The helicopter gunning of seven members of the Basin Butte Pack near Stanley by federal agents even as hunters were in the field has angered wolf advocates and highlights again the polarized nature of this issue.
You might remember the Basin Butte pack as the one that delighted wolf watchers for several years as it hung around Stanley and offered the kind of opportunity to see wolves in the wild unlike anywhere but Yellowstone National Park. It’s the same pack that wolf advocate Lynne Stone babysat for several years before wolves were delisted so they wouldn’t eat local ranchers calves.
But the pack has, over its four-year existence, eaten a few cattle — most recently this fall on the edge of Stanley. Both ranchers and federal agencies have shot a few of the wolves in response.
Even though the wolves live in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and even though recreation is the main industry of the area, they have been treated just like wolves anywhere in Idaho. In fact they are included in Idaho Fish and Game’s list of 26 packs listed as chronic depredators.
I have sat in legislative committee meetings and watched rancher-lawmakers grill Idaho Department of Fish and Game officials for not being aggressive enough in killing off these wolves when they eat someone’s livestock.
What makes wolf advocates even more angry is that the cattle were moved out of the area on October since it is too cold to winter them around Stanley. They ask: “What was the hurry to kill the pack now?”
But Idaho Fish and Game officials had enough and saw the need to become more aggressive with a pack that had grown to as many as 14 animals and was routinely killing even adult cattle.
Had hunters legally shot a couple of the wolves I know Stone and many wolf advocates would have been unhappy. I know people who include wolf-watching as a highlight in trips they made to Idaho would be unhappy.
It is just like the situation near my home where a hunter may have shot the popular bull elk, Ernie. People know it may be legal but that doesn’t mean they think it is right.
But like my conservative friend Wayne Hoffman says about state and local agencies hiring lobbyists. It is one thing for some private party to do something and another for a taxpayer-funded agency to do it.
Many taxpayers may not agree with the imperative for Wildlife Services to carry out the execution of the pack. Certainly not the dozens who have called or written Fish and Game to protest.
Now again, this is not a simple issue on the other side. In 2002, when Carter Neimeyer, then the head of wolf management for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Idaho, made the tough decision to kill off the Whitehawk pack in the east fork of the Salmon River, it brought worldwide protests.
It was tough on Neimeyer, who is one of the people most responsible for the success of the reintroduction of wolves to the Northern Rockies.
Complicating the debate is the fact that the ranchers were paid millions of dollars in conservation easements to preserve the area from development. Those easements were never intended to force them to protect wildlife on their lands or to give wildlife some kind of preference.
But when the wolves were on the federal endangered species list, which could happen again soon, a federal judge said that wolves in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area did indeed have preference over livestock grazing.
Stone actually has been criticized by fellow environmentalists who would like to push all livestock grazing off of federal land for her efforts to keep the wolves and cattle apart. I know too that state officials and the ranchers have considered her pleadings for the pack a pain in their butts.
But she stands up for her wolves no matter what the cost. You might remember several confrontations between wolf hater Ron Gillett and Stone -- one in 2008 where he was charged with assault and later freed after a hung jury.
The Basin Butte Pack’s lives and deaths have reached far beyond the craggy peaks that surround the Stanley and Sawtooth basins.
If the Whitehawk Pack is any guide, then another wolf pack will soon move into the area and take the Basin Butte Pack’s place. Or perhaps the remaining three animals will breed and rebuild their own pack.
The controversy will continue as it does throughout the region. Only when the ranchers, the hunters and the wolf advocates reach some kind of understanding, including having accepted places for each to have preference, and tolerance for each sides' views and interests, will the issue die down.