After a half-century in the woods, 76-year-old Hugh McKay had hung up his hunting rifle. But he couldn’t resist the opportunity to take aim at a wolf.
The Coeur d’Alene man came out of hunting retirement Monday to join more than 4,000 Idaho hunters in purchasing wolf tags on their first day of sale.
The tags – $11.50 for state residents and $186 for nonresidents – give hunters a shot at bagging a wolf during Idaho’s first public wolf hunt in decades. The statewide quota is 220 wolves, or about one-quarter of Idaho’s wolf population.
Like other hunters waiting to buy wolf tags at Idaho Fish and Game’s Coeur d’Alene office, McKay said he’s worried about the growing wolf population’s impact on Idaho’s storied elk herds.
“We used to have herds of elk so numerous they looked like cattle,” said McKay, who did most of his elk hunting in the Dworshak area. “We didn’t have wolves, but we had lots of elk.”
J.D. Dennis, of Kuna, who bought the first wolf tag at Fish and Game headquarters in Boise on Monday morning, said he initially supported reintroducing wolves to central Idaho.
“Hearing a wolf howl when you’re in the tent completes the outdoor experience. They were here before we were. But now there are too many of ’em,” Dennis said.
When he got his tag, he held it up and shouted to the crowd waiting behind him, “There’s one, guys!” and was met with applause. A man in the crowd shouted back, “Save a hundred elk!”
Monday, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy of Missoula will hear from 13 environmental groups asking for a preliminary injunction to halt fall wolf hunts in Idaho and Montana. The groups filed for the injunction Thursday, as part of an earlier suit challenging the loss of federal protections for wolves in the Northern Rockies.
In Idaho, wolf hunts are scheduled to begin next Tuesday in some zones and Oct. 1 in the Panhandle. If an injunction is granted, hunters may be eligible for refunds, according to the Department of Fish and Game.
Elk hunting is big business in Idaho, making wolves’ potential impact on herds a touchy subject for hunters, who logged a cumulative 600,000 days in the woods last year in pursuit of elk. On average, they each spent $128 a day on items such as food, gas, lodging and guide services.
What riles hunters, said Dwight Crumpacker, of Athol, is coming across elk carcasses surrounded by wolf tracks, where only part of the meat is eaten.
“I do a lot of backcountry hunting up the St. Joe River. I see the devastation the wolves do,” said Crumpacker, who said he counted 22 partially consumed elk carcasses last year during a snowmobile outing.
“Surplus killing” is a phenomenon documented in predators from insects to wolves, said Jim Hayden, Fish and Game’s regional wildlife manager in Coeur d’Alene.
It’s unclear why top predators sometimes kill more than they consume, he said.
Last year’s deep snow and cold temperatures left deer and elk particularly vulnerable to predators, Hayden said. Some of the carcasses hunters spotted also could have been the result of winterkill, he added.
Members of the Sandpoint-based Northern Idaho Wolf Alliance plan to demonstrate against the wolf hunt this week. Group members said the state is moving too aggressively to cull its wolf population.
“What other animal has come off the endangered species list and been hunted at this high level?” asked Stephen Augustine, an alliance member. “Wolves are being hunted … not because it’s the scientifically sound thing to do, but because it’s driven by animosity and ignorance at the political level.”
The demonstrations will take place from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday at Idaho Fish and Game’s Coeur d’Alene office, and at the same time Sunday outside the Bonner County Courthouse in Sandpoint.