The Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition has been raising money so it can hire attorneys to force the federal government to eliminate a wolf population that has grown to at least 260 animals.

• Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife also says wolves are "decimating" state elk herds. But it supports Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne's efforts to give the state more power to kill wolves in areas where elk numbers are low.

• The third segment is shadowy and not as organized. It includes hunters who are taking matters into their own hands.

Johns isn't a member of any of those groups. He is simply a man who lives to hunt elk.

He carved his stick bow from a serviceberry bush. He spends days scouting the area he has hunted since his father passed down the sport to him.

"I have a lot vested in it as far as passing it on to my son," said Johns, an Eagle resident who works in the medical industry.

He is convinced wolves are reducing Idaho's elk numbers in some areas. In other areas, elk behavior is changing, making them harder to hunt. Bulls also are reducing their bugling, a high point of the early season hunts for Johns.

His major criticism is directed to wolf advocates, especially those in Eastern cities.

"The ones that seem to be most pro for wolves have the least vested in them," Johns said.

Research supports Johns' view. A 2003 study by University of Wisconsin researchers found that people who live closer to wolves tend to tolerate them less than people far away. Hunters were more likely than even livestock owners to support reducing wolf populations. But both groups had stronger feelings than other rural residents.

"Our results indicate that deep-rooted social identity and occupation are more powerful predictors of tolerance of wolves than individual encounters," wrote Lisa Naughton-Treves, Rebecca Grossberg and Adrian Treves of the UW department of geography.

Johns doesn't hate wolves. He wants them controlled, not eliminated.

"What bothers me is the way they have raised the wolf to some kind of deity," Johns said. "It's not a deity, it's a predator, no better than a coyote. They ought to manage it like a game animal."

Anti-Wolf Coalition: wants feds to eliminate them

Ron Gillett, chairman of the Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition, believes that no less than elimination of wolves can save the state's big game and the hunting and wildlife viewing so important to many Idahoans' way of life.

"Every day, these wolves are mutilating our wildlife and threatening the safety of our families and children," Gillett said.

The Stanley outfitter is the alpha male of the Idaho anti-wolf movement. He grew up in Hailey, the son of a cattle and sheep rancher. He built his outfitting and lodging business from scratch.

Gillett said wolf reintroduction did not initially scare him. But he and other outfitters quickly noticed they weren't seeing as much big game. He believed federal officials had lied about the impacts and the numbers of wolves.

"For me, this is not just a hunting issue," Gillett said. "We want well-managed wildlife populations in Idaho for hunting and wildlife enthusiasts.

"We don't want wolves."

In 1998, he, Oyler and others formed the Central Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition. They went from small town to small town and eventually to the Capitol, telling anyone who would listen about the threat posed by wolves.

From the 1980s through the 1990s, opposition to wolf reintroduction had been primarily a ranching movement. After an American Farm Bureau lawsuit failed to keep wolves out of the state, and after it was clear the carnivores were here to stay, the Idaho Cattle Association and others shifted their attention to removing wolves from federal protection.

The cattlemen helped pass a state wolf management plan that would give ranchers more flexibility to kill marauding wolves.

Gillett and his allies in the Idaho Legislature wouldn't budge and succeeded in passing a non-binding memorial that put the Legislature on the record calling for the elimination of wolves from Idaho.

Fast-forward to 2004. Gillett and the coalition are attracting big fund-raising crowds and big money. An Idaho Falls banquet brought 500 people and raised $35,000 for the non-profit, but not tax-exempt, group, he said. The coalition raised $120,000 in March. A supporter offered to build a house and sell it for the cause, Gillett said.

But Gillett won't open his books. He would not give the total the coalition has raised. Critics say he has no accountability.

"I've always heard that Ron Gillett is stuffing his pockets with the money," Gillett said. "We're really conservative with the money. Only the last year and a half has the coalition paid for gas and hotels. We don't eat steaks."

Gillett announced Wednesday the coalition had retained attorney John Runft of Boise as its legal counsel.

If the coalition wins in court, which even Gillett acknowledges would take years, he envisions federal agents killing off the wolves the same way they were exterminated before, with poison, traps and aerial shooting.

Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife: wants state control

As the Anti-Wolf Coalition was rising in popularity early this year, another group was mobilizing in Idaho, tapping into the same hunter fears over wolves and other predators. Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife has grown into a 15,000-member organized and political force in Utah.

Now it hopes to attract 10,000 members in Idaho, bringing together the diverse sporting groups of the state into one voice.

Its publication, the Sportsman's Voice, told its members earlier this year that wolves in Idaho were "decimating" the state's big game populations, and it has demanded federal and state actions. But instead of ridding the state of wolves, the group calls for state management, the same remedy Idaho livestock interests support.

"The reality is we'd love to see that lawsuit win and see the federal government be tasked with eliminating wolves from Idaho," said Nate Helm, the former staffer for Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, who serves as Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife's Idaho executive director. "We just don't see that happening."

So what's happening to the elk in Idaho?

Elk numbers have been stable for nearly a decade at about 125,000 in Idaho, according to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

Hunter success rates are stable too. In 2003, 18,900 elk were killed, with 22.2 percent of 85,100 hunters successful. The 10-year average is 20,970 elk harvested annually, with 93,711 hunters and a success percentage of 22.4.

In the Clearwater region in north-central Idaho, elk numbers and harvests have been dropping for more than a decade.

Biologists say the major factor has been the loss of habitat, as forests that burned in the 1920s and 1930s have grown up, reducing the food available. The mature shrubs and trees also allow predators to get closer to elk calves, increasing the number lost to predation.

