The killing of three wolves in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area this past week shows just how far the state of Idaho and the secretive USDA killing agency Wildlife Services will go to prop up the public lands livestock industry. There is ample evidence that this industry refuses to coexist with native wildlife.
After wolves killed a handful of domestic sheep that were grazing on national forest lands near Stanley, the killing agents of Wildlife Services were called in at the request of the rancher and Idaho Department of Fish and Game. The first two wolves were trapped in leghold traps, then shot, and a third wolf was killed later by undisclosed methods.
This is yet another example of how federal agencies cater to the livestock industry’s whims at the expense of native wildlife and the American public. The U.S. Forest Service—in permitting domestic sheep operations to graze in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and kill off highly-valued native wildlife in the process—has become complicit in a toxic land-use scheme that violates the public trust, ignores wildlife science, and displays a remarkable absence of a land ethic.
The Sawtooth National Recreation Area is one of the most geographically and biologically remarkable areas in the United States, and it hosts some of the most stunning wilderness outside of Alaska. The area also provides essential habitat for fish and wildlife, including threatened runs of salmon and steelhead, bighorn sheep, and wolves.
Federal law allows for livestock grazing the Sawtooth National Recreation Area on a conditional basis, and only if it does not “substantially impair the purposes for which the recreation area is established.”
Those “purposes” include the “preservation and protection of “fish and wildlife values” and “the enhancement of the recreational values associated therewith.”
Killing native wildlife appease a domestic sheep lessee has no place within this legal framework. The Forest Service nevertheless refuses to consider common-sense restrictions on grazing operations that would reduce deadly conflicts with wolves. For example, the agency has so far refused limit wildlife/livestock conflict resolution to non-lethal methods, an approach that has shown promise in neighboring areas.
Wolves are not the only species put at risk by domestic livestock. Sheep grazing in the mountains of central Idaho also threatens the viability of the nearby East Fork bighorn sheep herd.
Domestic sheep transmit deadly pneumonia to bighorn sheep, and the Salmon/Pole/Champion allotment—where the wolves were killed last week—presents the highest risk of disease transmission of all active grazing allotments in Idaho.
The East Fork herd of bighorns remains far below a viable population level, most likely due to disease. Yet the Forest Service continues to allow domestic sheep grazing on Salmon/Pole/Champion and the neighboring Fisher Creek allotment year after year.
Wildlife Services, Idaho Fish and Game, and the Forest Service have shown time and time again that they would rather perpetuate the “custom and culture” of public lands grazing—traditions that include killing off every living thing that interferes with the grazing permittees’ profits—rather than acting as good stewards of native wildlife, even in places like the Sawtooth National Recreation Area where wildlife and public recreation are supposed to come first. With support from federal land managers, the livestock industry eagerly pursues its own commercial gain on national public lands, pasturing non-native (arguably invasive) species while the native wildlife—from elk to trout to wolves—suffer as a result.
Both gray wolves and bighorn sheep were extirpated from most of their historic ranges by overhunting and, in the case of wolves, government-sponsored eradication efforts that continue to this day. Both species were reintroduced to Idaho with popular support, but recovery efforts have been stymied thanks to conflicts with public lands grazing operations.
Since wolves lost Endangered Species Act protection in 2011, the State of Idaho, in partnership with Wildlife Services, has engaged in systematic efforts to reduce wolf populations on Idaho’s public lands.
Wildlife Services alone has killed 49 wolves in Idaho so far this year, almost as many as the 56 the agency killed in all of 2017, and the State of Idaho is looking to expand these wolf-killing efforts into Idaho’s remote backcountry.
Meanwhile, the Forest Service habitually ignores the impacts of grazing on wildlife, even in areas like the Sawtooth National Recreation Area where wildlife and public recreation are supposed to be top priorities.
These continuing conflicts between ranchers and wolves show that grazing in these remarkable areas is proving incompatible with the Forest Service’s mandate to conserve native wildlife. As this latest tragedy shows, it’s long past time for the Forest Service stop these harmful and unsustainable grazing operations
Federal agencies like the Forest Service are fond of claiming they lack the authority to manage wildlife populations. Yet legal scholars, in a 2017 article in the journal Environmental Law, concluded, “Federal land management agencies have an obligation, and not just the discretion, to manage and conserve fish and wildlife on federal lands.”
This tragic wolf killing shows that it is time for the Forest Service to re-evaluate public-lands grazing operations on the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, and eliminate those that cannot (or refuse to) comply with the National Recreation Area’s wildlife stewardship mandate.
The public lands ranching industry and its government allies are displaying a pathological desire to wipe out any wildlife they consider inconvenient, poisoning rodents, killing beavers, and orchestrating a network of federal and state agencies dedicated to killing native predators.
But a growing body of scientific research shows that exterminating wolves and coyotes doesn’t even reduce the number of livestock losses. If the livestock industry fails to halt its bloodthirsty reliance on wildlife killing, it stands to lose its social license to pasture sheep and cattle on the public lands.
Scott Lake is the Idaho Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to protecting wildlife and watersheds on western public lands. Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and WWP’s Executive Director.