“The Best Of Times, The Worst Of Times”
by Ken Fischman, Ph.D.
Vice Chair & Spokesman
Northern Idaho Wolf Alliance
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” (first sentence in Charles Dickens’ novel, “A Tale of Two Cities.”)
It was the “best of times” because NIWA and other wolf advocates accomplished all their objectives at the Idaho Fish & Game (IDF&G) meeting in Coeur d’Alene, in November. It was the “worst of times” because due to the Commissioners’ actions there, Idaho wolves are now in greater danger than ever.
When I learned that IDF&G Commissioners were holding their quarterly meeting at the Coeur d’Alene Resort, I thought it presented an excellent opportunity for the Northern Idaho Wolf Alliance (NIWA) to present their views on the Idaho wolf hunt face to face with the Commissioners and to learn more about how IDF&G functions. The other NIWA members were enthusiastic about the idea & we gathered allies from Defenders of Wildlife, The Kootenai Environmental Alliance(KEA), and other groups. We made arrangements that we thought would be helpful in making our case for the wolves. As it turned out, we accomplished all of our goals, but learned more about the inner workings of IDF&G than we perhaps wanted to know.
We approached our task in a stealthy manner. Unlike our September demonstrations in Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint against the wolf hunt, we did not advertise our intentions in the media. By operating in this way, we hoped that we would have the advantage of surprise, and also to avoid a counter-demonstration similar to the one put on by a hunter group in September.
We succeeded in both efforts beyond our expectations. We notified media only 24 hours prior to the meeting, thus gaining a virtual monopoly of both print & TV for a few precious hours (However, we made one big miscalculation, which we will avoid in the future).
I was interviewed by KREM TV(CBS, Spokane) on the Sandpoint Long Bridge on my way to the meeting. Forty Five seconds of the ten minute interview (par for the course) and appeared on the 6 and 11 O’clock news shows that evening. Stephen Augustine, also of NIWA, was interviewed at the meeting that evening, and he appeared twice during the next day on KREM. I was also interviewed by Becky Kramer of the Spokesman Review and Kevin Taylor of the Pacific Northwest Inlander. I got the message across about our concerns over the hunt reducing the wolves’ genetic connectivity, increasing inbreeding, and damaging vital migration corridors such as McCall-Weiser.
The first session of the Commissioner’s meeting on Wednesday night was advertised as an open meeting for public comments. NIWA brought eleven people to the meeting, most of whom made comments, and two of whom additionally read comments from others who could not attend. Rich Hurry of NIWA provided one of the highlights when he accused the Commissioners of being a “death panel.” It visibly shook them up. At the time, we did not dream of how prescient Rich’s remarks would prove to be.
Cathleen O’Conner from Coeur d’Alene reminded the Commissioners that the hunting season in some zones extended into the time when wolves are probably denning, thus putting newly-born pups at risk. However, two of the anti-wolf commentators urged the Commissioners to be “extremely aggressive” and “use all the tools in their toolbox” to kill more wolves.
The Commissioners sat around a horseshoe-shaped table and listened, without comment. They struck me as looking quite human, and seemed to be rational, respectful adults. Perhaps they were not as bad as their reputation indicated, I thought. The audience consisted of about 85 people, and 17 of them testified on the wolves. By my count, 13 comments favored the wolves. As far as I know, this was the first IDF&G meeting since the announcement of the wolf hunt, in which wolf advocates were in the majority. We felt elated. We had done what we set out to do. We did not know what was to come.
After the meeting ended, IDF&G Director, Cal Groen suggested that IDF&G game had an image in the public’s eye that was at odds with what they really do, and they needed to do a better “education” job. Stephen and Bill Howell sat down and talked with two of the Commissioners at the hotel bar. Commissioner Tony Mc Dermott, from Bonner County, suggested that he and a staff biologist meet with NIWA members soon to discuss their differences about how IDF&G treated wolves. I do not know how many drinks they had, but apparently they all had a jolly time.
The next day, Thursday, reports were scheduled on IDF&G’s ungulate project by Peter Zager, a staff biologist, and on the progress of the wolf hunt, by Deputy Director, Jim Unsworth. Rich Hurry, my wife, Lanie Johnson, and I, returned to the meeting to hear these reports.
At the beginning of the session, several Commissioners voiced concern at the shrinking hunter base and wondered what to do about it.
