Deep snow is forcing deer, elk and moose – and the wolves that prey on them – down from the mountains and into the small communities flanking the St. Joe River in North Idaho.
Officials with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game say the wolves’ increased presence isn’t a threat to people, but residents aren’t reassured.
Renee McQuade’s children recently discovered a deer carcass about 200 feet from their bus stop in rural Shoshone County. Three wolves had killed the deer, Fish and Game Conservation Officer Jerry Hugo said.
The incident – no surprise given the heavy snowfall this winter, Hugo said – comes as state officials are finishing a plan to manage Idaho’s wolf population, including a proposed wolf hunting season. The federal government could remove wolves from the endangered species list as soon as this month.
Hugo said he met with McQuade last week and pointed to the deer carcass. “I assured Renee the wolves are after this and not your kids,” he said.
McQuade said she has heard wolves howl and seen them cross the pasture near her Marble Creek home. But the deer carcass her children found hit uncomfortably close to home, she said.
“Anytime there’s a predator in the area, I’m concerned,” said McQuade, who supports the state’s proposed delisting and hunting of wolves.
While lawsuits opposing the proposed delisting are expected to delay the process, some – like McQuade and her neighbors – say it can’t happen soon enough.
“I know wolves are new and they’re back on the scene,” Hugo said, “but it’s just another carnivore, and … if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delists them, we’re ready to start managing them just like we manage mountain lions and black bears.”
Hugo said that he’d like “the rhetoric to simmer down on both ends of the spectrum” and that people shouldn’t fear wolves.
“A lot of people don’t understand wildlife behavior enough to begin with, so they have a predisposed fear of them,” he said. “But they are just as afraid of us as we are of them.”
Because the deer carcass near the bus stop was hardly eaten, Hugo suspects the wolves were spooked off and left.
John and Renee Walters, who photographed the aftermath of the kill, said they see wolves as a threat to the elk population and even small children.
Renee Walters said she spotted a wolf at another bus stop a few years ago. She’s seen others and said one circled her car when she pulled over to look at it – she suspects it was guarding its kill. A dead moose calf was found nearby.
“It’s a daily thing around here, someone finding a dead elk or deer that’s been killed by a wolf or a pack of wolves,” Renee Walters said. Hunters have reported wolves walking through their camps, she said.
The Walters say the deer and elk populations appear to have decreased as more wolf packs have become established in the area. Wolves were reintroduced in Idaho in 1995, and it took a few years before they reached the St. Joe region, east of St. Maries, where much of North Idaho’s wolf population lives.
Preliminary figures from 2007 show five packs in the Panhandle region and two other suspected packs. Six other packs roam in and out of Idaho, officials say.
The wolf population grew at a lower rate in 2007 – 10 percent – than in previous years, said Steve Nadeau, coordinator of the state wolf program. The population had been growing about 20 percent a year. Nadeau said about 76 wolves were confirmed dead in 2007. Federal predator control killed 43 of them after the animals roamed beyond their prime habitat area or because they killed livestock or dogs. Ranchers killed seven wolves, and the others died of various causes.
“Wolves kill deer and elk,” Fish and Game biologist Dave Spicer said. “That’s what they do.”
Conflicts among wolves, ungulates and even humans aren’t unexpected or all that uncommon, according to Fish and Game.