BOISE – Idaho closed the first regulated wolf-hunting season in the lower 48 states Wednesday, and state Fish and Game officials are calling it a success.
“I’d be severely disappointed if we don’t have a hunting season next year, because we played by the rules, we worked hard, it’s been a long time coming, and I think we demonstrated that we did a good job with state-managed hunting,” said Idaho Fish and Game Director Cal Groen. “We need a hunting season to manage the wolves just like our other big game animals.”
That decision is up to a federal court, which is weighing challenges to the removal of the gray wolf from the endangered species list – the move that permitted state wolf management including regulated hunts.
Thirteen conservation groups sued over the delisting of the wolf in Idaho and Montana, and while a federal judge in September cleared the two states to hold hunting seasons this year, with Idaho’s opening first, he strongly suggested the groups could win their overall case, which is pending.
“The hunts are not our primary concern – it is the federal wolf management plan that we feel is the most significant threat to wolves in the future, because that allows the states to kill off most of their wolves in the future,” said Suzanne Asha Stone, Northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife, one of the 13 groups. “Even though Idaho and Montana started off conservatively, they are allowed to kill most of the wolves in the future.”
Idaho Fish and Game said the state had a minimum of 843 wolves at the close of 2009, in 94 packs, including 49 breeding pairs. But Stone said the federal plan could allow that to drop to just 150 wolves in the future.
During Idaho’s season, 185 wolves were taken, compared with a limit of 220, though that could change as the season ran through sunset Wednesday and hunters have 24 hours to report their kills. Montana’s wolf season set a limit of 75 wolves. Idaho sold 31,393 wolf tags, all but 684 to Idaho residents.
In 2009, wolves were responsible for the deaths of 385 cattle, sheep, stock dogs and other livestock in Idaho, up from 333 the year before. “We don’t want to take the wildness out of wolves,” Groen said. “They shouldn’t be around towns, they shouldn’t be creating livestock problems and social problems.”
Idaho’s wolf hunting season was divided into 12 zones with specific limits. But some, like the remote and rugged Lolo zone where wolf impacts on elk herds have been a big problem, proved tough hunting.
“In the backcountry, it’s rugged. They’re cunning; they’re smart,” Groen said. “We’ll be looking at other tools.” Those might include changing bag limits to allow a hunter to take a second wolf in a year, partnering with outfitters, trapping, adjusting zone boundaries and possibly allowing the use of electronic wolf calls to give hunters an advantage.
Groen said the Lolo zone historically was one of North America’s premier elk hunting zones with a herd of 16,000 elk, but it’s dropped to just over 2,000. Many issues, including habitat, bears and mountain lions, were involved and are being addressed, he said. “Now we can finally manage wolves – they were unmanaged. They’re the primary reason for mortality now.”
Groen and other Fish and Game officials said the wolf hunt has been good for Idaho and good for wolves, in many cases dissipating hunter anger over wolf impacts on game herds. Idaho’s wolf population, which had been growing at 20 percent a year and is well beyond recovery target levels, has stabilized.
“When you pursue something fair chase, and something very challenging, a respect develops,” Groen said. “We’ve seen that with bears and lions. … There’s a hunting relationship there – very different, very challenging.”
He also noted that legislation passed this year will allow each out-of-state deer and elk hunter to also take a wolf, which could help attract out-of-state hunters, whose numbers have dropped since their fees increased sharply a year ago. The idea that a hunter could come to Idaho on an elk hunt and also go home with a wolf means “we’re special, we’re unique,” Groen said.