It was a bitterly cold winter morning when the convoy departed down the remote Forest Service road near Salmon, Idaho. Decades after scientists first called for the restoration of wolves in the region, the first four wolves arrived in Idaho on January 14, 1995, thanks to the Endangered Species Act.
After stopping at the Idaho border for a blessing ceremony from Nez Perce tribal elders, the wolves arrived in a moving van and spent the night under armed guard in an airplane hangar on the outskirts of town amid threats of violence. The next morning we set out in a caravan of heavy duty trucks following behind a large snowplow that cleared our road to the edge of the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness, the largest forested wilderness area in the continental USA.
The journey into “the Frank” that day was perilous. The road was covered in a thick sheet of ice as it edged above the ice-choked but deep Salmon River. We removed our seat belts to reduce the time it would take to swim out of the river if any of our vehicles slid into its freezing waters. The slow crawl down the road took hours of white knuckle driving before we reached our destination: the campground at Corn Creek.
It was peacefully quiet as we got out of the truck. Surprisingly, walking on the road turned out to be harder than driving on it. We all slipped around in walk-skate fashion trying to lift and unload the crates with the four frightened wolves cowering inside their shipping kennels. Before we knew it, it was time to open the doors to history.
In minutes, the first wolf — with her radio collar vividly decorated with the name “Moonstar Shadow” by the students in Idaho’s Blaine County — was bounding her way through the snow. I still remember the look in her eyes as she stopped and turned back to stare at us before disappearing into the woods.
The next wolf, a large silver male, ran about 15 yards before stopping to make his mark on his new world. The students at Lapwai Nez Perce School had decorated his collar with the name “Chat Chaht” meaning “older brother” in their native language.
Then I heard my name called out by the lead biologists on the team. “Suzanne, this one is yours…” he said. I was surprised and then choked up that they were granting me the honor of releasing the third wolf. Her name was spelled out in a colorful design on her radio collar: Akiata. She was a young, black wolf with green eyes, and very reluctant to leave the safety of her travel kennel. But after a few fleeting moments she descended from her kennel and gracefully sprinted through the snow without once looking back. The students of McCall Donnelly junior high had chosen her name and would track her wide roaming adventures through our Track-A-Wolf program.
The last wolf released that day was simply named Kelly, as dubbed by the students of St. Marie’s School in northern Idaho; named after the Kelly Creek area.
After the release we finally had a moment for reflection. Wolves were back in Idaho after being absent for most of the last century. The Frank Church Wilderness was wild again and the forests would soon echo with their ancient, soulful song. It was a very profound and emotional moment, one I will always be grateful to have witnessed. We cried, hugged each other, opened champagne and gave our toasts to the wolves.
Of these four released wolves, three would survive to mate and begin new packs. One would die in a fight with a mountain lion, and one would become the oldest known wolf to live in Idaho, beating the average life span of a wild wolf by almost a decade.
But this release wouldn’t be the last.
There were two more releases over the next year, totaling a founding population of 35 wolves; packs formed and by the first spring, pups were born in Idaho’s mountain regions. Wolf reintroduction in the Frank was an overwhelming success. Over the next decade, the population grew and expanded their range.
But while tourists flooded to neighboring Yellowstone to see wolves, increasing revenue to local economies by millions annually, in Idaho anti-wolf sentiment grew like a popular new hobby in rural communities. Soon, this sentiment was being reinforced by local media as news channels began to broadcast every single known wolf/ livestock conflict. And instead of putting these conflicts into perspective (more livestock are killed by disease, bad weather and even domestic dogs than by wolves), these reports became the basis for publicly damning wolves, undermining their recovery. Sadly, this anti-wolf sentiment began breeding like a virus. It wasn’t long after that the state legislature declared that all wolves should be removed from Idaho “by any means necessary,” even though statewide polling repeatedly demonstrated that most Idahoans wanted wolves restored here.
More than a decade later, despite this animosity toward wolves, the USFWS proposed to remove federal protection from the species and allow Idaho and other states to take over their management. This deal also enabled Idaho to green light the first hunting of wolves in the continental U.S. In 2009, when Idaho Governor “Butch” Otter stated that he wanted to be the first person to legally shoot a wolf in Idaho, the writing was on the wall. The state of Idaho was not willing to manage wolves based on science, and they were not committed to wolf recovery. They wanted to kill them, not manage them.
And kill them they did. Since Congress delisted wolves in Idaho in 2011, more than 1,000 wolves have been hunted, trapped, snared and even gunned down from helicopters. And it doesn’t look like it’s going to stop any time soon. Idaho is determined to drive the wolf population as low as possible.
Just recently, Governor Otter signed a new anti-wolf bill that green-lights unsustainable wolf killing throughout the state. The law establishes a new wolf control board—funded annually by $400,000 from the taxpayers with the sole purpose of killing as many wolves as possible. It is part of a broader effort to reduce Idaho’s wolf population to 150 animals, thrusting the species perilously close to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s threshold for consideration of relisting under the Endangered Species Act. No other species has been purposefully driven down so unsustainably low after delisting. Only wolves.
I’m filled with such deep sadness that these beautiful animals are going to be persecuted to near eradication once again, but I refuse to give into these crippling emotions. It’s not just wolf advocates that have grown increasingly concerned with Idaho’s mismanagement of wolves. Hunters, farmers, and ranchers are coming forward and speaking out on this issue in record numbers. A few weeks ago, I witnessed a young hunter tell the Idaho Fish and Game Commission that he did not support the state’s increasingly aggressive attacks on wolves. A fifth-generation rancher is sending me messages of encouragement and working behind the scenes to create new pressure on ranchers to rethink the stigma placed on wolves and build tolerance for the species. Another woman flew all the way from California, traveling for hours to testify at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s recent hearing to make state officials aware that people across the country won’t stand by and watch this population of wolves be destroyed again. And, just a few weeks ago, I met with the Nez Perce tribal leaders who pledged they would stand beside the wolves and seek to regain protection for a healthy population statewide.
Idaho plans to kill 60 percent of the wolves living in the heart of the Frank Church Wilderness, an area designated by Congress to be set aside as a sanctuary for nature to be “untrammeled by man.” Defenders is in court to try to stop this plan from moving forward, and to make sure that this sort of outrageous abuse never happens again. We are also asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to do an immediate status review on the wolf to analyze the threats to the population.
As I write these words, I know others will step forward and help us find a way to stop this madness – to save these wolves from the ignorance, fear and hatred that the state of Idaho has so deeply embraced. And I am reminded of the words from the wonderful writer Terry Tempest Williams: “We can try to kill all that is native, string it by its hind legs for all to see, but spirit howls and wildness endures.”