Managing Mother Nature |

Managing Mother Nature

(AP Photo/Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife andamp; PThis photo provided by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife andamp; Parks shows a gray wolf pup from the Calder Mountain pack along the Montana and Idaho borders west of Troy, Mont. in this August 2005, file photo. It took $24 million in federal funds and more than two decades to bring wolves back from near-extinction in the northern Rocky Mountains. Now, federal officials may be able to justify removing them from the endangered species list - opening the way for states to let hunters and trappers kill them.

DUBOIS, Wyo. The growing number of gray wolves and the increasing territory they roam have raised concern from many local hunters and outfitter guides that wolves are eating into their hunting experience and their business profits.Wolf advocates argue theres no evidence wolves are chewing through big game populations, calling them a victim of an underlying hostility in the West. Where one side holds the literary legend of the big bad wolf, the other sees the Hollywood icon from Dances with Wolves.It seems to be a more emotional issue, and people seem to be really polarized on it, said Jay Lawson, chief of the Wyoming Game and Fish Departments wildlife division. The emotions run high on both ends, both pro- and anti-wolf.The debate comes at a time when the federal government seeks to remove special protections that have allowed the gray wolf to recover from near extinction and turn management of wolves over to Montana, Wyoming and Idaho where an estimated 1,545 wolves now live.Its a debate hindered by a lack of definitive data and knowledge about the interactions between wolves and their chief prey: elk, deer and moose.In Dubois, a town of about 1,000 where many residents hunt as a way of putting meat on the table, both sides provide mostly anecdotal information to bolster their arguments on whether wolves have affected the local elk herds.Budd Betts Jr. runs a guest ranch and hunting guide operation that depends heavily on income from the fall elk hunting season. The ranch is located in a scenic mountain valley outside of Dubois where elk roam and wolves are heard howling. He says the area was known for plentiful elk that were easy to hunt.That tradition has basically gone away, Betts said. And for that I blame the wolf. I blame the wolf on the fact that we hardly have any late-season elk hunting anymore.He acknowledged that other predators and weather affect elk populations but said those conditions existed before the wolf came on the local scene in 1997, and huntable elk populations in the area werent greatly affected.Tory and Meredith Taylor run a pack horse operation outside Dubois in the summer and guide tourists during the winter to see wolves in Yellowstone National Park. They dont see wolves on their property along the Wind River with Whiskey Mountain looming in the distance.Im a hunter, and I believe what my eyes tell me, and I havent seen any decrease in the number of game animals, Tory Taylor said.The Taylors noted elk numbers in Wyoming are well above what state wildlife managers consider ideal.In 2005, Wyomings elk population was estimated at about 93,500 about 12 percent higher than the goal of 83,185, according to a report issued by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department last year.The hunting opportunities for big game operators in Wyoming have not decreased. If anything, theyve increased, Meredith Taylor said.They acknowledged instances when wolves were blamed for reducing the size of an elk herd, but said such cases are isolated and a part of nature. They said theres no proof to support the argument that wolves are devastating big game herds on a large scale.There is a lack of definitive data on how wolves affect elk numbers. Biologists and game managers say it can be hard to determine whether a wolf killed an elk or fed on the animal after it was already dead.Charles Kay, a Utah researcher who specializes in wildlife ecology, said there have been no comprehensive studies of how wolves impact big game because such a study would be complex, time-consuming and costly.Ed Bangs, who heads the federal wolf recovery effort in the Northern Rockies, said wolves are never the primary factor affecting populations of elk, but can both accelerate declines in an elk herd and slow its the growth.Separate from the move to delist wolves from the endangered species list, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering a rule change that would make it easier for wildlife managers in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho to kill wolves in order to help struggling elk herds.Wildlife managers in Wyoming, which prodded the federal agency for the change, said it was necessary to preserve healthy big game herds. However, conservationists have opposed the rule change, saying it would lead to too many wolves being killed for eating their natural food source.Im frustrated our own wildlife management agency is so prejudiced against predators, said Franz Camenzind, executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.All sides agree that wolves are here to stay and the debate over wolves and big game will be going on for a long time to come.The bottom line is, wolves are here, Wyoming Game and Fish spokesman Eric Keszler said. I think most reasonable people will say we need to have tools available to manage them in the way thats best for a recovered population of wolves but also best for the people of Wyoming.

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