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Nez Perce Wolf Recovery has friends & foes

By Crystl Murray

LAPWAI — The Nez Perce call him "He’me." Their past connects with him both culturally and spiritually. He was a keen hunter and, like the Nez Perce, kept a close family bond.

Photo of a wild wolf pup from the
Education Research Center
"He’me" is the gray wolf (Canis lupus) and the Nez Perce continue to honor its past with the animal that once roamed its ancestral homeland. Now the Nez Perce are working to get the gray wolf off the the endangered species list.
During the westward settlement by European-Americans, populations of bison, deer, elk and moose were depleted significantly. Those animals were important prey for wolves. With little alternative sources of food, the wolf began to eat sheep and cattle owned by settlers. In an effort to protect their livestock, ranchers began hunting the wolf into extinction.
Keith Lawrence, director of the Nez Perce Tribal Wildlife Program, said bounty programs offered $20 to $50 a wolf. People shot them and poisoned animal carcasses that the wolves would eat. Millions of wolves were killed.
Under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the gray wolf is currently listed as an endangered species in 48 states. Before 1995, there were few breeding populations in Idaho, but the Nez Perce Tribe has been able to stabilize the wolf population and exercise its rights as a sovereign nation in hopes of de-listing the wolf in Idaho to "threatened." Before 1995 there were few breeding populations in Idaho.
"We wanted to bring them in rather than wait for the lone animals to breed," Lawrence said. He said waiting was too risky and the population had not shown a rise since the ESA federally prohibited the killing of wolves.
In 1995, after the tribe had prepared an Environmental Impact Statement and been granted $300,000 a year from Congress, the Nez Perce were awarded jurisdiction over wolf management in Idaho and began the process of recovery. They co-manage their efforts with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Jamie Pinkham, a member of the tribe, said it is in the Tribe’s best interest to participate in wolf recovery. "The tribe has the opportunity to insure victory with the wolf," he said.
In the first two years of the project, the Tribe has released 35 wolves into the Idaho wilderness. Lawrence called this a "hard release," meaning the wolves are basically released out of a box with no human contact.
All the wolves come from Canada and veterinarians inspect them before they are released here. A dominant male and female usually travel together, have pups the following year and are then considered a pack. The wolves are monitored with electronic tracking devices."
Wolf Recovery Center
Winchester, Idaho

Lawrence said the Tribe estimates there are currently more than 260 wolves in Idaho. He considers this a success and said they will be de-listed in Idaho after only seven years into the recovery.
The Tribe has been recognized nationally for its efforts, including an "Honoring Nations" award from the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development.
The Nez Perce Tribe also works with the Wolf Education and Research Center. Founded in 1990, the WERC was originally based in Stanley, Idaho, and moved in 1996 to Nez Perce Tribal land near Winchester, Idaho. It was there that the WERC opened a visitor’s center in 1997 on land that the tribe owns. It is home to 11 wolves that starred in an Emmy award-winning documentary, "Wolf: Return of a Legend." They were born in captivity and socialized with humans. They cannot live in the wild.
Levi Holt
Levi Holt, a tribal member who works at the center, said the sanctuary gives tribal members a chance to connect with their culture.
The center tries to educate the public about wolf recovery. "Information and education needs to be done to de-mystify the wolf," Lawrence said. However, there are many people who think relocation is a bad idea. Some worry about larger populations attacking livestock. One pack, the Whitehawk, was recently killed after attacking a multitude of livestock, including a 4-H project.
Recently, the Turner Endangered Species Fund, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Defenders of Wildlife, USDA Wildlife Services and the University of Montana initiated a cooperative effort to condition wolves to stop killing cattle. This hasn’t appeased most livestock owners and lethal control has been the answer to most livestock depredation.
Recently, Carter Niemeyer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wolf recovery coordinator for Idaho, came under fire for shooting a pack that had been killing for more than a year. He said he has received many e-mails calling him a heartless killer. Many environmental groups oppose killing the wolf.
Big-game hunters are not necessarily fans of the wolf either. Brian Dunlap, owner of Land Owner’s Cooperative Hunting Club, said he has seen the amount of elk and deer in the Clearwater region diminish yearly since the wolf has been reintroduced.
In February, during the 2002 Idaho Legislature, hunters and ranchers encouraged the state to sue the federal government and have the wolves removed. They argued that it was unconstitutional for Congress to take charge of a state issue.
Instead of taking such drastic measures, the Idaho Conservation League, U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, the WERC and various other livestock and outfitter groups drafted a plan to outline how the state will manage wolves, once they are de-listed.
The plan will allow ranchers to kill wolves that bother livestock and will open a hunting season five years after de-listing the wolves.
Dunlap said that most hunters aren’t excited about wolf hunting season. "I think their theory is sound," he said, "but letting us hunt them isn’t going to have any effect."
The tribe will not take part in hunting wolves. Holt said the tribe will continue to honor their "ancient relationships and understanding with all species."
"Restoring the wolf to its rightful place provides an opportunity for the Tribe to rekindle its cultural ties to the wolf," said Pinkham.
The tribe will continue to exercise its treaty rights and maintain the population.
"What affects them, affects us," said Holt.
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