More wolf sightings are being reported across North Idaho, including near Coeur d’Alene, according to the Idaho Fish and Game Department.
From a distance gray wolves are often mistaken for large dogs or wolf-dog hybrids, but agency biologists believe the latest reports are probably true. Repeated wolf sightings have been reported near Priest Lake, Bonners Ferry and even in Lake Coeur d’Alene’s Wolf Lodge Bay area east of Coeur d’Alene, said Jim Hayden, the Fish and Game Department’s regional wildlife manager.
“It seems to be picking up,” Hayden said of the observations. “What we’re seeing is (wolves) wandering, exploring, looking for new areas to colonize.”
On Monday, the U.S. Interior secretary announced plans to give Idaho and Montana more authority in managing an estimated 700 wolves inside a federally designated recovery area. Wolves north of Interstate 90 are not covered by the plan, but Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne is expected to send a letter to Washington, D.C., later this week asking for statewide control, said Idaho Fish and Game Director Steve Huffaker.
Huffaker said it’s no surprise wolves are returning to the heavily timbered country of North Idaho. The animals have a home range of 350 to 450 square miles, which is not a far hike for a young wolf from an established pack in northwest Montana or Idaho’s Clearwater River region.
“That whole piece of country up there is really just a Sunday walk for a wolf,” Huffaker said.
State management of wolves in the recovery area is scheduled to take effect Feb. 2. The plan gives private landowners and state officials more leeway in killing wolves that attack livestock or kill too many big game animals from a given herd. Huffaker summarized Idaho’s wolf management philosophy as, “Let them be wolves as long as we’re not having conflict. … Wolves will go wherever they go. If they get in trouble, we’ll deal with them.”
Stan Sweet, a 66-year-old hunting guide from Moyie Springs, expects to see trouble soon. The number of wolf tracks and credible sightings has jumped in recent years, especially in the Boulder Creek area about 10 miles southeast of Bonners Ferry, he said.
“They’re showing up just about everywhere now,” Sweet said. “They’re here. It’s just a matter of establishing packs. … I may be an old timer that’s just nervous, but I can see problems coming.”
Sweet is particularly concerned about the long-term prospects for mule deer, which have faced disease and crowding from white-tailed deer.
The last confirmed wolf sighting in Eastern Washington was two years ago near Calispell Lake in Pend Oreille County, said Madonna Luers, spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The radio-collared wolf wandered over from Montana’s Glacier National Park, but left Washington for Canada after a few days. Luers said wolf sightings are on the rise, and state officials expect to see an established pack soon.
“There’s many, many unconfirmed reports,” Luers said. “It’s just a matter of time. We have no intentions of proactively reintroducing wolves, but we know they’re coming and eventually we will have wolves.”
Wolves will eventually return to the landscape and their population size will be dictated by the number of prey animals, said Jon Schwedler, spokesman for the Predator Conservation Alliance, of Bozeman.
“They’re going to fulfill those areas where there’s a vacuum, like mountain lions and black bears have,” Schwedler said.
The Predator Conservation Alliance supports the notion of state management of wolves, Schwedler added. Returning the wolf to its traditional habitat will come with conflicts and local officials are best-suited to react quickly when problems occur. But he also said he is uncomfortable with the idea of wolves being killed for preying on too many deer or elk.
“It seems silly to us … that wolves could be shot or killed or removed for doing what they’re supposed to be doing, which is preying on elk,” he said.
Deer and elk herds are increasing in size in the St. Joe River drainage, which is home to three wolf packs, said Dave Spicer, a state wildlife biologist in St. Maries, Idaho. Most of the good health, however, is due to nearly a decade of easy winters.
The Upper St. Joe and the Marble Creek areas have each had a pack since the late 1990s. The packs contain wolves from the transplanted wolves of Central Idaho, as well as immigrants from the long-established packs of Glacier National Park. Biologists now believe that a third pack with an estimated six members roams the north slope of the drainage, Spicer said.