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One week after two gray wolves were shot by federal agents for killing sheep in Idaho, an environmental group is threatening to sue the U.S. Forest Service for failing to place wolf recovery goals above grazing interests.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorized the shooting of two wolves from the newly formed White Hawk Pack on June 29. Wolves from the pack had killed sheep on two occasions on a grazing allotment in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area north of Sun Valley last month.

Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project says the Forest Service is not giving wildlife priority as required by the forest plan for the area. The Watersheds group’s Keith Raether said everybody, including the rancher, knew the wolves were in the area.

“It’s sort of like putting out bait and tempting wolves without thinking about the ramifications,” Raether said.

Including the two wolves killed last week, 17 wolves have been killed in the last two years in Custer County. All but one of the killings were authorized by federal agents.

The White Hawk Pack now stands at two adults, including the alpha female, and nine pups; federal agents believe that the alpha male may have been one of the two wolves killed. Fish and Wildlife is looking at a possible roundup of the rest of the pack for relocation or removal, according to Carter Niemeyer, wolf recovery coordinator in Idaho.

Niemeyer said the wolves killed were lean, which means that those remaining are likely to take what they can get for food. While the sheep have moved to another area, they will be back in next few days. A second herd also will be entering the area frequented by the White Hawk Pack, he said.

“We would anticipate that in the next few days the wolves and the sheep will come closer together again, and I suspect that’s where we’ll have some more problems,” Niemeyer said.

Sawtooth National Recreation Area Ranger Debora Cooper said the wolves killed eight sheep and one guard dog on June 9. Defenders of Wildlife then bought a mobile electric fence to protect the sheep at night. Cooper said that solution worked for about two weeks, but the sheep herders stopped using the fence on June 28. That night, wolves killed six lambs and two ewes owned by rancher Bill Brailsford.

Cooper said the sheepherders have since refused to use the electric fence because of the hassles and costs of trailing sheep back down into the fence each night. Volunteers have offered to help set up the electric pen, she said, “but the rancher doesn’t want volunteers within a half-mile of his sheep, so that’s another obstacle.”

“Technically, the Forest Service has the authority to require the use of the electric fence,” Cooper said. “At this point, we are not electing to require him to use the electric fence. We are just asking him (Brailsford) to use it.”

Brailsford could not be reached for comment Friday.

Cooper said the Forest Service is operating according to the wolf reintroduction plan, which says that no land-use restrictions may be employed outside national parks or wildlife refuges if the number of breeding wolf pairs in Idaho is above six.

The official count last year was nine breeding pairs, but that number does not include other packs that had pups this year.

Cooper said she is unaware of any requirement that wildlife take priority over grazing interests in the Sawtooth recreation area. She said the courts will have to decide the issue if WWP moves forward with its lawsuit.

Lynne Stone of the environmental group Boulder-White Clouds Council says the forest plan for the area specifies clearly that wildlife take priority when conflicts with livestock arise. She notes that Brailsford’s grazing permit includes language that allows the forest officials to require that sheep be routed through different pastures “to avoid areas frequented by wolves.”

Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator in Montana, said the debate over wildlife-grazing conflicts in the Sawtooth recreation area has no effect on Fish and Wildlife’s wolf program, which specifically allows for wolf control when conflicts arise. He said wolves are increasing their numbers and expanding their territory even though some have been killed because of conflicts.

If the Forest Service were able to avoid conflicts by removing livestock in parts of the Sawtooth recreation area, then that might solve the problem, he said. If not, he added, then Fish and Wildlife will continue to remove wolves that prey on livestock.

“If there’s something in Forest Service regulations that says wildlife has a higher priority than other uses, then that is something they have to figure out,” he said. “But that is separate from the wolf issue.”

Raether of the Watersheds group said the organization is hoping that the Forest Service can avoid the lawsuit by employing “clearer-headed thinking” and removing sheep from the area. So far, the agency is favoring sheep over wolves, he said.

“Our stance is that this might well be decided differently in court,” Raether said. “The whole issue really boils down to that classic case of livestock being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Formerly called Idaho Watersheds Project, the Western Watersheds Project has been active in fighting what it considers improper grazing in Idaho. The group has successfully challenged before the Idaho Supreme Court the state of Idaho’s grazing program for giving preferential treatment to existing lease holders; it has threatened to bring similar challenges in other states.

The group holds several grazing allotments that it maintains for conservation purposes without grazing.

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