Idaho Department of Fish and Game officials say the value of the information gained about wolf pup behavior and survival is worth the slight risk that accompanies handling and collaring the young animals.
“The potential risk to the pups is very low, extremely low,” said Jim Hayden, the department’s biologist for wolves, bears and lions. “This has been documented through prior work with wolf pups.”
But the agency’s pup research isn’t without controversy. Carter Niemeyer – the author of “Wolfer,” a memoir about his years as a government trapper and work in wolf recovery programs – sent a letter to the department, asking about methods, justification and risks.
Niemeyer said he had questions about the potential for increased mortality to the pups from handling and collaring, and whether the human presence causes wolves to abandon their pups or established den sites.
Niemeyer’s known for the number of wolves he’s captured and handled – more than 300. He retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2006, where he was the wolf recovery coordinator for Idaho. He’s currently doing contract work with wolves for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“There’s this perception in Idaho that wolves are expendable animals, and the direction of the Idaho Fish and Game is to manage wolves aggressively,” Niemeyer said. “Wolves are animals that we worked hard to get back on the ground. I think the species should be treated with respect, and not become guinea pigs.”
Idaho has managed gray wolves since 2011, when federal protections for wolves in the Northern Rockies were lifted. Niemeyer’s questions are legitimate ones, and ones that Idaho Fish and Game has studied and addressed, Hayden said.
“Before anyone asked us those questions, we asked them ourselves,” said Lacy Robinson, an agency biologist who’s also involved in the pup studies.
Agency officials reviewed the results of prior pup research in Canada and the Midwest before they embarked on the field work.
Those studies indicated that adult wolves typically moved their pups to a new den site shortly after researchers handled the pups. But the adults didn’t abandon the pups, and the next year, they reused many of the den sites visited by the researchers.
One study indicated a slightly elevated mortality rate for pups handled by researchers when two pups died after their pack moved to a new den site that flooded.
In Idaho, Fish and Game biologists return to observe the den sites after the collaring. None of the pups have been abandoned, Hayden said.
Fish and Game followed guidelines from the American Society of Mammalogists, which recommend that the combined weight of the collar and transmitter is less than 5 percent of a mammal’s body weight. The lightweight collars expand as the pups grow.
Biologists aim for pups that weigh 5 to 10 pounds. The collars are similar to collars used on fawns and young bighorn sheep, Robinson said. Working quickly with wolf pups at the den sites to minimize the length of human contact is a priority, Robinson said. She avoids collaring pups during bad weather to reduce the risk of the pups getting wet and chilled. And she releases the pups back to the den, so they’re easier for the adults to gather up again.
Niemeyer said he hopes that Fish and Game officials are transparent about the results of the pup research, including any related mortality. The results will be included in Idaho’s wolf report, published annually by the agency, Robinson said. They’ll also be reported to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is monitoring Idaho’s wolf management, she said.