Idaho students speak out after wolf pups named for their school are killed
Clark Corbin, Idaho Capital Sun
Published at | Updated at
BOISE (Idaho Capital Sun) — Timberline High School student Annie Birch Wright felt a connection to her school’s mascot because it wasn’t just another generic animal.
The mascot is the wolf, which led to a real pack of wolves living in the nearby Boise National Forest being named for, symbolically adopted by and studied at the high school.
“It is just a really cool thing to have,” said Birch Wright, who is a member of the school’s TREE Club, which stands for Teens Restoring Earth’s Environment. “It was a way for students to connect with the environment and wild species, especially because it is a wolf, which is our mascot, and because of how big of a role wolves play in our ecosystem.”
Before Birch Wright and her friends attended Timberline, some previous students even got to go on field trips with their teacher and a wolf tracker near Lowman, where they looked for wolves, listened for their calls, analyzed their scat and urine and followed their prints in the snow.
“TREE Club is something that means everything to me,” said retired teacher Dick Jordan, who sponsored the first student TREE Club in Jerome in 1990 and brought the club to Boise High School and then Timberline in recent years.
“We live in a world where kids are disconnected, and you can’t begin to protect anything that you don’t have a relationship with,” he said. “Extracurricular activities like TREE Club give you the opportunity to get involved and active when you’re not stuck in the classroom.”
Because of COVID-19 precautions and this year’s usually cold and snowy spring, Birch Wright hasn’t yet had the chance to go out tracking wolves from the Timberline pack in the Boise National Forest.
Now, she’s worried she will never get the chance to track her school’s pack. Based on information from a wolf tracker, Jordan told the TREE Club members that pups from the Timberline pack were killed in 2021, in the wake of the Idaho Legislature’s passage of Senate Bill 1211.
The 2021 law allows Idaho hunters to obtain an unlimited number of wolf tags, and it also allows the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to use taxpayer dollars to pay private contractors to kill wolves, including on public lands. Also in 2021, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission expanded the wolf hunting season and hunting and trapping methods.
“When our pack was killed, nobody knew about it at first, but when we were told by Mr. Jordan, it took all of our breath away. It hit hard,” Birch Wright said.
In an October 2021 letter to the International Wildlife Coexistence Network, U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Jenny Lester Moffit confirmed Wildlife Services biologists killed eight young wolves (four in Idaho County and four in Boise County) as a means to protect livestock and control the wolf population.
“When possible, (Wildlife Services) prefers to use nonlethal methods,” Lester Moffit wrote in the letter. “However, in some situations — such as that in Idaho — it is necessary to use lethal control methods. While we understand your objections, it is important that our management professionals have access to all available tools to effectively respond to wildlife depredation. As such, we cannot stop using any legal, humane management options, including the lethal removal of juvenile wolves.”
Lester Moffit said Wildlife Services investigations found that, in 2021, wolves killed 108 livestock in Idaho, and Wildlife Services killed the young wolves as part of an effort to push the adult wolves to relocate.
Since learning their pack’s wolves were killed, several Timberline TREE Club leadership officers, including Birch Wright, Michel Liao, Cindy Su and Sasha Truax, have started speaking out, raising awareness of about the role wolves play in the ecosystem as apex predators and calling for additional protections for wolves, including relisting them as an endangered species.
“We need to have people realize the negative effects that come with unregulated killing of such an important species,” said Su, one of the student members of Timberline’s TREE Club.
The students testified at an Idaho Fish and Game Commission meeting last month, wrote letters to President Joe Biden, and Su started a nonprofit called System Green. Liao has testified before the White House Council on Environmental Quality and is tracking data about the location where wolves are killed in Idaho.
Their efforts have led to articles in the Washington Post, the Idaho Statesman and the New Yorker magazine.
Their teachers say a documentary filmmaker is working on a movie about them.
“I couldn’t be more proud of them. They are incredible kids,” Timberline AP environmental science and geology teacher Erin Stutzman said. “As an educator, this is what you want for kids. These are the opportunities that set them apart from their peers. These are the opportunities that are going to catapult them to greatness in the future.”
