The IDFG claimed they collared the wolves because they “made a mistake not clearly communicating mission limitations to one of [the] helicopter crews.” This explanation raises some questions, like, “How does someone employed to help manage forests mistake an elk for a wolf?” Or, “How is one not properly briefed before boarding a helicopter to fulfill a rare agreement made with the federal government to enter a protected wilderness area?” All this apart from the obvious collar size and implementation differences between the animals, the misinformed crew would have needed extra gear.But the conversation is bigger than the four wolves that were collared. The wolf debate in the Northwest—that is, whether or not the rebounded “experimental, non-essential” wolf population is a primary cause for the decline in elk populations in backcountry Idaho and elsewhere, and what we should do about it—is fiery and often personal, if not omnipresent among conservationists and hunters in the West. Before wolf reintroduction in 1995, more than 100,000 comments were offered on the wolf reintroduction plan, the most that had been contributed to a single FWS survey at that time, and the opinions haven’t stopped pouring in for over two decades.
Wolves once occupied a range that spanned most of the continent, but they were extirpated largely by “wolfers,” fur tradesmen who poisoned wolves for their pelts and ranchers who saw wolves and other large predators as a threat to their livestock. This occurred particularly after the decimation of native ungulate herds by unregulated hunting and human settlement in the mid- to late-1800s.Today the wolves have regained a lot of lost ground and have again become a nuisance for sportsmen and hunters who resent their competition for elk and other game, as well as ranchers whose livelihoods are sometimes dampened by wolf depredation. Some question whether the right species of wolf was introduced to the area. Still others argue that, regardless of the type of wolf, the wolves have a right to be there and their presence helps restore some of the natural order of the region from perhaps prior to Lewis and Clark’s expedition.
Swirling in the debate are millions of dollars that help with conservation, local business, and human recreation at the same time as well as all the high emotion that comes with the investment of time and resources. The conversation never gets any simpler than that, and it’s best if it is able play out in an environment where there is transparency and accountability.