Idaho Fish and Game’s meeting on its wolf plan prompted laughter, not anger Thursday night in Boise.
Jon Rachael, the southwest region wildlife manager for Fish and Game moderated the meeting that had an even number of wolf advocates and opponents. Some of the other meetings around the state have been as heated as ever, demonstrating that, as Yellowstone wolf biologist Doug Smith says: “The wolf issue is the abortion issue of wildlife management.”
But here in Boise people on both sides of the issue were respectful of the questions raised by their opposites. Rachael's humorous, laid back style of presenting the plan kept everyone loose and the tension low.
Wolf advocates, certain that Fish and Game aims to let hunters and federal gunners kill as many wolves as they can, focused the department’s lack of detail in determining what conflicts trigger killing and its apparent wide flexibility.
Hunters, just as certain that wolves are everywhere eating all the elk they never saw this season, expressed concern that the plan’s numbers don’t reflect the reality on the ground.
Rachael explained that the plan, written in a similar manner to plans for cougars, bears, elk and other big game, is by definition very general. Biologists and the Fish and Game commission will use it to guide decisions on setting seasons and dealing with specific situations that come up after the state takes full control.
Most of the issues, he said are social.
“This isn’t a magic scientific equation,” Rachael said.
The reality is the department is going to have to adapt and learn as it goes. Wolf numbers are at least 800 and the population has been growing at a 20 percent pace despite another 20 percent dying annually due to control actions and natural mortality.
That’s going to give the department a big cushion between the current population and the 150 wolves envisioned when the Idaho Legislature wrote the state management plan this department plan is based. In general, the plan calls for “stabilizing” the population in most areas and decreasing it in some high conflict areas.
That means hunters could kill 150 wolves annually and the population could still grow. That seems easy but Rachael's not so sure.
"I suspect after a year when they're shot at we're not going to see wolves walking along the road looking into your windshield," Rachael said.
Since the Legislative plan has a number --150 wolves-- the minimum numbers used in the plan as goals for the 14 wolf management areas are almost certainly lower than the agency will ever meet. But because wolf advocates simply don’t trust Fish and Game, or the state’s intentions, those official numbers are their focus.
But at a time when Michael Vick is sitting in jail for killing dogs, one man brought up a hard point for Fish and Game to ignore. It says it plans to manage wolves like cougars and bears.
But the state doesn’t allow hunters to shoot cougars with kittens or sows with cubs. Will it allow hunters to kill wolves with pups?
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Rachael said.
And what will happen to a wolf pack that kills a hiker? One hunter asked that question to the only groans of the night.
Rachael again turned to the cougar and bear analogy since both attack people far more often than wolves.
“I would expect the wolf would be taken out or the pack would,” he said.
The earliest they could be delisted by the federal government is March 29 but everyone expects wolf advocates to file a lawsuit immediately. Then we will see if Ed Bangs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's wolf coordinator and his crew have a clean, legal decision document.