By Alex Sakariassen
February 18, 2016
State and federal wildlife managers in Idaho "removed" 20 wolves from the Lolo region earlier this month in their third round of aerial gunning in as many years. According to communications chief Mike Keckler with Idaho Fish and Game, the control action—executed from a helicopter and paid for by agency license sales—was part of an ongoing effort to reduce predator pressure on elk across swaths of the Bitterroot and Nez Perce-Clearwater national forests.
"That Lolo elk population has decreased rapidly over the last 25 or so years, from over 16,000 animals to fewer than 1,000 today," Keckler says. "And while there are many factors at play, heavy predation on elk cows and calves is the primary factor or reason that is limiting the ability of that herd to begin to regenerate itself."
News of the aerial gunning efforts in the Lolo Zone didn't sit well with the conservation community. Several dozen critics rallied in Boise days after the operation's completion to demand the agency "stop the slaughter." And it wasn't the first time in 2016 that helicopters had landed Idaho Fish and Game in hot water. Last month, wildlife officials admitted several agency personnel made a "mistake" in collaring four wolves in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. The crew was one of several working to capture and collar 60 elk for a mortality study. The operational agreement with the U.S. Forest Service did not include permission to capture or collar wolves.
"What we had there was a failure to communicate to all that were involved the limitations on this particular operation," Keckler says. Officials with the Salmon-Challis National Forest issued a notice of noncompliance to Idaho Fish and Game Jan. 20. Keckler adds his department is trying to determine "exactly what occurred" and will update the Forest Service when it knows more.
The Missoula-based nonprofit Wilderness Watch is one of three conservation groups now pursuing litigation against both agencies over the Frank Church operation. Executive Director George Nickas says the goal is to secure a court ruling that such projects are "unlawful in wilderness." Since wildlife officials "shouldn't benefit from unlawful actions," he continues, the groups will also seek to ban Idaho from obtaining any data from the collared elk and wolves. Nickas ultimately fears the collars could be used to target wolf packs for removal. Keckler says on occasion radio collars will be used "to assist with control actions."
As for the more recent actions in the Lolo Zone, Nickas considers aerial gunning "about as despicable a killing scheme" as wildlife managers could implement. "It's par for the course for Idaho," he says.