STANLEY, Idaho -- It used to be you could look across the ridge from Ron Gillett's house and a couple of dozen elk would be foraging for grass. Then you'd hear a scary kind of howling, and the elk would take off, a pack of wolves close on their heels.
It got so that Gillett couldn't stand to see the spindly elk calves fall into the wolves' hungry embrace -- not when hunting elk has been his livelihood for much of his life. He'd get screaming mad at wolf advocates who came to watch in wonder as the packs executed their skillful and deadly dances around their prey.
"When I see a cow elk with her guts hanging out, and a little calf that's been hamstrung -- I know I'm on the right side. No question about it," Gillett said. "These Canadian wolves are the most cruel, vicious predators in North America."
Now the days of talking compromise are over, he said. "We're killing 'em."
After Congress quietly passed a budget rider requiring wolves to be removed from the endangered species list in Idaho and Montana, state officials are preparing to draw up plans for new wolf hunts.
Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, a Republican, just signed an emergency law authorizing him to declare a wolf "disaster." Gillett and others hope that is a prelude to county sheriffs setting up posses to take out wolf packs that have fed on dwindling elk herds.
There has perhaps been no more contentious issue in the modern West than the federal government's reintroduction of wolves 16 years ago into the northern Rockies. Their number has grown to at least 1,700 and sparked fiercely competing narratives of the relationship between ranchers, hunters, wildlife and wilderness.
This month, years of litigation and tense political standoffs concluded in a flash, with a little-discussed rider attached to the must-pass federal budget bill by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho.
The law requires the Department of Interior within 60 days to remove northern Rockies wolves from the endangered species list everywhere but Wyoming, where negotiations continue, and specifically prevents the courts from intervening.
Though conservation groups launched a desperate battle to defeat the measure, "it took everybody a while to realize just how little support wolves had in Congress," said Louisa Willcox, a Natural Resources Defense Council wildlife advocate in Montana.
Idaho officials said they have no immediate plans to exercise the emergency declaration. They said they will likely wait for an organized hunting season similar to one in 2010, when the federal Endangered Species Act designation was briefly lifted and 188 wolves in Idaho were shot by hunters.
But wolf advocates fear that the congressional green light will result in a virtual open season on wolves in Idaho that could kill so many that the animals -- whose population in the state declined 19 percent last year to 700 even under federal protection -- may ultimately be thrown back into danger of extinction.
"It's going to be ugly. They're talking about trapping, baiting, snaring, electronic calls," said Lynne Stone, a representative of the Boulder-White Clouds Council, a wilderness advocacy group in Ketchum. "I'm trying to steel myself for it, figure out how I'm going to handle it. But I'm sitting here feeling like I'm living in a nightmare."
Stone has spent years documenting the movements of wolves in the nearby Sawtooth Wilderness and the mountains around Sun Valley. But these days, there isn't much to see. The Idaho hunt in 2010, combined with road kill and a shooting by federal Wildlife Services agents, wiped out most of the Phantom Hill pack near Ketchum.
Conflicts with ranchers near Stanley had prompted federal agents to take out many of the 13 wolves in the Soda Butte pack there the previous fall, and after hunters shot three more, only one Soda Butte wolf remained. "He's still up there," Stone said.
She has become much more wary about driving out to Stanley, where she once lived. Gillett, who leads a group popularly known as the Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition, was charged with assault in 2008 when he was accused of shoving Stone and grabbing her camera. The case ended in a hung jury.
"We're hoping people can see what kind of circus is going on here," said Garrick Dutcher, spokesman for "Living With Wolves," a documentary film project that captured the rituals and habits of a pack of wolves in the Sawtooth Wilderness. "I'm not aware of any time when an animal was a cause for a state emergency disaster declaration. I mean, that's when the National Guard gets called in, right? It's really just a call to arms, a rallying cry, for wolf haters."
Yet many Idaho residents say elk in Idaho -- a mainstay of the hunting economy -- are down 20 percent. Hunters booking at Gillett's cabins are a fraction of what they once were. Many say it's easier to admire wolves when they aren't stealing through your pastures and driveways at night.
Karen Calisterio told a state senate committee considering the wolf emergency law this month that she was approached in November in her driveway in the northern town of Tensed by four large wolves. "For 18 long, horrifying minutes, I was trapped," she said. "They had plenty of open space to run into in all directions, and yet they kept advancing on me as I was screaming into my cellphone."
That Idaho and Montana will kill wolves later this year appears beyond doubt. The question is how many. That will be determined by state wildlife managers in the coming months.
Conservationists have said there are barely enough wolves now to ensure their survival.
Gillett makes no bones about how many he wants here. "Zero," he said.
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