A coalition of three conservation organizations has asked a federal judge to halt a program by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to exterminate two wolf packs within the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.
The complaint was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Pocatello by the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice on behalf of Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project, Defenders of Wildlife, Wilderness Watch and longtime Idaho conservationist Ralph Maughan.
In mid-December, Fish and Game hired a hunter-trapper to eradicate two wolf packs, the Golden and Monumental packs, in the interest of increasing elk populations around the Middle Fork of the Salmon River and Big Creek, a tributary.
The department has said it hired a professional hunter and trapper because the area was too remote for many recreational hunters to get to.
“Even though this region hosts one of the lightest densities of hunters in the state, Idaho Fish and Game prioritized elk production over protection of the area’s wilderness character,” a press release from the plaintiffs states.
The U.S. Forest Service, which administers the wilderness, authorized use of a Forest Service cabin and airstrip to support wolf extermination activities
The plaintiffs argue that the Forest Service’s approval and facilitation of the program violated the agency’s duty to protect the area’s wilderness character. They have requested a court injunction to prohibit further implementation of the extermination program until their case can be resolved.
“As someone who has enjoyed watching members of the Golden Pack and spent time in the area where these wolves live, I am startled that Idaho Fish and Game thinks it’s acceptable to kill them off,” said Ken Cole, National Environmental Policy Act coordinator at the Boise office of Western Watersheds Project. “If wolves can’t live inside one of America’s biggest wilderness areas without a government extermination program, then where can they live?”
In a press release, Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore said aerial surveys have indicated that elk populations in the Frank Church Wilderness have dropped 43 percent since 2002 and wolf populations are too high in relation to elk numbers.
“The rapid growth of the wolf population disrupted the predator-prey balance in some areas and is a major factor in preventing some elk populations from rebounding,” Moore said. “Our research in other backcountry areas indicates that wolf predation is a major factor preventing elk populations from recovering.”
Moore said there are at least six documented packs in the Middle Fork Salmon zone, and several more packs throughout the wilderness area.
He said recent wildfires have increased elk forage but may it take a few years for habitat to fully recover.
“Even if successful, this action will in no way come near to eliminating wolves,” he said. “That is not and never will be our goal.”