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Death sentence for Phantom Hill wolves?

Wildlife Services has recommended lethal control of pack if sheep killing resumes

by JASON KAUFFMAN

A black wolf suspected to be a member of the Wood River Valley?s Phantom Hill wolf pack walks through a meadow north of Ketchum last summer. Officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture?s Wildlife Services have recommended members of the pack be killed this summer if they resume killing domestic sheep. Photo by Willy Cook

During four instances in which domestic sheep and wolves came into contact on Sawtooth National Forest grazing allotments northwest of Ketchum last summer, the sheep came out on the losing end, federal officials say.

In all, nine sheep were killed by wolves on federal sheep grazing allotments in the upper Big Wood River drainage during July and August, according to a recent report that sums up Idaho wolf-related depredations in 2007.

The 2007 wolf activity report lays the blame for the depredations at the feet of the Wood River Valley's Phantom Hill wolf pack. Among local wolf advocates, the small band of all-black wolves achieved near celebrity status last summer after biologists working for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game verified the pack was caring for three pups at an undisclosed den site in the valley north of Ketchum.

The presence of the Phantom Hill pack marked the first time wolves were discovered denning in the valley since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced 66 gray wolves into the wilds of Central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park during the winters of 1995 and 1996. Within a month of their discovery, state Fish and Game and the federal Wildlife Services had placed radio collars on two adult members of the pack to track their movements.

Instead of relying on the lethal removal of the offending Phantom Hill wolves, as often happens in similar sheep depredations, Fish and Game officials elected to pursue non-lethal means to try to keep the wolves and sheep separate. The methods were taken in part after at least one of the permitees whose sheep were on the federal grazing allotments requested that the agency implement non-lethal measures to scare the wolves away. Those methods included use of additional guard dogs and herders and at least one volunteer with Fish and Game who spent many nights out in the field watching over the sheep.

As the last of the sheep were being trailed off the grazing allotments in October, the Phantom Hill pack was still alive and well despite being suspected in the deaths of three additional sheep on Sept. 18.

This summer, the pack may not get off so easy if the Wildlife Services report is any indication.

The report states that officials with Fish and Game opted to take a non-lethal approach because of concerns about potential reactions from local wolf advocates. It adds that Wildlife Services provided "less than lethal" ammunition training to herders in the area and provided radio-activated guard boxes to help harass wolves from the sheep.

Wildlife Services "also spent considerable time on the ground trying to keep the sheep and the wolves separate," the document states.

Despite these actions, the depredations continued.

"While (Wildlife Services) recognizes the sensitive position (Fish and Game) found itself in, limiting control actions to a strictly non-lethal approach in a situation like this is inconsistent with the intent of the rules under which wolves were reintroduced," the report states.

The agency has recommended that lethal control actions be taken this summer if the pack resumes killing sheep.

"When wolves from the Phantom Hill pack commit livestock depredations in the future, the intent of the original reintroduction rules and normal protocols should be followed, providing for lethal removals until the depredation activity has ceased," the document reads.

Ultimately, the decision to kill wolves in Idaho is made by Steve Nadeau, large carnivore manager for Fish and Game.

"Wildlife Services is required to get our approval to remove wolves," Nadeau said.

And like last summer, Fish and Game will consider non-lethal and lethal options to keep the Phantom Hill wolves away from sheep, he said.

Nadeau said most ranchers in the valley are willing to consider non-lethal methods. He said the first step that's taken when wolves are suspected of killing livestock is for Wildlife Services to go out in the field to confirm if wolves were in fact responsible.

"And then I make my authorization," he said.

For all the public attention wolves' killing sheep and other livestock provokes, they kill nowhere near the number as other predators in Idaho. In any given year, coyotes kill far more sheep than do wolves, data from the USDA Agricultural Statistics Board indicates.

In Idaho in 2004, the Agricultural Statistics Board reports, wolves, ravens, vultures and other predators combined to kill 1,000 sheep. By comparison, coyotes killed 7,100 sheep.

Nadeau said he will present tentative details for an Idaho wolf hunt to the Idaho Fish and Game Commission during a special meeting in Boise on March 6. He said the information will specify season length, harvest quotas and other details of the hunt, which could begin as soon as this fall if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service successfully delists wolves in March.

The FWS is set to publish a delisting notice for the Western gray wolf in the U.S. Federal Register next week, Northern Rockies representative of Defenders of Wildlife Suzanne Stone said.

Under the delisting notice, which won't take effect until 30 days after it's published, gray wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming would lose their protected status under the federal Endangered Species Act. Defenders of Wildlife and other groups plan to sue to stop the delisting.

Nadeau said that in the hunt's first year, Fish and Game is considering having it run concurrently with Idaho's deer and elk hunting seasons, which extend from October through November. He said Fish and Game has plans to manage wolf numbers in the state at 2005-2007 levels, meaning they wouldn't be allowed to drop below 500 to 700 animals.

Nadeau said Fish and Game is considering a general season on wolves in most areas of the state, though select areas may see a limited number of tags offered as part of a controlled wolf hunt. He said the state's draft wolf hunting plan would require successful hunters to report their kills to Fish and Game within 24 hours.

"Once the quota was reached the hunt would be closed," he said.



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