Wolves are gaining ground in Idaho’s Panhandle region, where the numbers of the elusive predator are expanding about 30 percent per year.
Approximately 87 gray wolves roam the region’s backcountry, according to state estimates.
Proposed rules for Idaho’s first public wolf hunt in decades aim to keep the Panhandle’s population in that range.
“There’s little doubt that left alone the wolf population would continue to grow for a while,” said Jim Hayden, regional wildlife manager for the Department of Fish and Game in Coeur d’Alene.
But then the wolves might exceed what Hayden calls their “social carrying capacity.” Attacks on livestock and dogs – rare in the region – likely would increase, he said.
To keep the population stable, wildlife managers propose a quota of 25 wolf deaths per year in the Panhandle. The quota would apply to all types of mortality, including hunting, natural causes, accidents or livestock predation control. Once the quota was met, hunting would cease for the year.
“We feel it’s an honest shot at maintaining current levels,” Hayden said.
Wolves tend to be successful breeders, producing multiple pups and relying on the complex social structure of the pack to help rear the young.
Since 2005, the estimated number of wolves in the Idaho Panhandle has increased from 43 to 87. Biologists have documented eight packs and observed seven other groups of wolves. The highest concentrations are along the upper St. Joe River.
Wolves in the region are a mixture of animals, Hayden said. Through radio collaring, biologists know some migrated from Alberta or Glacier National Park. Others are descendents of wolves released into central Idaho during the mid-1990s.
Gray wolves in the northern Rockies were taken off the Endangered Species List in March, opening the door for the first public hunts in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming in decades.
Written comments on Idaho’s proposed hunting rules will be accepted through May 16.
Also planned are meetings in Coeur d’Alene, Sandpoint and St. Maries. Those meeting times and dates have not been determined.
At a May 21-22 meeting, Idaho’s Fish and Game Commission plans to adopt the rules and seasons for a fall wolf hunt.
However, state hunting seasons are being challenged by a coalition of 12 environmental and animals rights groups say it’s too soon to remove federal protections. The groups have filed for an emergency injunction to stop the hunts. A hearing in federal court has not been scheduled.
Keeping North Idaho’s wolf populations at current levels is a middle ground approach for the Department of Fish and Game, Hayden said.
It also fits statewide goals of maintaining a population of 500 to 700 wolves in Idaho for five years.
But little middle ground exists where gray wolves are concerned, acknowledged Hayden.
“Most people want either lots more or lots less,” he said.