Michel Liao is the Co-President of Timberline’s Teens Reconnecting to Earth Experiences (TREE) Club. TREE was a recipient of one of the Idaho Conservation League’s Green Backs Mini-grants for the 2022-2023 season which seek to support student-led conservation efforts across the state. As a recipient of the Green Backs program, Michel and other Timberline activists will be at the Idaho Conservation League’s annual Wild Idaho! Conference in May 2023. Michel is also an intern at the International Wildlife Coexistence Network, which helps TREE out with funding, ads, and other projects. ICL’s Youth Engagement Coordinator, Shiva Rajbhandari, sat down to discuss the club’s work leading up to today and Michel’s vision for the future of youth activism in our state.
How did you get involved with environmental activism?
I’ve known about climate change for a long time, but it always felt too daunting to really take on. Where do you even start, you know? It wasn’t until my junior year at Timberline when I was taking AP Environmental Science (APES) that I learned my school had adopted this wolf pack which students had tracked for years, but now the wolves were in grave danger. My teacher invited me to attend a TREE Club meeting. At first I thought it was for tree huggers or something, but as I learned more about the work that my peers were doing, especially around the wolf issue, I realized that I could actually do something. I read No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, which is a collection of Greta Thunberg’s speeches. At first it scared me. I literally had a panic attack in my APES class, but my friends were there to support me and I realized that maybe this was my calling: If we’re not going to do it, then who is? In Idaho, I think it starts with saving the wolves.
What is going on with Idaho’s wolves?
After being hunted nearly to extinction across the country, gray wolves were added to the Endangered Species List in 1974. In the 1990s the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) began reintroducing these animals into the Northern Rockies. The recovery efforts were successful. In 2011, Idaho’s Rep. Mike Simpson inserted language into an omnibus spending bill to end this reintroduction program. He began pressuring the Department of the Interior to de-list the species. In 2019, the USFWS did just that, opening the door for the Idaho legislature to persecute these animals.
In May 2021, Governor Brad Little signed Senate Bill 1211, which allows over 90% of Idaho’s wolf population to be eradicated and authorizes the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) to spend over $1 million to massacre wolf cubs and cull wolf packs. Proponents of the legislation pointed to elk predation to justify the persecution of these animals even though elk populations had only just stabilized largely thanks to the reintroduction of wolves. Others supported the bill to reduce livestock predation, but IDFG is often hunting these animals in areas where there have been no reported livestock losses.
Now, IDFG has released its draft wolf management plan for the next five years and, thanks to our efforts, it does include improvements in population modeling, but it does not adequately consider non-lethal methods as an effective, proactive management tool.
Why is this issue so important?
The way we treat wolves reflects the way we care for our environment. These animals are the gemstones of our state and they are integral to the well-being of the entire forest ecosystem. Wolves care for one another just like humans. They are intelligent pack animals. Ripping pups from their mothers and inhumane revenge hunting of these species is unjustifiable, especially when there are non-lethal options.
What are the non-lethal options for wolf population management?
Recently, TREE had the opportunity to visit the Wood River Wolf Project in the Sawtooth National Forest. There they have the highest-density sheep band in the state. They refuse to use lethal measures to protect livestock, but they’ve lost less than 1% of their sheep to wolves which is 90% less than the statewide average.
Visiting the project site, we saw them use special protective collars for their sheepdogs, fladry (colored flags used to denote fences) and electric fencing to keep predators out, sound boxes that make random noises to deter wolves, and fox lights which make it look like someone is patrolling the flock during the night. Ironically, they also reduce the number of guard dogs during pupping season which prevents protective encounters between wolf parents and dogs. The project has really shown that livestock and wolves can co-exist.
What has TREE done to fight back against persecution of wolves?
We’ve brought national attention to the wolf issue, garnering articles in the Washington Post, The Spokesman-Review, and A Humane World calling for relisting of wolves under the ESA. We’ve written letters to the Biden Administration, Governor Brad Little, and Idaho’s congressional delegation. We’ve worked with the Nez Perce Tribe and the Buffalo Field Campaign and with elementary and junior high kids in the Timberline area to understand the importance of wolves and biodiversity as a whole and to train the next generation of TREE activists. We’ve testified repeatedly to IDFG, calling for non-lethal wolf trapping and management to be considered. Since IDFG data is difficult to access, last year, using data from a Freedom of Information Act request, I personally put together a map of all the wolf killings in 2021 that were paid for with taxpayer dollars.
We went to Washington DC and met with the Department of Interior, Council on Environmental Quality, and USDA staff to urge more federal measures to protect wolves. Right now, we’re working with the International Wildlife Coexistence Network and U.S. Senator Cory Booker on legislation to protect bison, grizzlies, and wolves. Most recently, we submitted a petition to IDFG urging requiring signage around wolf traps. Their decision will be released on March 15.
What have you learned from being involved in youth activism?
It’s hard and sometimes it’s frustrating. Only two of the officials we sent letters to responded: Senator Crapo and Rep. Simpson. Both of them essentially said that we were too naive to understand the nuances of this issue and that they couldn’t help us. That’s not true.
In the movies, youth activism is always portrayed as people protesting together and then something changes right away, but that’s not usually how it goes. It seems like it’s easy to get our voices heard because people like the novelty of youth work; but it’s hard to actually be listened to. Words are rarely paired with action.
One of the bright spots, though, has come from working with Cory Booker. Until I met Sen. Booker, I thought all politicians were corrupt and evil, but it feels like Booker and his staff truly want to build a better world and a better future. That’s one of the reasons I’m thinking about studying environmental science rather than pre-med in college. It’s slow and there’s a lot of roadblocks but we really can make a difference eventually.
Another thing I learned is that there really are two sides of the story. When you care a lot about wolves, it’s really easy to demonize ranchers and hunters, but when you talk to these people, it’s clear that no one wants to kill wolves. People just want what’s best for their families and their livestock. It is hard to be a rancher and hear wolves eating your sheep. Having those kinds of conversations between the conservation community and ranchers is really important because I think we truly can find common ground.
How do you practice self-care and keep yourself in this fight?
I recently read Man’s Search for Meaning by a Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl. His thesis essentially is that through struggle, people find their true meaning. I think that’s something I’ve really internalized: whatever despair I feel, it will get better. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that.
What’s powerful about youth organizing is that it’s regenerative. My friends in TREE are my support group. We motivate each other. We lean on one another. We grow together. I don’t think any of us could do this work alone.
How can people support TREE?
First and foremost, older generations need to put their money where their mouth is and donate to youth-led organizations. None of us are paid for our work. Every dollar toward TREE goes directly to saving the wolves and teaching future generations to care for Idaho’s environment. We also need connections and resources that older organizations have a lot of access to. Intergenerational solidarity is key.
How can people get involved with the wolf issue?
Talk about it! A lot of people don’t know what’s going on with Idaho’s wolves and why it’s important. Our voices have a ton of power and we can turn the tide for good when we organize and grow our base.
Released for public comment, IDFG’s draft wolf management plan is their least biologically-defensible proposal yet. With no credible justification, the plan calls to remove 60% of Idaho’s current estimated population of roughly 1,300 wolves over the next 6 years.
IDFG is responsible to ALL Idahoans to manage ALL wildlife, and this draft plan is proving a miscalculation violates many basic conservation principles. Speak up for Idaho’s wolves by taking action below, and let IDFG know that you do NOT support this plan.
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