Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Idaho damages its public image as well as its rural economy

Idaho Statesman - Guest Opinion

January 15, 2014 

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On a crisp December morning at the edge of the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park, a steady stream of cars flowed to a pullout that was filled with hopeful visitors braving frigid temperatures in the predawn light to catch a glimpse of a pair of wolves that had been feeding on a road-killed bison. We were among the fortunate ones who got a parking spot that morning and were rewarded with a view of the wolves trotting along the creek bank in the early morning light, making for a magical, wild sight.
We returned to our car and soon heard a short news report on the wolf and coyote derby to be held in Salmon. A few days later while reading The New York Times, an editorial titled "wolf haters" negatively portrayed Idaho as it described the upcoming wolf derby, as well as Idaho Fish and Game's recent hiring of a professional wolf killer in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. The wolf derby not only infuriates the conservation community, but also many hunters interested in promoting ethical, fair and respectful hunting. The conservation community is questioning the legality of the hired hunter as a possible violation of the Wilderness Act. These recent events resulted in worldwide negative publicity for Idaho and have likely alienated potential visitors. Instead, Idaho could capitalize on tourism dollars by promoting the lucrative wolf-watching industry.
Look at Gardiner, Mont., as an example of a rural community benefiting from the presence of wolves. Just outside the north entrance to Yellowstone, we observed a bustling winter economy, largely driven by wolf watchers staying in hotels, patronizing restaurants and hiring wildlife watching outfitters. Couldn't and shouldn't Idaho foster this sustainable form of tourism in its rural communities instead of creating opportunities for the media to depict a state paralyzed by irrational fear and loathing of a predator that is a natural and important part of the state's ecosystems?
Some folks will cite the damage caused by wolves to Idaho's elk herds and livestock, as well as some who espouse the dangers to life and limb of just having predators in our midst, but consider some information that provides a more balanced view of the role of wolves and other wildlife here in Idaho:
• The amount of compensation paid to ranchers and farmers by Idaho Fish and Game related to wolves has been less than the amount of claims paid out for crop losses due to elk.
• Though wolves are vilified for preying on elk, black bears and mountain lions, whose populations far outnumber wolves, are major predators of elk.
• There are no documented cases of a wolf in Idaho injuring or killing a person. However, the Idaho Department of Transportation reports that since 1997, more than 27 human deaths resulted from vehicle collisions, mostly involving deer and elk.
• Other states have greater densities of both people and predators. Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan have approximately 2,000, 800 and 700 wolves, respectively. Densely populated New Jersey now has approximately 3,500 black bears. Idaho, on the other hand, appears to be fearfully preoccupied with fewer than 700 wolves.
There is a complex picture of how the wolf fits into Idaho. It's unfortunate that recent publicity has depicted our state as intolerant, disrespectful and ignorant with regard to dealing with this animal.
We need to repair this image, investigate additional ways to coexist, determine whether there are opportunities to embrace the wolf-watching economy in rural Idaho, and ensure that a more balanced picture of the wolf is presented to the country and the world.
Broglino is an environmental professional. Spatz is a scientist with the Department of Interior. They live and work in Boise.

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