The day before the first-ever official wolf hunt started in Idaho on Sept. 1, I stood on the sidewalk outside the county courthouse in Sandpoint, watching cars stream into town. As demonstrators on the sidewalk waved placards protesting the hunt, people in those vehicles reacted, and I focused on their hands, counting waves and thumbs-up as being for the wolves, and middle fingers and thumbs-down as against.
The results of my hour-long, admittedly crude poll were 128 for the wolves, 14 against. Surprisingly, truck drivers overwhelmingly sided with the demonstrators and against a hunt.
It occurred to me then that Idaho's reputation as the most dependably conservative state might be based on a misunderstanding. But then again, where emotions are high, truth flies out the window. When you bring up the subject of wolves at a café or gas station in the nearby town of Clark Fork, you're likely to hear people telling or accepting the most outlandish tales. For instance, many hunters insist that Idaho's 846 wolves are devastating Idaho's elk, even though the opposite is true. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, an organization dedicated to hunters, reported in 2009 that although Idaho's elk population fluctuates, it has risen above 100,000 animals for several years.
Many ranchers in Idaho believe that wolves are decimating livestock. But the Idaho Fish and Game Department found that wolves are responsible for only 1 to 2 percent of sheep depredation. In fact, feral dogs killed four times as many sheep in 2008 as did wolves.
Of all the questions surrounding wolves, the most crucial -- and the one that has proved most intractable -- is whether the population of wolves in the Northern Rockies has sufficiently recovered to warrant their being taken off the endangered species list. Looking for the right answer is like driving down a winding mountain road in the dark, without headlights.
When the federal government brought wolves back to the West in the mid-1990s, spending some $21 million in the effort, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that the wolf population would be considered recovered when Idaho, Montana and Wyoming each had 100 wolves. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when they came up with that goal.
Common sense tells us that a few hundred wolves in each state can't be defended as a biologically viable population, yet legislators and wildlife professionals keep trotting out these figures as though they were holy writ to justify their insistence that wolves must be hunted. The latest federal report says that there are 846 wolves in Idaho, 497 in Montana and 302 in Wyoming. The best minds in conservation biology -- the science that deals with the preservation of species -- are in agreement that the full recovery of these three distinct populations requires not hundreds, but thousands of animals.
That means that a hunt at this time is premature. Compare Idaho to Minnesota, a state half the size of Idaho, where there are 3,000 wolves, almost four times the number in Idaho. The Minnesota wildlife agency will not even consider holding a hunt for five years after wolves are delisted there.
Let's put the issue in perspective. There are four times as many human beings in the tiny town of Bonners Ferry, up the road from Sandpoint, than there are wolves in all of Idaho. If hunters kill as many wolves as they plan to in this hunt, it will leave small, disconnected populations of wolves genetically isolated from each other and in danger of becoming inbred.
A few months ago, a study by Rolf Peterson of the Michigan Technological Institute revealed what can happen when wolf populations drop too low. Peterson looked at genetically isolated wolves on Isle Royale National Park, an island in Lake Superior off the coast of Minnesota. All the wolves there have deformities of their backbones, making it difficult and painful for them to run. This is due to inbreeding.
As for what happens now that hunting wolves has begun, the political battle continues. Federal Judge Donald Molloy recently rejected a request from 13 environmental groups that he block wolf hunts in Idaho and Montana. Molloy said that the plan to kill 20 percent of the wolves does not put them in danger of extermination. He warned, however, that the federal government probably violated the Endangered Species Act by leaving Wyoming out of its plan, distinguishing a natural population of wolves "based on a political line, not the best available science." By definition, the judge added, that seems "arbitrary and capricious."
Ken Fischman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a retired geneticist and member of the Northern Idaho Wolf Alliance. He lives in Sandpoint, Idaho.