Wolves Thrive but Animosity Keeps Pace

December 27, 2005
latimes.com: National News Single page


Wolves Thrive but Animosity Keeps Pace

Wildlife officials fear that hunters will move in for the kill if federal protection is dropped.

By Julie Cart, Times Staff Writer

BOISE, Idaho — Since the first captured Canadian gray wolves bounded out of their cages 10 years ago and disappeared into the trees, the animals that were once hunted to near extinction throughout the West have become a rare success story for the Endangered Species Act. Thanks, in part, to strict federal protection, today nearly 900 wolves roam in scores of packs across their historic range.

The wolf's comeback is all the more remarkable given the hatred that heralded their reintroduction, followed by a campaign of shooting and poisoning that continues today. There is still so much local antagonism that federal wildlife managers are hesitant to remove wolves from the endangered species list, even though the population is many times greater than required to delist.

Of all the recent reintroductions of native animals, none has provoked as much opposition as the wolf. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released 66 radio-collared wolves into central Idaho and Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and 1996. Some wolves were immediately killed by hunters opposed to reintroduction, but most flourished, coming together in the wild to form new and surprisingly resilient packs.

The animals are now scattered across parts of Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado, a region where earlier this century the much-reviled predator was hunted for bounty and ranchers tacked wolf skins and skulls to their fences.

But now, as the Fish and Wildlife Service ponders a delisting plan that would turn over management of the wolves to the states, federal officials are balking at plans they fear would allow hunters to exterminate whole packs.

In Wyoming, for example, Gov. Dave Freudenthal last April decreed that the Endangered Species Act is no longer in force and that the state "now considers the wolf as a federal dog," unworthy of protection. The governor's declaration reflects the views of hunters and ranchers that the wolves are decimating elk herds and devouring cattle and sheep. Some rural residents say they fear that wolves may prey on children.Idaho, home to the largest population of wolves in the West, has been the least welcoming. Officials say hundreds of wolves have been shot, in violation of federal law. A recent spate of poisonings has not only killed wolves, but dozens of ranch dogs and family pets that ingested pesticide-laced meatballs left along wildlife trails, state wildlife managers say.

Idaho's anti-wolf crusade is expected to intensify in coming weeks with the federal trial of Tim Sundles, an ammunition maker from Carmen, a rural town of 600 in northeast Idaho. He is charged with attempting to poison wolves in the Salmon National Forest last winter, and with placing a pesticide on federal land without permission, both misdemeanors.

Sundles, 47, operates an anti-wolf website that provides detailed instructions on how to "successfully poison a wolf." In a recent interview, however, Sundles said he is innocent of the attempted poisoning charge and decried the law-enforcement search of his home as a "Gestapo-style raid" by "an out-of-control federal agency."

Sundles dismisses the poisoning of pets as "collateral damage" and blasts federal wildlife managers for "dumping" wolves in the state.

"I'm shocked that human blood hasn't been spilled on this issue," Sundles said in an interview. "I'm surprised there hasn't been a gunfight. I'm surprised that the feds who've done this haven't been hunted down and killed," he said of the reintroduction of the wolves.

Sundles is the latest face of Idaho's campaign to eradicate wolves from the state. Ron Gillett, co-chairman of the Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition, is another.

"Let me tell you something. We will get rid of these wolves, one way or another," Gillett said, his index finger stabbing the air, during a recent interview in Lakefield, a hamlet east of Boise.

"We are law-abiding citizens. We will try it legally. But I'm not going to live with no elk, no deer, no bighorn sheep and no goats, just because some environmentalist someplace wants to hear a wolf howl. No. You either give up or move over, because we are going to run over you. No compromise. No negotiation. No Canadian wolves in Idaho."

But Steve Nadeau, wolf coordinator for Idaho's Department of Fish and Game, said the state's elk population has been stable for years. This year "has been a banner year for elk and deer. Really good hunting," he said.

Nadeau estimated that wolves are responsible for about 1% of elk deaths in Idaho. According to many wolf biologists, hunters aren't seeing as many elk because wolves are driving them into higher country, which is less accessible to humans.In Idaho, data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service indicate that only 35% of sheep deaths are attributable to predators, with wolves accountable for only 0.4% of sheep kills by predators. The data indicate that domestic dogs are responsible for nearly 20 times more sheep kills than wolves.

The same numbers hold true for cattle, where wolves are responsible for 0.6% of predator kills.

As far as the threat to humans, a 2002 study by Alaska wildlife officials found that there have been only a handful of documented wolf attacks on humans in North America since the 1800s. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police suspect wolves in a fatal attack on a man in Saskatchewan last month. If true, it would be the first such recorded death in 100 years, according to the Alaska study.

Fears about wolves aren't borne out by the facts, insists Suzanne Stone, of the group Defenders of Wildlife.

"It's almost impossible to discuss it rationally," Stone said. "It doesn't have anything to do with logic or reason, it's so steeped in myth. And this mythical wolf really doesn't exist."

Stone runs the Defenders' compensation program, which has paid more than a half-million dollars in the region since 1987, she said. In many cases, the compensation has not softened the attitudes of ranchers who have lost livestock.


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