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Biologists Prepare for Second Wolf Transplant

November 13, 1995

BOISE, Idaho (AP) _ It didn’t start well.

On Jan. 29, shortly after 15 Canadian wolves were released along the frozen banks of the Salmon River, a female wolf was shot to death out at Gene Hussey’s Lemhi County ranch.

It appeared that she was killed as she ate a newborn calf _ a nightmare come to life for ranchers who had opposed the wolves from the beginning. But U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials later determined the calf was dead before the wolf reached it, and tensions eased.

Now, as the first anniversary of the wolves’ release in the central Idaho wilderness approaches, authorities are declaring their experiment a success. Most of the animals are still alive, in their recovery zone and pairing up.

And authorities are planning to release a second batch.

``All of these little pluses add up to one big success,″ said Ted Koch, head of Fish and Wildlife’s wolf recovery program in Idaho.

``We don’t have a schedule yet, but we’re coordinating with British Columbia to obtain their assistance to gather more wolves sometime this winter,″ he said. ``We can speculate it might occur the same time it did this year, in January.″

That means the wolves are likely be a focus of courtrooms and legislative chambers once again.

``Politically is where it becomes cumbersome. There’s so much emotional baggage attached to wolves on both sides of the debate,″ Koch said. ``Wolves are either a deity or a devil. That’s what drives up the expense and the time and the effort.″

The Farm Bureau Federation unsuccessfully went to court to prevent the first wolf releases, a challenge that still is pending. And the Idaho Legislature refused to allow the state Fish and Game Department to oversee the recovery, abdicating that job to the Nez Perce Indians.

Hussey, the rancher whose dead calf set off the uproar in January, does not concede the success of the wolf experiment.

He notes that wolves retreat to the true backcountry in relatively good weather of spring, summer and fall. It is the coming winter that again creates the likelihood of conflict.

``You have to realize the area the wolves travel to in the winter belongs to two-legged creatures _ humans. It’s just like the deer come down and we have to put fencing around our haystacks to keep them out,″ he said.

``There’s 2,000 of them in Minnesota and they’ve run all the livestock out. They’re death on turkeys. They’re really not an endangered species. I don’t see why we have to have them.″

The new wolves would be captured in British Columbia instead of Alberta where the first ones were taken. The idea is to preserve the Alberta population and the genetic diversity of the American transplants. Fifteen will go to Idaho and 15 to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

The latest overflights have located 10 of the radio-collared Idaho wolves, all in the reintroduction zone. In addition to the one that was killed in January, one has been missing since March and three others since early fall.

Increased flights during this hunting season may turn up the absent wolves. Three wolf pairs remain together in Idaho. Biologists hope they will breed and jump-start new packs.

But the long-term project still hinges on congressional funding. `I’ve heard everything from cutting funding completely to not,″ Koch said.

Wolf recovery has cost $6 million through the first releases and could run another $7 million to complete.

By 2003, authorities hope to have a minimum of 10 packs with 10 wolves each for three consecutive years in each of the three recovery zones of central Idaho, Yellowstone and Montana.

With another reintroduction in 1996, and continued success, the program could end ahead of time and under budget, Koch said. And he sees no reason to believe that farm animals or elk and deer herds will be at risk.

Koch estimates that a fully recovered wolf population would probably consume 1,600 head of deer and elk a year _ most of them dead or dying, while state studies indicate poachers illegally kill 10,000 healthy deer and elk annually.

Most of the Idaho wolves stayed close to their wilderness release sites because heavy snow claimed plenty of game animals and others were in the throes of winter kill.

``So it really couldn’t have happened better,″ Koch said. ``The wolves came into an area with large concentrations of prey. A lot of the animals were already dead so they didn’t have to battle a healthy elk. They were able to just walk up and eat a dead animal.″

Wolf advocates hope the packs can quietly recover their niche in the backcountry without much more fanfare and rhetoric.

``Wolves can do just fine as long as people don’t kill them. That’s the only requirement,″ Koch said. ``Ninety-five percent of what is needed to recover wolves is simply to not kill them.″

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