Federal wildlife agents shot and killed 14 wolves from helicopters in Idaho’s remote Lolo Zone earlier this month.
The three-day operation, aimed at reducing the number of wolves roaming the backcountry area where elk herds are struggling, was carried out in a partnership between the federal Wildlife Services agency and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
Wildlife managers hope a sustained reduction in wolf numbers will allow the Lolo elk herd, which has been severely depressed since the mid 1990s, to rebound.
“We’d like to see one of Idaho’s premier elk populations recover as much as possible,” said Jim Unsworth, deputy director of the department at Boise.
The department has long had a goal of reducing the number of wolves in the area along the upper Lochsa and North Fork Clearwater rivers, once renowned for its elk hunting.
The agency first sought permission in 2006 from federal wildlife managers to kill 40 to 50 wolves that at the time were still under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. The state failed to win permission then and eventually gave up in favor of seeking the overall delisting of wolves.
Delisting occurred in 2009 and a wolf hunting season was authorized. Hunters killed 13 wolves in the zone that year, far fewer than wildlife managers hoped for.
Following the hunting season, wolves were briefly returned to federal management. They were delisted for a second time in the spring of 2011 and the department quickly approved a control action that resulted in six wolves being shot using helicopters.
Hunting resumed in the fall and trapping started in November. Through Wednesday, hunters and trappers had taken 22 wolves from the Lolo, bringing the total known wolf kills there to 42 and in line with the department’s plan for the area.
Elk herds tanked in the Lolo Zone during the harsh winter of 1996-97. But numbers had been on the decline for many years prior.
Biologists said the biggest problem was a long-term change in the habitat, but they also blamed growing numbers of bears and mountain lions. Hunting seasons on those predators were liberalized and managers expected elk numbers to slowly climb. But the herds continued to shrink and blame was placed on the increasing number of wolves moving into the area.
According to recent studies by researchers from the department, wolves are the primary cause of death in female elk in the Lolo and of calves more than 6 months old. Researchers have said the habitat is capable of supporting far more than the 2,000 elk estimated to be in the area.
Through Wednesday, hunters and trappers had killed 318 wolves throughout the state. Most hunting and trapping seasons end March 31, but wolf hunting will be allowed in the Lolo and Selway zones through June. The department has a goal of reducing the number of wolves in the state, but has not set a target population or limit.
Unsworth said the state would manage wolves to ensure they remain under state authority. Wolves could revert to federal management and ESA protection if numbers dip below 150 animals. The last official population estimate, completed in spring of last year, said there were at least 739 wolves in the state. Unsworth said the state is confident the statewide population was in excess of 1,000 prior to the start of wolf hunting last summer.
Suzanne Stone, of the Defenders of Wildlife at Boise, said the state is being too aggressive in its attempt to reduce wolf numbers.
“That is our concern and it has been all along, that Idaho is focused entirely on killing wolves rather than preserving the species,” Stone said.