Wolves Aren’t Making It Easy for Idaho Hunters

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Wolves Aren’t Making It Easy for Idaho Hunters

From NYTimes.com
January 2010

Hunting and killing are not the same thing. Even as Idaho has sold more than 14,000 wolf-hunting permits, the first 10 days of the first legal wolf hunt here in decades have yielded only three reported legal kills.

Such modest early results might seem surprising in a state that has tried for years to persuade the federal government to let it reduce the wolf population through hunting.

Idahoans, among the nation’s most passionate hunters, are learning that the wolf’s small numbers — about 850 were counted in the state at the end of last year — make it at once more vulnerable and more elusive.

“It’s clear it’s not going to be easy,” said Jon Rachael, the wildlife manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

The consensus among hunters and game officials is that wolf hunting will get better as the weather gets colder and snow falls, revealing wolves against white. The season runs through December. Most people believe their best chance of killing a wolf will come when they are pursuing something else, like deer or elk. Far more hunters are expected to be in the woods at that point.

“That’s the way hunting works,” J. D. Hagedorn, who participated in the first day of hunting on Sept. 1, said as a black bear ambled across the foothills of the Sawtooth Mountains that morning. “The thing you’re hunting for is the thing you don’t see.”

Once shot on sight for preying on sheep and cattle, gray wolves were largely eradicated from the Northern Rockies by the 1930s. They were listed as an endangered species in 1974. In 1995, they were reintroduced into the region by federal wildlife officials.

The program was such a success that the wolf population in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming — about 1,650 at the end of 2008 — is now five times the goal set for reintroduction. Ranchers and hunters complain once more that the animals are killing livestock as well as big game that hunters track, particularly elk.

After years of studies and lawsuits, wolves were removed from federal protection in Idaho and Montana in May. Environmentalists sought an injunction to prevent the hunt, but Judge Donald W. Molloy of Federal District Court in Montana refused to stop it and ruled Tuesday that the animals could withstand a controlled hunt of up to 30 percent of the population. The hunts, the judge said, can continue while the environmentalists pursue their challenge.

Judge Molloy did not, however, provide an instruction manual for finding a wolf.

Mr. Rachael, the state wildlife manager, said he thought it was unlikely that hunters would reach the quota of 220 wolves that Idaho game officials have said could be killed this season. He recalled talking to hunters who recently called looking for advice after spending a couple of days in futile pursuit: “You know,” the hunters confessed, “we don’t know how to hunt wolves.”

Neither did J. D. Hagedorn or his father, Marv, a Republican state representative. They did enjoy trying, though.

First light lined the Sawtooth Mountains as Marv Hagedorn, a 9 millimeter strapped to his thigh, a rifle ready, howled with hope into the foothills.

Nothing howled back.

He spotted an elk at ease on a ridge. A grouse ruffled. The sun rose. Canis lupus, if he was out there, kept quiet. He leaned toward his son, a 24-year-old Iraq war veteran, and whisper-giggled, “I don’t hear anything, but I don’t know if my howl’s worth anything.”

He added, “This has never been done.”

They worked through the heat of the day. They kept their eyes on the few elk they saw, thinking wolves might be nearby tracking their prey. In full camouflage, they tried to stay quiet and hidden, avoiding silhouetting themselves on ridgelines, keeping their scent out of the wind. Just before sunset, they scaled the steep ravine walls surrounding the Roaring River, hoping to see wolves that have killed sheep in the area.

And they explained that just being able to hunt — if not actually harvest, to use game officials’ phrase — was a success unto itself. The elder Mr. Hagedorn, a retired information warfare officer for the Navy who is serving his second term representing suburban Boise, said, “This is a new beginning.”

He is among many people who say the long, bitter fight over the wolf has really been a fight over the West and how to live in it. He said earlier settlers “came and ravaged everything,” from forests to fish, even wolves. Yet in an effort to restore balance, he said, the federal government took too much control away from states like Idaho.

“The federal government has come in and added this predator and thrown it all out of whack,” he said.

Mr. Hagedorn said part of his political message has been to tell people that elk and cattle and sheep are not all that have suffered from the wolf. Hunting stores, outfitters and guides, even hotels and restaurants have been hurt by a belief that wolves have made hunting less worthwhile.

J. D. Hagedorn, a sophomore at Boise State University, said he was more torn than his father and grandfather on some political and environmental issues. He said he had taken some classes on environmental topics.

“I understand the importance of a predator in an ecosystem,” he said, cradling a rifle at dusk.

But wolves must be managed, he said, “and I’m not going to lie, it’s a great hunt.”

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