Oct. 30 (UPI) -- A battle is raging in Idaho over whether gray wolves, rescued from the edge of extinction, now are dangerous livestock-threatening predators or a vital part of the natural ecosystem.
In Idaho's "wolf wars," livestock producers say the state's wolf reintroduction program has exploded out of control, but wildlife ecologists say a thriving wolf population is improving wilderness areas.
The state's wolf management program sought a minimum of 150 animals, but some estimate the current number closer to 1,000.
For the first time in five years researchers are trying to count the state's wolves. A high-tech study by Idaho wildlife officials will rely on computer recognition programs.
In Idaho, where many ranchers raise livestock on 11.5 million acres of public lands, wolves are potentially deadly to farm animals and hunting game such as elk and deer.
But ecologists believe wolves play a critical role in a healthy ecosystem as a "keystone species" that maintains the correct balance of predator and prey.
"We're so polarized up here," said Boise resident, author and wolf expert Carter Niemeyer. "Most folks either like wolves or hate them, and you don't see many people changing their minds."
In the 1990s, wolves were listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service introduced 35 wolves from Canada. Another 35 wolves were set free in Yellowstone National Park.
In 2002, state lawmakers called for 10 to 15 mating pairs and their packs. Ecologists thought that number was too low. Wolves were taken off the endangered list in 2011.
By 2015, Idaho's wolf population had grown to between 684 and 786 animals.
'Out of control'
Ranchers say the reintroduction of wolves is a failed and dangerous experiment, Royce Schwenkfelder, chairman of the Idaho Rangeland Resource Commission wrote in a June newspaper column.
Reintroduction of wolves is "an unfunded mandate forced on Idaho by the federal government, and all of the negative impacts are hitting rural people, ranchers, hunters and outfitters, with no end in sight," Schwenkfelder wrote.
Since 1995, wolves have killed more than 980 cattle, 3,150 sheep and 53 guard dogs and caused $1.6 million in damages on 435 Idaho ranches, according to the commission.
To count the wolf population, recognition software will flag game camera images that might contain wolves, said Mark Hurley, the Department of Fish and Game's wildlife research manager.
"We are downloading about 12 million images from 800 game cameras captured every 10 minutes between July 1 and September," Hurley said.
Limited area urged
Idaho ranchers want wolves limited to where few people live -- in central Idaho's 4 million designated wilderness acres and 9 million acres of back country.
Even in the wilderness, wolves are still being killed, often by helicopter.
Idaho Fish and Game has relied on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services to kill wolves, said Talasi Brooks, attorney with Western Watersheds, an environmental advocacy group.
Several environmental groups filed suit in 2016 to halt the state from working with Wildlife Services. The suit claims the agency failed to perform the required National Environmental Policy Act procedures and filed improper environmental impact statements.
"They're only counting wolves now because they want to kill them," Brooks said.
Wild elk populations collapsed to 1,900 from 10,000 in the Lolo Elk Zone, a roadless area in central Idaho near the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. Wolves are seen by hunters and wildlife officials as part of the problem.
Wildlife Services aerial shooters killed 23 wolves from helicopters between 2011 and 2015 in the Lolo zone, the lawsuit alleges.
Shooter turned wolf advocate
Wolf ecologist Niemeyer, now in his 70s, was one of the people who trapped the original Idaho wolves in Canada in the 1990s.
Niemeyer said he has killed more than a dozen wolves from a helicopter, because he also formerly worked for Wildlife Services. He now teaches ranchers about non-lethal wolf measures.
Every winter, agents shoot wolves and coyotes from a helicopter because it's easier to track the animals in the snow, Niemeyer said. A wolf is caught with a snare and fitted with a radio collar, he explained. That wolf leads shooters to the entire pack.
"We call him a 'Judas wolf' because he betrays the presence of the pack members," he said. "There's no fair chase involved. It's a pretty rough go."
Packs of wolves naturally steer clear of humans, Niemeyer said. They hunt and kill large deer, elk and moose. In Yellowstone Park, some wolves have learned to kill bison, he said. Wolves even keep coyotes in check.
But wolves and other large predators will learn to go after livestock if the animals are easy prey in their territory.
"When you turn 300 to 400 cow-calf pairs loose on 10,000 square miles of public land in the summer and don't keep an eye on them, lions and wolves will opportunistically prey on them. There's a human responsibility there," Niemeyer said.
Range riders who check on cattle herds help scare wolves away. Red fabric strips, called fladry ribbons, will temporarily spook wolves from livestock corrals, he said.
In neighboring Wyoming, the wolf wars have been even more extreme.
Thousands of tourists flock to observe the 80 wolves living in Yellowstone National Park. That number fell by almost half due to wolves' territorial behavior and the enthusiasm of Wyoming wolf hunters.
Outside the national park, Wyoming wildlife officials believe there are about 80 wolves left, down from 250 animals a few years ago. Wyoming Game and Fish changed the rules this year to allow a maximum of 34 wolves killed.
Niemeyer said parties on both sides of the wolf wars need to acknowledge that wolves are going to be part of the landscape in the future.
"A lot of people are still in denial. Once wolves get established they're here to stay, unless we do something drastic like use the poisons, guns and snares they used 100 years ago," he said.
"Wolves are going to go where there is abundant prey, and farmers and ranchers can take preventive steps to stop that."