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Gray wolf hunting to begin again in Idaho

The move may undo the success of the animal's comeback, say environmental groups, which have asked a judge to intervene.

September 01, 2009|Kim Murphy

SEATTLE — The gray wolf, virtually exterminated in the West in the early 20th century, will be hunted once again in Idaho beginning today after a successful reintroduction program saw populations of the predator bloom across much of the northern Rocky Mountains.

Though a federal judge has been asked to intervene, new state laws call for wolf hunts to begin today in two parts of Idaho, followed by hunts in much of the rest of the state and in Montana later this month.

Protected under the federal Endangered Species Act since 1973, when they were nearly extinct in the continental United States, wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park and parts of Idaho in the 1990s and have since formed a large number of hunting and breeding packs that are beginning to range as far as Oregon.

The federal government concluded that the wolves, which now number about 1,650, had recovered, and lifted the endangered-species protections this year.

A coalition of environmental groups went to court Monday in Missoula, Mont., to ask U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy to block the hunts, arguing that allowing them to go forward could threaten the wolves' survival by eliminating key connecting corridors among the various populations in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

"We had expected at this point to be celebrating the recovery of the gray wolf in the northern Rockies. Instead, after decades of recovery efforts, tremendous support and investment from the American public . . . and one of the most successful wildlife restorations in history, the future of the gray wolf in the Rocky Mountains is once again in jeopardy," Suzanne Stone, northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife, one of the plaintiff groups, said in a statement.

The judge did not say after Monday's hearing whether or when he would act, and unless he does, the hunt proceeds as planned, said Ed Mitchell, spokesman for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

"It will be legal to hunt in two of our 12 zones," Mitchell said, referring to the mountainous Sawtooth region west of Sun Valley and the rugged wilderness of northern Idaho near the Montana border.

As of midday Monday, the state had sold more than 10,700 tags to hunters.

The hunt allows the harvest of up to 220 wolves in Idaho and up to 75 in Montana from now until the end of the year. In areas where deer and elk populations are particularly threatened by wolves, some hunting is to extend through March 31.

Mitchell said Idaho's wolf population now numbered at least 1,000 and had been increasing at about 20% a year, and "we're absolutely convinced" the animals can survive a limited harvest.

"We're finding places where the populations of wolves are really going up, and the populations of ungulate species are dropping dramatically, and becoming unsustainable. And of course, that's not healthy for anybody," said Nate Helm, president of Idaho Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, a nonprofit group that promotes wildlife habitat and management programs from the hunters' perspective.

Helm said he expected the interest in buying wolf hunting licenses to drop off quickly.

"Right now it's got kind of a flair to it. It's the new thing, and as appealing as it may be, in the future I don't think it's going to be such a big deal," he said. "I think it's going to be difficult to harvest wolves. They learn from their mistakes, they run in packs and they learn from the mistakes of others. They'll become nocturnal, and we have a hard time doing that, hunting at night."

Earthjustice, the legal defense group that represented 12 conservation and humane organizations in this week's legal action, argued that the hunt could seriously threaten the wolf recovery by genetically and geographically isolating individual wolf populations spread across three states.

Wolves remain protected under the Endangered Species Act in parts of Wyoming, though state regulations have otherwise allowed hunting of wolves with relatively few restrictions.

"The whole recovery plan is predicated on this notion that wolves in the three core areas, Yellowstone park, Glacier park and the wilderness complex of central Idaho, are all part and parcel of the same population, that there's ready exchange of wolves from these different areas, and that if you wipe out a population of wolves in a particular area, then wolves from other areas would move in and recolonize that area," said Doug Honnold, who argued the case for Earthjustice.

Ed Bangs, wolf recovery program coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the wolves had recovered to the extent that they would not be threatened by a limited hunt.

"As of last December, we had 1,650 wolves distributed throughout 110,000 square miles of suitable habitat," he said.

"Wolves are moving all over the place like wolves do, there's high genetic diversity everywhere.

"So the science clearly indicates the wolf population no longer needs the protection of the Endangered Species Act," Bangs said. "You couldn't do much better."

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kim.murphy@latimes.com

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