Zager’s report, centered mostly on the Clearwater NF elk, with particular focus on the herd in the Lolo zone. There, a change in cow/calf ratios had previously been blamed on the presence of wolves. His presentation was filled with figures, charts, graphs, and tables, some of which were at variance with those I have seen on the IDF&G and US Fish & Wildlife websites. To be fair to Zager, perhaps this was new information, that had not yet been entered. Much of it seemed to show that wolves had played an important, but not the only part, in the diminishing the herds. Zager said that elk in the state are in decline and so is the elk “harvest”, although cow survival in the Lolo had increased.
He also said that IDF&G had a goal of 90% survival rates for elk (but did not explain the rationale for choosing this figure. The wolf survival rate is supposedly 60 – 65 %). It is important to note that Zager also said that the lowest elk survival rate in the state was in Island Park, but that “wolves did not play an important role” there.
I thought to myself, well, perhaps they do have a case. Whatever it is, it is. ( I will try to get the report from him, so that I can examine it more carefully). I could not however, help but notice that their experimental design was faulty. They included two zones in which wolf density was heavy and moderate respectively, but none in which density was light. How can they come to any firm conclusions, when they had nothing to compare with their study regions? Was this a mistake, an oversight, or was it deliberate? Unsworth’s report on the wolf hunt followed. It did not reveal any information that was not already public. Unsworth then stated that wolves would increase in numbers 20% a year without hunting. He has made this claim in the media several times this year (please note: wolf population increase was 8.8% in 2007 and 15.6% in 2008, the last year IDF&G posted figures).
At the end of the presentation, Unsworth said that the scientific staff recommended that the hunting season be extended to March 31, 2010 in three more zones that were not close to the quota originally assigned by IDF&G. Since a March 31 date had been assigned to the Lolo and Sawtooth zones in the original announcement for the wolf hunt, this would extend the season for five out of the 12 zones.
As unsavory and mean-spirited as this wolf season prolongation appeared to us, coming from an organization which insisted that it adhered to science-based policies, we had been prepared for it by previous public remarks made by Unsworth. We were however, not prepared for what happened next.
Two of the Commissioners then asked several Idaho outfitters, who were seated at the table with them, for their comments. The outfitters said that they should kill a lot more wolves. I approached the podium, hoping to read an editorial that had appeared that morning in the conservative Idaho Falls Times-News, deploring the possible season extension. I was physically blocked from the podium by a staff member, who told me that no comments from the audience were allowed. Fruitlessly, I tried to explain that the Commissioners probably were not aware of the editorial.
At that point, I walked out of the meeting room. Other members of our group filled me in on the details of what happened next. Commissioner Randy Budge of Pocatello, son of a cattle rancher, immediately stated that the season should be extended in all zones. There was no discussion, no second (if this was indeed a motion), and Commission members unanimously said “aye.” Thus, ended the meeting segment on wolves.
This extension makes the wolf hunt seven months long, an unprecedented time frame for a big game hunt in Idaho. What makes it worse, is that it overlaps wolf denning season. According to Dr. L. David Mech’s authoritative book, The Wolf (Mech, 1970), breeding seasons for wolves vary with latitude. Although altitude also plays a role, wolves in highest latitudes generally have the latest breeding seasons. Breeding begins in February at Latitude 45 degrees in Minnesota and at Lat. 47 degrees on Isle Royale NP. (Mech, 1970)) Most of Idaho’s wolf population ranges between 43 and 47 degrees. The good news is that Jesse Timberlake of Defenders of Wildlife believes that the majority of whelping in Idaho takes place in April (Timberlake, personal communication, 2009).
Wolf pups are born blind and deaf, with little if any sense of smell, poor ability to regulate their body temperatures, and with motor capacity limited to crawling. Their behavior is also very limited, mainly to seek contact with their mothers. They remain in this helpless neonatal condition for two weeks before they even can open their eyes. (Mech. 1970, & Montana Government Field Guide).
At the very least, pregnant females will be among those wolves killed. IDF&G will therefore condemn many wolf pups to slow starvation brought about by the deaths of their mothers & other key pack members.
The idea of leaving them to starve is one of uncaring cruelty, and would be considered unethical by hunters if it were inflicted on elk. That is why the elk hunting season is in the fall, not the spring.
I exited the building, feeling physically nauseated. The psychologist Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book about the trial of Adolph Eichmann, had famously spoken of “the banality of evil.” I could almost smell the odor of hate in that room, and I had seen the face of evil.