Fifteen years ago, state wildlife biologists in the Idaho Panhandle treated reports of wolf sightings with cautious skepticism. The animal glimpsed in the shadows was simply unlikely to be a wolf.
That isn’t true today.
In the past 18 months, more than 100 reports of wolf sightings in the five northern counties have been reported to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Dave Spicer, regional wildlife biologist in St. Maries, has little reason to doubt their accuracy.
“It’s really no surprise if someone says, ‘I saw three wolves in Marble Creek,’ ” he said. “They’re out there.”
Approximately 1,500 wolves now roam Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. On Thursday, the federal government announced plans to remove gray wolves in the Northern Rockies from the Endangered Species List. The delisting could take effect as soon as late March.
Idaho is home to nearly half of the wolves in the Northern Rockies – about 730 animals, according to recent state counts.
If wolves are removed from the Endangered Species List as planned, Idaho residents can expect several things: more sightings, if the wolf population continues to expand at a rate of 20 percent a year; a hunting season, which could begin this fall; and plenty more debate over the wolves’ presence in Idaho.
Wolf recovery is one of the most polarizing issues in resource management, said Justin Hayes, the Idaho Conservation League’s program manager. Even environmentalists are at odds over delisting.
Unlike national groups that are threatening lawsuits to stop it, the 9,000-member Idaho Conservation League supports the move.
“Wolf recovery has been a tremendous success and people need to see it as that,” Hayes said. “We look forward to the day when wolves are delisted in Idaho.”
Idaho has managed its wolf population with federal oversight since 2003. Federal oversight will continue for five more years. The states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming have agreed to maintain at least 15 breeding pairs of wolves and 150 wolves per state. If populations fall below those numbers for three consecutive years, the animals again could be protected under the Endangered Species Act.
“Obviously, we’ve promised the state and the nation that wolves are here to stay,” said Steve Nadeau, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s large carnivore manager.
Delisting will allow hunting of wolves in Idaho, a move Nadeau thinks will reduce some of the controversy associated with wolves’ presence.
Idaho’s Fish and Game Commission will meet March 5 and 6 to discuss the proposed hunt, which calls for keeping the state’s wolf population between 518 and 732 animals.
Wolves are such successful breeders that 100 to 300 animals could be taken each year without lowering that number, Nadeau said. Hunting would be concentrated in areas where wolves kill livestock, such as McCall, Salmon and Stanley.
Tags would cost $9.50 for Idaho residents and $150 for non-residents. The commission expects to complete details of the proposed wolf season in May.
The Idaho Panhandle wouldn’t be a target area for wolf hunts. “There’s very little predation in North Idaho because it’s not big livestock country,” Nadeau said.
Wolf populations are also less dense here. About 40 wolves roam North Idaho in eight documented packs, according to Fish and Game figures. Biologists suspect two other packs exist here. In addition, some Montana wolves occasionally venture into Idaho in search of game.
John Nelson, a heavy-equipment operator from the St. Maries area, said a wolf came within 30 feet of him while he was hunting two years ago. Twilight had fallen. Nelson was watching a herd of about 20 elk on a nearby ridge. He said he looked up to see a wolf watching him from the shadows.
“My bugle and the elk’s bugle brought in the predators,” Nelson said.
The elk left in a stampede “that sounded like a tornado,” he said. The wolf disappeared, too, but Nelson waited until darkness fell before hiking a mile back to his vehicle.
The experience helped solidify Nelson’s distrust of wolves. He’s on the board of the Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition, which is leading a petition to remove wolves from Idaho. Supporters are gathering signatures for an initiative that they hope will lead to a vote on Nov. 4.
State officials said any effort to exterminate wolves in Idaho would lead to rapid intervention from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“The feds can step in at any time if we’re not meeting our obligation,” Nadeau said.
But Ron Gillette, an outfitter from Stanley who’s heading the initiative effort, said about 15,000 people have signed petitions. Backers need 45,893 valid signatures by April 30 to get the measure on the ballot.
Wolves are such efficient predators that they’ll decimate Idaho’s elk herds if left unchecked, Nelson said. He called them “addictive sport killers” and said he has pictures of cow elk killed by wolves and left to rot on Shoshone County’s Moon Pass.
Wolves occasionally abandon a kill. “That is documented behavior,” said Fish and Game’s Spicer. But it’s unclear how often it happens or why, he said.
Hunting is quite dangerous for wolves, with the potential for getting kicked and gored, he said. That makes it hard to imagine that they would “willy-nilly kill something,” Spicer said. And even with the increased presence in the Panhandle, hunter success rates have remained consistent at 18 to 20 percent, he added.
Delisting will give the state more tools to manage wolves, putting them on par with other elk predators, such as cougar and bear, according to Fish and Game officials.
While wolf attacks on humans are extremely rare, Spicer said wolf behavior is different from other forest animals. Deer and elk, and even cougar and bear, typically flee when they become aware of human presence. Wolves stick around longer.
“They’re curious. They haven’t experienced hunting. … They don’t seem to be intimidated,” Spicer said.
“But is the person really being stalked, or is the look saying,’Who are you?’ “