BOISE, Idaho — Conservation groups in Idaho are speaking out against the "inhumane" killings of eight wolf pups in the wild that were part of a Boise high school's adopted wolf pack.
Following the killings, representatives from several Idaho groups in August sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack asking that he "immediately suspend the killing of wolf pups on all public lands by the USDA's federal agents." The U.S. Department of Agriculture responded last week by saying the agency works to find "practical, humane, effective and environmentally safe solutions to wildlife problems or conflicts," but lethal measures can be necessary.
Advocates said they are shocked and upset the Biden administration would support the killing of the pups, which they said came after complaints from a rancher.
"We are very concerned and believe that the Biden administration needs to step up and reinstate protection, because we know that Idaho, Montana and Wyoming are in an all-out frontal assault on wolves," Dick Jordan, a former science teacher at Timberline High School and presidential science award recipient, told the Idaho Statesman.
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"Something has to be done. It's inhumane, it's unethical and it's not ecologically sound."
In the original letter to the Biden administration — signed by representatives from a number of groups, including the International Wildlife Coexistence Network, Western Watersheds Project, Friends of Clearwater and the Center for Biological Diversity — the groups said they were "dismayed" to learn the USDA's Idaho Wildlife Services federal agents were involved in the killing of the pups.
They said wolves were already "under attack" in Idaho following legislation passed earlier this year that expanded opportunities to kill the animals. The bill removes the 15-per-year limit on hunting and trapping wolves, and allows the Idaho Wolf Depredation Control Board to hire private contractors to kill wolves they believe are threats to livestock or wildlife.
"There is nothing biologically sound or socially acceptable about killing wolf pups on federal lands, especially when wolves are under significant eradication pressure," the letter stated. "Wolf pups pose no threat to domestic livestock — in Idaho, or anywhere in the Western United States."
In response, Jenny Lester Moffitt, the undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs at the USDA, wrote a letter saying that Wildlife Services "prefers to use nonlethal methods."
"However, in some situations — such as that in Idaho — it is necessary to use lethal control methods," Moffitt said in the letter.
"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."
The letter continued: "We assure you that WS personnel work carefully to remove only those animals necessary to protect livestock, other agricultural resources, natural resources, human health and safety, or property."
The eight young wolves were killed in Boise and Idaho counties, according to the letter, and in consultation with Idaho Fish and Game.
"WS determined that removing juvenile wolves would encourage adult wolves to relocate, thereby reducing the total number of wolves requiring removal," Moffitt said in the letter.
Jordan said he was "blown away" by the administration's response.
"It seems like the issue has become so political," he said, "and (Biden) is just not making the right decisions."
Michel Liao, a junior at Timberline High, said it's frustrating to see federal officials say they're doing the best they can for wildlife when they're "failing to see that wolves are so integral to our ecosystem."
Timberline High — home of the Wolves — adopted the wolf pack in 2003 and had been tracking it since.
Liao is a member of the TREE Club at Timberline, an environmental club advocating to save the Timberline pack. The group has created "Save our T-Pack" pages on social media, where members have spoken out against the killing of the school's pack members.
"They are justifying killing these wolf pups as a form of humane management even though these wolf pups pose no danger," Liao told the Statesman. "It's a very dangerous message for the federal government to support the killing of pups that can't defend themselves."
Suzanne Asha Stone, executive director of the International Wildlife Coexistence Network, brought up a number of nonlethal methods ranchers can use, such as making sure they have an adequate number of livestock guardian dogs and using certain kinds of lights that give the impression of human presence.
"It was incomprehensible that these pups had to die," she told the Statesman. "These ranchers are guests on our public lands. … Wildlife deserves to be there just as much as they do, if not more so. It's really tragic."
Jordan said the first goal going forward is to get the federal government to reinstate federal protection for wolves. Authorities are reviewing the potential of relisting gray wolves in the West under the Endangered Species Act.
But the other important step is education, he said.
"People need to understand how important wolves are ecologically," Jordan said.
There is a lot of misinformation about wolves, Liao said. He started learning about the animals in his environmental science class at school, where his teacher talked about the Timberline pack, he said.
"It was really surprising to me that these animals that have been portrayed as killers are just animals," he said. "They're just living, they're not trying to kill things all the time, and so just to see that they're actually pretty peaceful and playful animals … was eye-opening."
Stone said it is also important to do more to understand what coexistence looks like. Using lethal methods should be a last resort, she said.
"This wasn't a last resort. They went to it first and they did so preemptively, and I think that's the part that just cannot be justified," she said. "… They have to do more to change the paradigm in how we're managing wildlife to incorporate these nonlethal approaches so that we can coexist with wildlife."
Using lethal means undermines the health of ecosystems and has severe consequences, she said.
"So the more that we can work with nature, rather than against her, I think it will benefit all of us — wolves, livestock and people in the long run," Stone said.