Forest Service plans to ease limits on killing predators in western US

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The dispute between dominant species over shared habitat in the West is escalating.

On one side are humans expanding their space. On the other are animal inhabitants: coyotes, foxes, and especially the more threatening ones roaming the territory – cougars, wolves, and bears.

The US Forest Service is proposing to relax restrictions on killing such animals in designated wilderness as well as in natural areas set aside for research. This could allow such actions as shooting them from the air and using poison bait.

The changes are just meant "to refine and clarify agency roles and procedures," says Forest Service spokeswoman Heidi Valetkevitch. Published in the Federal Register last week, the proposal emphasizes continued protections for endangered species, and it states that such measures "shall be directed at the offending animal" while not jeopardizing the "viability of predator populations."

The "offending animal" is the one perceived as a threat to people and livestock. But conservationists worry that the new proposal could open the door to targeting recently recovered wolf populations while artificially boosting elk and deer herds in order to appease hunters as well as the state agencies and businesses that rely on hunting for revenues.

"The general concern is that it would so greatly expand all the circumstances under which they could do predator control that, frankly, it's kind of antithetical to our idea of what constitutes wilderness," says Nina Fascione, head of field conservation programs for the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife.

Hunted to near-extinction by the mid-20th century, wolves have made a strong comeback in recent years. This is due to protections under the federal Endangered Species Act as well as the introduction of Canadian wolves to Idaho and Wyoming. Though they still range over less than 5 percent of their original territory in the contiguous 48 states, there now are more than 1,000 wolves in the Northern Rockies region. In Idaho alone, the offspring of 35 Canadian wolves now number more than 500.

Their main prey are wild ungulates – deer and elk. But they have attacked domestic animals as well. Exact figures aren't known, but Defenders of Wildlife oversees a compensation fund that pays ranchers and others who lose animals to wolves. Through 2005, payments were made to the owners of 2,073 animals, including 588 cows and 1,422 sheep.

But that has not satisfied opponents of growing wolf populations. The "Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition" is pushing a voter initiative that would mandate the removal of more than 500 wolves in the state's backcountry "by whatever means necessary."

Earlier this year, the US Interior Department and the state of Idaho signed a "memorandum of agreement" transferring most of the responsibility for managing wolves there from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (which oversees federal endangered species protection) to state wildlife officials.

As one of its first actions, the state proposed killing as many as 51 wolves in north-central Idaho in order to increase the elk herds favored by hunters.

Another concern among conservationists is that ranching interests will prevail in discussions about regulating the number of wolves, cougars, bears, and other predators whose territory increasingly overlaps with that of people.

"The new rule permits collaborative groups to set the agenda of predator control in wilderness," says Erik Ryberg, staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz. "These groups will probably be populated by livestock interests in rural areas."

That would be just fine with Ron Gillett of Stanley, Idaho, head of the antiwolf coalition.

In fact, he says, the Forest Service proposal will make no difference because of the state's rugged terrain and topography. What's more, says Mr. Gillett, Canadian wolves are considerably bigger than wolves that were native to Idaho, making them more of a threat to livestock and wildlife. "There's only one way to manage Canadian wolves in Idaho," he says. "Get rid of them."

In other parts of the West, cougar populations are growing as well. In Oregon, a ballot measure in 1994 outlawed the use of radio-collared dogs to track and tree cougars, which were then shot by hunters. Since then, the state's cougar population has grown from about 3,000 to more than 5,000. The big cats have been spotted in residential areas, including near schools.

Through April of this year, there have been 37 cougar sightings here in Jackson County. Several dogs, cats, and goats have been killed, and horses have been injured. Last week, county commissioners approved a $30,000 budget to hire a federal trapper for the next six months.

In the small town of Ashland, Ore., black bears not only have begun raiding garbage cans in a downtown park but one wandered into somebody's kitchen when the door had been left open for the dog. Garbage cans have been removed from the park, and officials say they hope the summer berry season will convince the bears to stay out of town. If not, and if there is a confrontation with people, they may have to be euthanized.

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