SALMON — For the second straight year, hunters participating in a controversial predator hunting derby in east-central Idaho failed to kill any wolves.
Though 30 coyotes were taken at the second annual Predator Hunting Contest and Fur Rendezvous held this past weekend, Steve Alder of Idaho for Wildlife, the group organizing the derby, said the 4.9 magnitude earthquake that struck the Challis area Saturday morning frightened the wildlife.
“I’ve talked to a number of hunters and from what I hear is the animals completely changed their behavior,” Alder said. “We had a tremendous hunt on Friday, but Saturday and Sunday was a different story.”
Hunters in the derby held last year had similar results, killing 21 coyotes but no wolves.
The number of hunters participating this year was lower than last year, with fewer than 100 taking to the fields this weekend.
Alder cites cold weather and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s decision in November to revoke a special recreation permit to allow the derby onto BLM lands as factors for the lower turnout.
“A lot of people felt that when BLM canceled the permit, the derby was canceled as well,” Alder said.
The hunt was held on private ranches and U.S. Forest Service land.
Scourge for hunters and ranchers
Since wolves were re-introduced into Idaho’s landscape in the mid-1990s, sportsmen and ranchers have complained of the scourge the predators have been on livestock, deer and elk populations.
A 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on damages caused by gray wolves indicated that predation was one of the major reasons for the declining numbers of elk in portions of the state, particularly in the Lolo and Selway Elk Management Zones in the Idaho Panhandle.
The same study indicated a steady increase in the number of incidents of wolf depredation on livestock and domesticated animals since wolves were reintroduced.
Between 2003 and 2009, there were 1,824 confirmed wolf killings of cattle, sheep and dogs in the state.
These statistics are why Alder said that Idaho for Wildlife decided to start the wolf and coyote hunting derby.
“We want to protect our livestock and big game,” he said, noting that the federal government killed thousands of problematic coyotes last year. “We eat big game and they have to be protected. It’s simple but it’s the truth.”
He also said the derby was designed to bring youths into the hunting world and educate them on the need to manage predators.
Alder said a father from Idaho Falls brought his two young daughters to the derby this weekend. However, because they were too young to participate in the wolf and coyote hunt, they hunted rabbits instead, making a stew out of the meat.
Does killing wolves actually work?
When last year’s Predator Hunting Contest and Fur Rendezvous was announced, a wave of controversy erupted over whether the derby itself was ethical.
“This is not hunting, it is just a kill-fest with monetary awards,” said Travis Bruner, executive director of Western Watersheds Project. “It’s disrespectful to the land and to wildlife and it’s morally repugnant to a lot of us.”
Multiple environmental groups, including the Western Watersheds Project, have come out in force against the derby. They have filed numerous lawsuits with the federal government over the past couple years to stop the derbies from being held on public land.
Besides the nature of the hunt itself, many of these groups argue that a large-scale predator derby would actually increase the number of wolf-livestock conflicts, as well as damage Idaho’s ecosystem.
A study from Washington State University published last month called “Effects of Wolf Mortality on Livestock Depredations” analyzed livestock predation trends in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
It found that there was a direct correlation between the number of wolves killed one year compared to the number of cattle killed the following year.
Bethany Cotton, the wildlife program director of WildEarth Guardians, said killing the alpha males and females of a wolf pack is one of the worst things a hunter can do, because the younger pups are left without guidance on how to hunt in the wild.
Livestock and domesticated animals then become the easy prey of choice for the inexperienced wolves.
“This study shows that when you engage in lethal control, you increase the likelihood of those younger wolves going after livestock,” she said. “You’re not fixing the problem, you’re just making the problem worse.”
Bruner also said that wolves play an important role in the ecosystem. He said that prior to the wolves being reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park, deer, elk and bison would often stay in one area because they did not have to fear predators.
But with wolves back on the landscape, the ungulate species are forced to stay on the move, thus keeping them from depleting natural resources in one small location.
“Their effect on plant life is more evenly distributed and that cascades down through the entire ecosystem, which benefits all the creatures in the wilderness,” Bruner said.
Ralph Maughan, a professor emeritus of political science at ISU who specializes in public policy regarding wolf management, said local derbies and hunting contests have always been common across Idaho. But he said some things have changed recently.
“The difference is the increased publicity and it’s become a source of social conflict,” he said.
This conflict has emerged as both the pro- and anti-hunting crowds claim they have been subjected to violent rhetoric from the opposition.
A similar wolf and coyote hunting derby is scheduled for Sanders County in northwest Montana on Jan. 16 to 18. However, Alder said the contest was almost canceled last Thursday when the event organizer’s grandson received a death threat.
Alder said he met with the family and encouraged them to go on with the hunt.
“I told him that you can’t let these terrorists win,” he said. “They look for anybody that’s vulnerable.”
But the threats have not just been directed towards those who support wolf hunting contests.
Cotton cites a post on Montana Wolf Hunting and Trapping’s Facebook page on Dec. 29, 2013, that reads: “word has it 21 coyotes 0 wolves and unfortunately 0 WildEarth Guardians were harvested.”
Representatives from both Idaho for Wildlife and WildEarth Guardians condemn all threats of violence.
However, Cotton said she would not even think about going to east-central Idaho to observe the derby firsthand because the rhetoric has been so vicious.
Alder said that security was on hand at last weekend’s derby to protect the participants.
“It’s sad, really,” Cotton said. “I just hope we can have a civilized conversation.”