Wolves are a controversial topic in Idaho, and the debate isn’t going away
Wolves, wolf management issues and conflicts between wolves, livestock and humans are hot button issues in Idaho and across the West, and have been for decades.
“This is an extremely complicated and controversial animal, and if there were easy answers, they would have been found a long time ago,” Idaho Department of Fish and Game spokesman Roger Phillips said.
“As wildlife managers, we are trying to move toward managing the wolf population to be in balance with other wildlife and livestock,” Phillips added.
One of the Idaho legislators who co-sponsored Senate Bill 1211, the 2021 wolf bill, says the state needs to protect livestock such as sheep and cattle, and game animals such as elk, from wolves.
“It is not a matter of we are trying to wipe out all of the wolves,” Sen. Van Burtenshaw, R-Terreton, told the Idaho Capital Sun. “We are managing them and taking care of the problems. That is our design and that is the design of Senate Bill 1211.”
The students disagree with killing wolves, and say that education and awareness are important as they push for wildlife officers to use nonlethal methods of controlling wolves and intervening in conflicts between wolves and livestock or humans.
Liao, one of the student leaders of Timberline’s TREE Club, worries hunters and wildlife services officers will use Senate Bill 1211 and taxpayer dollars to legally kill up to 90% of the wolves in Idaho.
“I used to think wolves were bad because of everything that I had been raised on, but the 90% was shocking,” Liao said.
Opponents of Senate Bill 1211 came up with the 90% figure based on the difference between a wolf population estimate of 1,500 and public statements from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game saying the state is committed to maintaining a wolf population of at least 150 animals. Senate Bill 1211 allows federal and state agencies and private contractors to dispose of wolves when wolf population exceeds recovery goals.
Liao said learning about the wolves led him to TREE Club as a way to get involved and take action. Liao learned from Stutzman and Jordan about the roles apex predators like wolves have in an ecosystem.
Burtenshaw said the SB 1211’s drafters and supporters have never said they wanted to kill 90% of wolves and the bill doesn’t include that language. Burtenshaw said they aren’t out to kill all the wolves, they just want to protect livestock and game animals.
“The effect we’re seeing, honestly, is a (wolf) population that seems to be growing regardless of what we do,” Burtenshaw said.
How Idaho’s Timberline High School ended up with its own wolf pack
Prior to reintroduction, it is believed the last wolf in Idaho was killed in the 1930s after Congress approved funding to pay for wolves to be removed from public lands across the West, according to an Idaho Department of Fish and Game timeline.
In 1994, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission adopted a policy in support of reintroducing an “experimental, nonessential” wolf population in central Idaho. In January 1995, four gray wolves from Canada were released on the edge of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho, and 11 wolves were released at Indian Creek and Thompson Creek on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. In 1996, another 20 wolves were released near the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.
A few years later, Timberline High School opened in 1998. Jordan said he played a role in the wolf becoming the school mascot.
In 2002, Carter Niemeyer, who was then the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s wolf recovery coordinator for Idaho, caught and collared a female wolf and her pup in the Boise National Forest near Idaho City, Niemeyer told the Idaho Capital Sun. Jordan and Niemeyer discussed the school adopting the pack.
In 2003, the Timberline pack’s adoption was recognized, Jordan said. Students decorated collars for the first wolves from the new pack and began studying them.
Niemeyer continued to study and track the pack, sometimes accompanying Jordan and students on field trips. Niemeyer learned about the pack and knew where a den was located.
Reviewing his notes from the field, Niemeyer told the Sun the pack’s numbers fluctuated over the years, from 11 in 2010 to three in 2013. Starting in 2014, he documented evidence of pack activity, saying the number grew to six wolves in 2016, and eight wolves in 2017 and 2018.
Although the wolves’ territory is large, Niemeyer said the Timberline wolves’ dens and rendezvous sites were on public lands, not private lands. He also said the pups were killed on public lands, where sheep were brought to legally graze. The public lands were also the wolves’ home.
“I don’t know how many (members of the Timberline pack) are left, or if there are any left with the hunting and trapping season and the liberal take of wolves there,” Niemeyer told the Sun.
