Idaho Takes Reins on Managing Gray Wolves

The federal government plans to give state officials authority to manage threatened gray wolves in Idaho, starting Thursday. Wildlife advocates say the move increases the likelihood that the rare species will be killed. A state law calls for them to be killed "by any means necessary."

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Tomorrow, the federal government is expected to announce plans to allow the state of Idaho to manage gray wolves found there. Wildlife advocates fear that this will end some protections that the wolves have enjoyed. The state of Idaho has been hostile to wolves since they were reintroduced 10 years ago. A few years back, the Legislature demanded that the federal government step aside and let the state rid itself of wolves by, as it put it, `whatever means necessary.' NPR's Elizabeth Shogren has the story.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

Since the federal government set 35 wolves free in Idaho, they've reproduced almost like bunnies and they've spread out across the state.

Mr. ED BANKS (Wolf Program Director): Right now we estimate there's probably over 900 wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming and probably over 550 of those are in the state of Idaho.

SHOGREN: Ed Banks, who heads the wolf program in the northern Rockies for the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, calls the effort a stunning success.

Mr. BANKS: We have more wolves in more places than we ever believed possible, and we've had fewer conflicts with livestock and we've had to remove fewer wolves because of those conflicts than we ever predicted. So it's one of those few government programs that we're ahead of schedule, under budget and more benefits and fewer problems than we predicted.

SHOGREN: It's been so successful federal officials want to take the wolves in the northern Rockies off the list of threatened species. They're not doing that yet because they say Wyoming's plan for managing wolves could put the species in jeopardy again. But in Idaho, they are giving state wildlife managers authority to decide when a wolf or a wolf pack becomes a menace and should be killed. There's a disagreement over how much of a difference this will make. Banks says it won't change anything having state biologists in the driver's seat instead of federal biologists.

Mr. BANKS: A professional biologist is pretty much a professional biologist. They'll come to the same conclusions.

SHOGREN: Suzanne Stone, Defenders of Wildlife's representative in Idaho, says it will make a huge difference.

Ms. SUZANNE STONE (Defenders of Wildlife): Unfortunately, I think that we're going to see--Oh!--a lot more wolves being killed.

SHOGREN: Stone says state officials will be under intense pressure from livestock owners and hunters to kill more wolves, and she believes they will be less able to stand up to that pressure than federal wildlife officials have been.

Ms. STONE: People need to understand that there's a lot of hostility towards the animals here. You know, the entire state Legislature voted in support of getting rid of all the wolves in the state by any means possible.

SHOGREN: Ranchers and hunters are relieved that the state is taking over.

Mr. TED HOFFMAN (Rancher): That's definitely a step in the right direction.

SHOGREN: Ted Hoffman is a rancher in Mountain Home, Idaho, who recently spotted a wolf a couple miles from his cows.

Mr. HOFFMAN: For those of us that have livestock here in Idaho, it comes down to private property. We've been prevented by law from defending our property, our livestock, in an effective manner for many years. Most citizens would not tolerate the position that the federal government put us into and we're certainly glad to see that it's finally ending.

SHOGREN: Ranchers already are allowed to shoot wolves that are chasing or attacking livestock and they can apply for permits to shoot problem wolves on sight. The federal government has only given out a few of these permits. Ranchers hope state officials will be more generous. Jim Unsworth, who heads the wildlife division of Idaho's Fish and Game, says there likely will be more wolves eating livestock and preying on elk and deer.

Mr. JIM UNSWORTH (Idaho Fish and Game): Since wolves are increasing at a pretty rapid rate, chances are more will die because I think more will probably end up getting in trouble because we have more wolves. Proportionately though, I think it'll probably be about the same.

SHOGREN: Hunting for sport still won't be allowed, but Nate Helm, executive director of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, wants that to change.

Mr. NATE HELM (Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife): It is my hope that soon we will have hunting of wolves in our state.

SHOGREN: Helm will have to wait for that hunting season until the wolf is taken off the protected species list. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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