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Rich Landers: Wolves always hot topic

Grizzlies and cougars can get our attention, but wolves are the all-stars of whipping up human emotions.

To see them or even just to hear their howling can freeze us with feelings ranging from awe to terror.

They rival Sarah Palin and Barack Obama for their ability to trigger propaganda campaigns, gut reactions and political rants simply by showing up.

I rest my case in the reaction to my Monday column. The story focused on 20 minutes of terror a North Idaho woman experienced as four wolves advanced toward her on a mountain lane.

She was alone as she walked up the 500-yard snow-plugged driveway to her rural home near Tensed. It was dusk and still snowing.

Two wolves showed up between her and her house. Then two more.

The four-pack kept walking toward her – a fact verified by the neighbor who answered her cell phone call, quickly drove to her assistance and saw the story written by the tracks in the new-fallen snow.

Readers made legitimate points before the online discussion on The SR website degenerated to a level that prompted our editors to remove some comments and close the thread to further entries.

Some said the story wasn’t news: People are always running into cougars, bears or even mean dogs. … Wildlife encounters are part of living in this region. … If you’re afraid of critters, you should move into town.

Other readers pointed out that the wolves were probably just doing what wolves do: being naturally curious, checking things out and then leaving with no harm done.

I can’t argue with any of that.

Nor can I doubt that Karen Calisterio was scared stiff to be in that situation alone and unarmed.

I chose to tell the story and let the chips land as they may because the story involved wolves, the region’s most polarizing species.

Objective readers will simply add this to the mountain of information they must assimilate on the issues created by gray wolf reintroduction.

Calisterio’s experience, and others like it, form a milestone worth documenting: For the first time in our lifetimes wolves have begun showing up in our yards.

Wolves were not here 15 years ago. Now they are. And some of them are notably bold.

This is not hysteria. It’s just one more reason to love this place or leave it, or at least to be a little bit cautious.

Experts I’ve interviewed this week said Calisterio did the right thing by not running from the wolves. Instead she backed away as she made calls on her cell phone.

Perhaps she should have raised her arms and yelled at the wolves, but that might not have had immediate results, the experts said.

A close encounter ranks among the most memorable outdoor experiences my wife, daughter and I have experienced together.

But we weren’t alone and the wolves didn’t advance on us. Bold wolves are worth noticing.

A lawsuit prevented the highly regulated wolf hunting season scheduled in Idaho this fall, a situation that’s been cheered and loathed.

I personally have little desire to shoot a wolf. But after interviewing some of the top wolf experts in the world last year, I’m convinced – as they are – that limited hunting would be good medicine for the wolf’s acceptance by our society, and it’s ultimate survival.

Should hunting be allowed for wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains?

Here’s a summary of the answers from leading wolf experts:

“You have to remove the bad apples.”

Doug Smith, Yellowstone National Park wolf project leader

“Wolves are fully recovered in the Northern Rocky Mountain states. It’s important to let the states manage them, and hunting is one of the tools.”

Ed Bangs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wolf recovery coordinator for the Northern Rockies

“I think the wilder we keep the animals, the better it is. One way that’s done is through hunting them.”

David Mech, U.S. Geological Survey wildlife biologist who has worked with wolves for 51 years; founder of the Minnesota-based International Wolf Center

“Hunting wolves is already allowed in Canada. It’s a negative reinforcement that keeps wolves wild and more respectful of keeping a distance from people.”

Lu Carbyn, a leading Canadian government wolf authority, retired

“I have been protecting wolves all my life, but we need a realistic system in order to coexist. I’ve written about the need to shoot a few wolves …”

Luigi Boitani, Europe’s leading wolf scientist, based at the University of Rome

Here on the front line of wolf reintroduction, Chip Corsi, Idaho Fish and Game Department Panhandle Region manager, said there’s been no dramatic increase in reports of close human encounters with wolves. “But they’re happening now, and they weren’t a few years ago,” he said.

He promotes a healthy respect for all potentially dangerous wild animals, including moose. But wolves are a new frontier.

“There’s clearly a concern that if the wolf population growth goes unchecked, the potential for human and livestock interactions will increase,” he said.

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