Crying Wolf, Calling Bluff

That clicking sound you hear? It's the oiled-steel rotation of an Old West six-gun, the classic signal of a coming showdown, of a gunman idly wheeling the cylinder before putting it to use.

It's been heard all across the West this year, but the sound is getting more incessant. The issue to be resolved in the dust of main street at high noon Whether we get to hunt wolves this fall.

And there's a new wrinkle to the posturing that's been keeping wolves in the news, but out of our crosshairs: An Idaho Fish & Game Commissioner has indicated that he thinks hunters will illegally kill wolves this winter if they aren't allowed to hunt them legally.

"It will either be a state-authorized (hunt) or it will be an illegal one," Commissioner Randy Budge told a group of Western attorneys (www.mtexpress.com/index2.php?ID=2005127242) this week.

It's not spoken of openly, but wildlife officials in Boise, Helena and Cheyenne are worried about the backlash from normally law-abiding hunters if wolves are protected yet again this winter in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. The notion that wolf numbers need to be controlled is so prevalent that if one is killed illegally, the list of suspects would number the tens of thousands.

This week could decide whether the hunt is sanctioned or not. Sometime in the next few days, Idaho is expected to announce its quota for a wolf season this fall, and a lot hinges on the number.

"If Idaho comes up with a conservative quota, then I think we could squeak by," said an official with Montana's Fish, Wildlife & Parks Department. "But if they authorize a really liberal quota, then not only could we get sued again, but a judge could issue an injunction to stop the season."

That would be a travesty, because Montana has already authorized a wolf season for this fall, with the relatively restrained harvest quota of 75 wolves. That's a modest start to manage a wolf population estimated at more than 500 in Montana alone, but at least it would signal to hunters and ranchers (if not to nut-job environmentalists) that wolves could be treated like other trophy wildlife, hunted in a fair-chase season. Montana is on the verge of issuing hunting licenses for wolves, and once that happens, it will be hard to call back the season.

But Idaho is a wild card. Not only does the Gem State have more wolves than the other states (upward of 800 according to some biologists) but the tolerance of its sportsmen has reached the breaking point.

Which brings us back to Commissioner Budge's veiled threat, and the suspenseful clicking sound of that spinning cylinder.