SEATTLE -- For years, the federal agencies that helped the U.S. wolf population recover under the Endangered Species Act have also quietly killed hundreds of wolves that threaten livestock or prized game.
They've even taken to the skies -- and are considering doing so again.
Officials in Idaho said Wednesday they would consider deploying federal sharpshooters in helicopters across north-central Idaho in the coming weeks to kill up to 75 wolves threatening elk near the Montana border.
But a photograph published by an Idaho conservation blogger this week is raising questions about how quietly and professionally the job is being carried out by the little-known agency that acts as the hired guns for problem wolves in the Northern Rockies.
The photograph, taken in 2006, depicts a U.S. Wildlife Services plane covered with 58 paw-print decals -- one for each of the wolves shot from the Piper Supercub leased jointly by the federal government and Idaho Wool Growers, a nonprofit sheep producer organization.
Federal agency officials on Wednesday confirmed the accuracy of the photograph.
The stickers are reminiscent of the enemy-plane hatch marks painted near the propellers of World War II fighters.
They "represent wolves lethally removed for confirmed depredation on livestock or livestock protection dogs, with permission from the wolf management agency," said Lyndsay Cole, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees Wildlife Services.
She said the stickers were approved by local Wildlife Services management in Idaho but were removed in 2009 after officials "recognized that they would be considered offensive by some individuals."
"We apologize to anyone that may have been offended by the use of these stickers," Cole said.
'The Killer Bee'
The photograph of the sticker-adorned aircraft, published by Ken Cole on the Wildlife News blog, nails down long-standing reports about the plane known popularly in Idaho as "the Killer Bee."
"I think there's a culture within the agency that views wolves as the enemy, and I think putting stickers representing your kills on the side of your plane is a pretty good representation of that," Cole said.
The photo has caused a storm among wolf conservation group leaders, who say it is evidence of a cavalier attitude among federal agents whose aerial operations sometimes leave wolves painfully wounded for days before dying.
"What is the message here? Is this the less desirable part of a Wildlife Services agent's job, or an exciting thrill sport? There are other ways to keep a tally, like an Excel spreadsheet or a notebook. This, on the surface, at least, appears like glorification," said Garrick Dutcher, of the Idaho-based nonprofit group Living With Wolves.
Though wolves reintroduced to the Northern Rockies from Canada were removed from the endangered species list only this year, a crucial part of helping them coexist in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming has been removing those wolves known to repeatedly attack sheep, cattle or prized game populations.
In 2009 in Idaho, Wildlife Services agents "lethally removed" 107 wolves responsible for fatal attacks on 430 livestock and 16 guard dogs. Across the country that year, 480 wolves were killed by the agency.
So far this year, 37 wolves have been killed by Wildlife Services in Idaho, with an additional 13 removed by the state and 162 killed by hunters and trappers.
Idaho Fish and Game officials say they are again considering deploying Wildlife Services agents in aircraft in the Lolo region -- around the Clearwater National Forest between Lewiston and the Montana border -- as soon as the snowpack is sufficient to make wolves easy to spot.
"It's a management method that the Fish and Game Commission decided on earlier this year. They decided that that would be an appropriate tool to use if hunting and trapping were unsuccessful," department spokesman Niels Nokkentved said, adding that no final decision had been made.
Dave Cadwallader, who manages the Lolo region for the department, said elk populations in the region had plummeted to about 2,200, down from nearly 17,000 in 1989.
"It's very apparent that wolves are having a major impact on elk survival and moose survival in the Lolo zone," he said. "The predation and management plan talks about 50 to 75 wolves (that) are going to have to be removed to see any kind of impact."
Wolf conservation advocates say there is no need to use aerial hunting of the wolves, noting that elk numbers began to drop precipitously even before wolves were reintroduced because of diminished habitat.
"Unfortunately, it's become a situation where they're just scapegoating wolves to try to appease the hunters in the area," said Suzanne Stone, Idaho representative for Defenders of Wildlife.
Carter Niemeyer, a former Wildlife Services agent who wrote a book, "Wolfer," about his exploits with the agency, said the decals reflect an unfortunate attitude among some federal agents.
"I worked for that organization for 26 years. I've been judge, jury and in the executioner's seat, and when it was necessary to remove wolves, I tried to do it in the most benign way possible," Niemeyer said.
He said he first heard about the decals more than a year ago and was "dismayed."
"I couldn't believe that my old agency would be doing such a thing," said Niemeyer, a district supervisor for Wildlife Services in Idaho from 1975 to 2000 who later oversaw wolf management for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Idaho.
Yet Idaho residents who assert that wolves have threatened residents and decimated other wildlife say the agency should make no apologies.
"We want these wolves dead," said Ron Gillett, of the Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition in Stanley.