In his hands lay the lives of the animals he loves

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    By Brittany Karford

    Rick Williamson would like to tell of his passion for wolves and his great respect for the animal in front of him ? as he raises the scope of his rifle to his eye.

    But in his position, it?s better to keep his personal feelings to himself.

    As the Wolf Specialist for Idaho Wildlife Services, he carries out all lethal control of wolves in the state.

    ?I try to keep my personal and professional feelings separate,? Williamson said. ?I don?t let it enter in.?

    It is the final rule from Fish and Wildlife Services that he must follow. When wolf livestock conflicts arise and all non-lethal methods have been exhausted, the federal management plan mandates their removal.

    ?The government re-introduced wolves with the implied promise that when the wolf caused problems, the government would take care of them,? said Mark Collenge, the director of Wildlife Services in Idaho.

    Because the wolves in Idaho are part of a non-essential population, in specific circumstances the wolf loses its protection under the Endangered Species Act.

    One confirmed kill is all it takes, but Williamson must verify that himself.

    ?We take a forensic science approach to find out what killed it, or if it died naturally and was simply fed on,? Williamson said. ?It can get pretty complicated.?

    In a process called a necropsy, similar to an autopsy on humans, Williamson examines hair, tracks and wounds, his face inches from the specimen.

    With 25 years of experience working for Wildlife Services tracking bears and mountain lions, he is seasoned enough to know what a wolf kill looks like.

    ?Their [rancher?s] philosophy is they want their livestock and their livelihood left alone,? Williamson said. ?But it?s not the wolves? fault they?re here.?

    He?s often the first one on the scene after depredation has occurred, and usually the first one ranchers vent to.

    ?If we have a rancher who?s dealing with wolves for the first time, they can start getting short-fused,? Williamson said. ?It?s actually one of the challenges I enjoy most.?

    His tactic is to maintain friends on both sides.

    Across the board, those involved with wolves in Idaho say Rick seems to have a personable quality that enables him to do just that.

    ?Rick is one of the best things to happen to wolves in Idaho,? said Jim Holyan, a wolf tracker for the Nez Perce Wolf Recovery program. ?He has the ability to talk to ranchers and get them to see reality. They can get pretty emotional, and justifiably so.?

    As Rick puts it, for the ranchers, losing their animals is like taking their paycheck out of their mailbox.

    ?It gets deeper than that,? Williamson said. ?The stress factor on the animals ? there?s a loss there too.?

    With chronic depredation incidents, that loss can be expensive.

    Rick said the Copper-Basin pack in eastern-central Idaho has taken nearly 100 calves over the last year ? at about $800 a head.

    The future for Copper-Basin pack looks to be the same as that of the Cook pack in McCall, Idaho, who met their demise last year for mingling with livestock.

    ?We?d shot all our bullets, but there?s nothing you could do to prevent them from taking sheep,? Holyan said, who tried rubber bullets, crackershells, guard-dogs and light and siren scare devices ? everything possible to keep the Cook pack out of the herds.

    All nine members of the Cook wolf pack were shot and killed on July 20, 2004.

    ?You probably don?t ever want to talk about how many wolves we?ve killed this year,? Williamson said. ?Depredation this year is through the roof compared to other years.?

    While the total number of livestock fatalities is comparable to last years? numbers, there are now more incidents and more wolves involved.

    ?The depredations were more catastrophic last year,? said Mark Collenge, who gives Williamson the word for lethal control of wolves. ?There were 83 sheep taken in one night, whereas the biggest this year has been 25 in one night.?

    So far, they?ve had to kill 16 wolves this year, just one wolf shy of the most they?ve ever taken, but there?s still a month-and-a-half left in the federal year.

    Not to mention the population of wolves is growing.

    ?We?re in a stage now where the wolves are victims of their own success,? Williamson said.

    The cost to take out a wolf ranges enormously, as the methods vary from trapping and shooting to aerial hunting.

    ?Sometimes you catch em? in the act and take care of it right there at no cost,? he said. ?But you start talkin? helicopter removal and you?re looking at $10,000.?

    The wolves are also becoming harder to locate.

    ?There are less and less radio-collared wolves, which makes it more difficult to find em?,? Williamson said.

    It keeps Williamson running all over the state, especially now in the middle of his busy season, which spans from June to September. He spends more time investigating wolf conflicts across the state than he does at his home in Arco.

    ?It might be hard on my family,? he said. ?I get looking forward to October. This month is especially testing.?

    At the end of the day, Rick doesn?t know if it was better to bring the wolves back or not ? if it was really worth it.

    ?That?s asking me to predict their future, but I just don?t know,? he said. ?To a lot, yes, to others, no ? I don?t think we?ll ever see that change.?

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