The Idaho Department of Fish and Game cited unspecified safety reasons for keeping secret a helicopter wolf hunt in the Lolo zone last month.
“Because of safety concerns, the department thought it was best to carry out the action and then notify the public about it,” department spokesman Mike Keckler said.
The department, with the help of federal wildlife agents, shot and killed 23 wolves from helicopters.
It is the sixth time the agency has taken action to kill wolves in the Lolo zone in the past four years, bringing the total number of wolves killed there to 48.
The department announced the control action in a Friday afternoon news release that said the wolves were killed in an effort to improve elk survival in the zone, which includes parts of the Lochsa and North Fork of the Clearwater River basins.
Elk numbers have plummeted in the area over the past 25 years, going from 16,000 in 1989 to 2,100 in 2010. Although changing habitat has been blamed for much of the decline, researchers from the department concluded wolf predation is now the primary cause of elk mortality in the zone.
According to population estimates, there were 75 to 100 wolves in the Lolo zone prior to the 2013-14 hunting and trapping season. The department wants to reduce the wolf population there by 70 to 80 percent. A predation management plan for the area calls for wolf control actions to be initiated when sport hunting and trapping isn’t sufficient to reach the goal.
“It’s just rugged, rough country and sport harvest and trapping efforts remain very low and that is the concern in that country,” said Dave Cadwallader, supervisor of the department’s Clearwater region. “Obviously it’s one of our former premier elk herds, and that is not the case now.”
The department has taken similar control actions over the past four years, including two previous helicopter gunning operations in 2011 and 2012 and three that used trappers. But the latest move was kept under wraps and caught many by surprise.
The Nez Perce Tribe, which helped reintroduce wolves to Idaho and continues to help manage the animals once listed as endangered, wasn’t informed about the operation. Aaron Miles, natural resources manager for the tribe, called the control disappointing.
“We feel like we are probably working backward. It’s unfortunate it has come to this point,” he said.
Wolf advocates had an even stronger reaction.
“It appears to be an all-out war on wolves in the state of Idaho. It’s like watching 19th-century tactics of wolf extermination happening all over again,” said Suzanne Stone, Idaho representative for the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife. “It’s horrific and completely unnecessary. There is just no justification for how deeply aggressive they are being.”
Earlier this winter, the department hired a trapper to kill nine wolves in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area. The Idaho Legislature is debating a bill that would use $2 million to start a wolf control fund endorsed by Gov. Butch Otter.