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Eye On Boise

Idaho wolf board kept news of Lolo wolf-kill operation from lawmakers at budget hearing on Monday

When the head of an Idaho board charged with killing problem wolves was asked directly by a state senator on Monday how many wolves the board has had killed this year and how much it cost, he wouldn’t say. A day later, officials confirmed the reason for the reticence: An operation is now under way to kill more wolves in the Lolo region of North Idaho, and state and federal officials prefer to keep those operations secret until they’re done.

“At the time, we were trying to keep the Lolo operation under wraps,” Todd Grimm, state director of the USDA Wildlife Services Program for Idaho, told The Spokesman-Review on Tuesday.

Environmental groups spilled the beans late Monday, sending out a press release decrying the aerial shooting operation in the Lolo zone. Grimm then confirmed that the operation was under way, though the Idaho Fish and Game Department still wouldn’t confirm it on Tuesday. Officials also wouldn’t say Tuesday how many wolves have been taken in that operation thus far.

“It gets back to safety,” said Fish and Game spokesman Mike Keckler. “There are strong feelings on both sides when it comes to these control actions. And in order to ensure that they are conducted as safely as possible, we feel it is best to conduct them and then report after the fact.”

Grimm said officials are “absolutely” concerned that someone might sabotage a wolf-control operation if they knew about it before it was over. They’re less concerned about safety issues for people who might be in the area and don’t know the operation will happen.

“If we saw someone on a snow machine back in that back country, we would certainly just steer clear of it,” he said. “These areas are pretty remote, and there’s not a whole lot of human activity during these time frames. Access is pretty limited.”

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, co-chair of the Legislature’s joint budget committee, noted that there’s strong legislative support for the wolf control board and its efforts, but called the lack of answers at the budget hearing “disturbing,” particularly with new information spilling out less than 24 hours later.

“Our citizens rely on candor and honesty,” she said. Without that, “It undermines not only the credibility of the agency that’s in front of us, but it splashes across all government from top to bottom.”

Wolf Depredation Control Board member Richard Savage made the budget presentation for the board, but offered no specifics, either on wolf-control operations or spending thus far this year. Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, asked him specifically how many wolves were killed in 2015 and how much was spent, and “also for 2016 so far,” including “what it cost per wolf.”

Savage deferred to Grimm, who was in the audience at the budget hearing. He detailed the operations during calendar 2015, in which 72 wolves were killed, including 19 shot in an aerial operation last February in the Lolo Region. But he didn’t say anything about 2016. “I don’t know that I’m the best person to answer this question, Madam Chairman,” he said.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter wants a third $400,000 infusion of state funds into the state board next year, even though wolf attacks are down. The board is charged with killing problem wolves that prey on livestock or wildlife; Savage said the $400,000 request for next year is the third installment on a five-year plan.

According to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, there hasn’t been a report of a wolf attack on livestock in Idaho since mid-October. Savage told lawmakers on Monday that a falling number of wolf attacks is a sign that the board’s efforts are working.

 “We feel strongly that the board is serving a need a long time in the making,” he said.

In response to Nuxoll’s question about spending, Grimm said, “We did not break it down by wolf.”

In addition to the $400,000 a year in state general funds, matching funds are provided by the livestock industry and Idaho Fish and Game, up to $110,000 each.

Savage told the lawmakers, “I think that dividing the number of wolves killed by the number of dollars spent is really poor math in this situation. Remember that we are a depredation board. At this point there is no way that we can put a dollar amount on the cost of depredation by wolves in Idaho.” The board doesn’t pay livestock producers for their losses; it focuses on preventing further losses, he said. “We’ve found chewed-up animals for a long time.”

The board’s activities include contracting with USDA Wildlife Services for killing problem wolves that are preying on wildlife or livestock.

 “This past year, they received the fewest number of depredation complaints since 2005,” Savage said. “In my opinion, this is a far better measure of results achieved by the board than how many wolves were removed. If the presence of Wildlife Services in the field results in fewer depredations, then I believe the funding we are putting on the ground is working as intended.”

Still, he said, “Wolves are unpredictable, and can become a big problem for a livestock producer quickly.” So the board’s not requesting any decrease in funding. “I think it’s important that we always have money in the account so that the helicopter can fly.”

At the close of Savage’s budget presentation, amid other unanswered questions, Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, the House co-chair of the joint budget committee, said, “Perhaps it would help if we had more detail on what you have spent to date. … We’ll hope for a little more detail as this work goes forward.”

Grimm said Tuesday that no wolves have been killed under the program in 2016 other than those targeted in the current Lolo operation. “It’s hard to say when the project will be over,” he said. “I had thought that it might be over this week, but I’m not sure that that’s necessarily accurate. The Fish and Game are the ones who are going to decide when the project is over, and it’s going to be them that release the data.”

Grimm said he agrees with Savage that the board’s efforts are working. “We have to go all the way back to 2004 to find a gap that long between confirmed livestock depredations,” he said.

Nuxoll declined to comment.

Keough said the unanswered questions at the budget hearing have “the potential to impact any budget decisions.” She said, “I’m hopeful they follow back up with us and correct their record.”

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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