I really enjoy reading Rocky Barker's columns and blog at the Idaho Statesman. I don't always agree with what he says, but he is a thoughtful and genuine voice that helps me cut through the shouting on both sides of the heated wildlife issues in the Northern Rockies.
And he's a hunter. Which is the source for his most recent blog entry and it's a doozy.
What's considered fair chase for wolves in Idaho?
As hunters in Idaho and Montana gear up to go looking for their own big bad wolf, it's a very, very good question.
Last year, in the short window when hunting was legal after the animals were taken off the Endangered Species List (and then returned after some strong legal work from Earthjustice, NRDC, and the rest of the groups fighting the current "delisting" effort), it was clear there were plenty of hunters who never bothered to ask that question.
There were the hunters who staked out Wyoming's elk feed lots and quickly shot one of the most recognizable wolves on the planet, the male from Yellowstone's Druid pack lovingly known as "Limpy." There was a hunter in Idaho who chased a wolf down on a snowmobile and killed it, because it was traveling near his horse pasture (but had done no harm).
And as Rocky notes,
In 2008 a Wyoming man chased a wolf 35 miles on his snowmobile before he shot it. He considered fair chase.
But this point is perhaps the most interesting:
You can shoot members of Ketchum's celebrity Phantom Hill pack, which love to hang out along Idaho 75. But is that really fair chase?
Hmmm. What will happen to those famous packs that have gotten a bit more comfortable with humans? The packs that move in and out of Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks? The packs that the tourists who travel to both states have come to know? (Look at the photo on Matt's blog post to get a real sense of this issue...)
Rocky doesn't say it, but I'll bet he is wondering...will more of the wolves that people know best be the first to get gunned down because they are used to tourists? And how big of a black eye will that give the states?
More importantly, what will it do to the bigger wolf population in the region? Rocky notes:
Wolf advocates will likely go to court soon and take a shot at stopping the hunt altogether. They will be talking about genetics, metapopulations and pack dynamics.
Partly. But there are new issues at play this time around, such as the delisting of wolves in Idaho and Montana, but not Wyoming. With wolf territories crossing state boundaries, it makes no sense ecologically or legally to delist one portion of a population.
Still, meaningful genetic exchange between the three subpopulations in the region is essential to sustainable recovery. That exchange is not happening much now between Yellowstone and central Idaho---and it will be less likely to happen, since hunting is allowed in the narrow and easily accessed Centennial range, which provides the best connecting corridor.
Don't get me wrong. Just like Rocky, I don't think there is anything wrong with hunting---it can be an essential tool in managing stable and healthy wildlife populations. But this one's still too vulnerable and has not reached levels that scientists maintain are needed for lasting recovery.
Rocky had a pretty funny post earlier in the week about an interaction with Idaho's Governor, Butch Otter. The Governor famously exclaimed that he'd be first in line for a tag in last year's proposed wolf hunt. So when the reporter asked about Otter's plan for this year, the Governor turned the tables and asked if Barker would buy a wolf hunt tag too. Barker did not really answer the question---he noted his own conflict and quoted Aldo Leopold to imply that even if he bought a tag, he'd not shoot.
There are plenty of scientists who hope that more hunters in Idaho will feel just as conflicted---not just about fair chase, but about shooting wolves in general---the fate of the greatest wildlife conservation story may just hang in the balance...