In January, Idaho Department of Fish and Game officials estimated there were 1,543 wolves in all of Idaho during the summer of 2021. That number stayed pretty consistent over the previous two years, when the wolf population estimates were 1,556 and 1,566 wolves. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game population estimate also tallied 300 documented wolves killed between July 1 and Dec. 31, 2021, a figure that includes the Timberline wolves.
Most wolves are killed by hunters and trappers. But the number of dead wolves also includes wolves that died naturally, wolves killed while they are attacking prey or after killing prey, and wolves killed by Idaho Department of Fish Game or wildlife services agents to limit pressure on elk herds, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game says.
A closer look at the Idaho Legislature’s 2021 wolf bill
During the 2021 session, Burtenshaw carried the wolf bill in committee and on the Senate floor. In addition to legislators, Burtenshaw said four or five groups worked on writing the bill, including the Idaho Farm Bureau, the Idaho Cattlemen’s Association and hunting and trapping groups.
Burtenshaw said he got involved with wolf management and co-sponsored the bill for several reasons. He had worked on the Idaho Department of Fish and Game budget in the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee and was working closely with that agency. Burtenshaw is also a rancher, and his constituents and Idahoans living outside of his district alike had called him to ask for help after their sheep or livestock were killed by wolves. For example, Burtenshaw said he met a sheep rancher who uses Great Pyrenees dogs to guard his sheep. Over the past 10 years, Burtenshaw said wolves killed 39 of the dogs and $400,000 worth of sheep. In other examples, Burtenshaw said a rancher in the Boise valley lost 135 or more sheep after wolves got into the flock, while in the Birch Creek area last spring, wolves killed 28 of a rancher’s cattle.
“Just like with the grizzly bear, when we have bad players, there is only so much you can do with that bear in order to cause it to not be a problem bear,” Burtenshaw said. “With wolves, we have the same issue. When a pack gets too large it takes ‘x’ amount to feed that pack, and they have to move, and wolves have large hunting areas. Sheep are susceptible to coyotes, wolves, bears and cougars. All we are trying to do is gain control of the population.”
Wolves are among Idaho’s apex predators
On Thursday, the Idaho Rangeland Resources Commission issued a press release saying two wolves attacked a herd of sheep in the Shaw Mountain area of the Boise River Wildlife Management Area. According to the press release, charging wolves scared the sheep into running off a steep gully, which resulted in the sheep piling up and 143 of them dying.
Shaw Mountain is the southernmost peak in the Boise Mountains and plainly visible from many spots in the city of Boise when looking east at the Boise foothills.
The release pointed out the wolves did not eat any of the sheep, which piled up and suffocated.
Shaw Mountain is part of the Boise River Wildlife Management Area and situated on public lands, where the sheep were grazing legally. The sheep were among 2,500 sheep that crossed Idaho Highway 55 in March to spend the summer grazing throughout the Boise foothills, the press release said.
It is possible to encounter wolves and other animals, including black bears, anywhere north of the Boise River and throughout the Boise foothills, Phillips said.
The incident on Shaw Mountain occurred May 11, Phillips said, and USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Wildlife Services officers investigated the following day. Phillips said the investigation is complete: Wildlife Services investigators found two sets of wolf tracks in the area and met with eyewitnesses who reported seeing wolves in the area that charged at the flock.
The owner of the sheep, Wilder sheep rancher Frank Shirts, is applying for compensation for the sheep, the press release said.
Idaho Department of Fish and Game officials ordered a control action to Wildlife Services on May 13, which authorized agents to find and kill the wolves responsible, said Phillips.
Wildlife Services officers were not able to find or kill any wolves by the time the order expired at the end of May.
“Wildlife Services on several different occasions tried to locate those wolves and did not,” Phillips said.
Predators or not, TREE Club members are opposed to killing the wolves. Jordan, the retired teacher who first sponsored TREE Club, has questions and concerns about the killing of the Timberline pack in 2021 and about reports of wolf attacks on livestock.
“What we are seeing is not wildlife management, what we are seeing is extermination,” Jordan said. “People would be shocked at the millions of dollars we pay publicly to eliminate these amazing apex predators, and not just wolves, but cougars and bears too.”