Elk numbers in the areas surrounding central Idaho wilderness generally have increased, while elk numbers in the wilderness have been stable or dropped.

Idaho's Department of Fish and Game reluctantly increased the harvest of bear and cougars in the late 1990s in the Clearwater area. Today biologists are seeing Clearwater elk numbers rebounding slightly in some units, and biologist Steve Nadeau, Fish and Game's large carnivore coordinator, said increased bear and cougar harvest is likely one of the factors. But in Unit 10 in the Lolo Pass area, elk sightings dropped by more than half from 1998 to 2003 and biologists are attributing the difference to wolves.

Biologists and hunters both keep close watch on the calf to cow ratios. The ratio dropped throughout the Clearwater and central Idaho regions in the 1990s. Some units dropped below the ratio of 25 calves to 100 cows seen in healthy populations.

The calf-cow ratio in the central Idaho wilderness is mixed. In the Lolo area, there is a trend upward— rising from five calves per 100 cows in 1998 to 26 in 2003 the same place where elk sightings have dropped. And in the Middle Fork of the Salmon River area, calf-cow ratios dropped from 30 calves per 100 cows in 1992 to a low of 15 in 1999. In 2003, the calf ratio rose to 18 per 100 cows, but the overall number of elk remained stable.

"There are so many factors affecting elk populations and wolves are only one of them and likely not the most important one," Nadeau said.

Travis Bullock, of Mile High Outfitters in Challis, has guided hunters in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness since 1984. He sees fewer elk than he saw at the population's peak in 1995, the year wolves were reintroduced. But there are still more elk now than when he began outfitting.

He is convinced the wolves are having an impact on the herd and he wants to see the wolf population thinned. But his client's success rate for elk remains high.

"Opportunity remains plentiful but not as big as it was in the height of the elk herd," Bullock said.

In the early 20th century, game biologists advocated predator control and wolf elimination. But eventually, game managers recognized that predators helped keep big game in check where hunters couldn't or wouldn't because of lack of interest or access.

Habitat protection and restoration became the foundation of wildlife management. In the last decade, an increasing number of game biologists encouraged the reduction of predator numbers through hunting and trapping along with habitat improvement, as a way to help struggling big game numbers rebound.

Val Geist, a retired Canadian wildlife biologist who has authored 15 books and 250 articles, said that view has not been accepted among wildlife biologists until recently.

"We had only seen big game populations under expanding conditions," Geist said.

In limited areas, such as large islands in the ocean or lakes, wolves can nearly wipe out a big game population under the right conditions, he said.

But across the Rocky Mountains, wolf hunting and trapping can help keep herds and predators healthy and hunters happy.

"You need to manage them," he said.

Nadeau said Fish and Game has refocused its research to learn more about the impacts of wolves, especially in places where elk numbers are declining. He hears many complaints from hunters about wolves and elk.

Elk are more wary with wolves around, he said. They don't spend as much time in the open and are more careful about making their presence known.

"The majority of what hunters are seeing are behavioral changes rather than population changes," Nadeau said.

Federal officials have proposed new wolf rules that would allow the state to kill wolves in units where elk numbers are below goals, but Nadeau said more research is needed before the agency can justify killing wolves to help elk.

"We are not going to run off and start shooting wolves just because we can," Nadeau said.

Once wolves are removed from federal protection, Fish and Game intends to open a season on them, Nadeau said.

Jerry Corts, of Boise, who hunts elk near Ketchum, has heard the biologists' reports but remains skeptical. He hunts in an area where he has seen and killed elk for years. Last season, he went days before he saw any elk.

"After spending days of climbing mountains and seeing only one elk, coming across half-eaten elk calves and elk cows is frustrating," he said.

Wolf killers: want the predators dead or gone

Frustration has led some hunters to join those in the anti-wolf movement who are killing the predators themselves.

Earlier this year, a wolf was found dead of poisoning near Clayton. A dog nearly died of poisoning near Wagonhammer Springs near Salmon in February. More than a dozen dogs died of poisonings in Wyoming that officials suspect may have been aimed at wolves.

The only public face for this radical arm of the anti-wolf movement is Tim Sundles. In 2001, he testified in a Senate hearing in Salmon that he had shot and killed a radio-collared wolf to protect his wife. The ammunition maker from Carmen publishes a Web site that tells how to poison wolves.

"I am in no way soliciting any one to poison wolves..." Sundles writes on his Web site. "People will have to decide for themselves just how much they will allow an out-of-control federal agency (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) to destroy their rights, hobbies, businesses and misuse the supposed 'public trust.' "

Idaho Fish and Game officers searched Sundles' home in March under the authority of a search warrant, seizing his computer and other items. The search warrant was issued in its investigation of the dog poisoning at Wagonhammer Springs.

No charges have been filed. Sundles said he could not comment for this story. His Web site is still on the Internet.

Gillett said he wants to make it clear that the anti-wolf coalition does not condone illegal activities. He also wants to keep his distance from Sundles' approach.

Yet in a letter to the Challis Messenger, Gillett castigated state and federal law enforcement officials for searching Sundles' home, calling it a "Gestapo-style raid."

"It's most unfortunate that these pets were the victims," Gillett wrote. "However, it would seem obvious that the poison was not put out for pets but for Canadian wolves."

If the coalition loses its case in court, Gillett said he expects many of his supporters to take matters in their own hands.

"If we do not come out the way we expect, I can't guarantee there won't be civil disobedience," Gillett said.

"We are not going to lose our wildlife because of some liberal judge."

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