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Biologist answers FAQ on Panhandle wolves

WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT -- Idaho's new wolf management hunting and trapping plans announced this morning will generate discussion.  To help people sort out the facts, Idaho Fish and Game's Panhandle region wildlife manager Jim Hayden has put together answers to questions he's being asked. 

Read on for some solid background plus insights and updates on the latest plans.

Panhandle Wolf FAQs

Where did wolves come from in the Idaho Panhandle?

In the early 1990s, there were 6 known wolf packs in northwestern Montana, and an unknown number of packs to our immediate north in British Columbia.   Although there were occasional reports of wolves, there were no wolf packs documented in the Panhandle.

Wolves in the Panhandle originated from a mix of dispersers from these packs, and wolves transplanted to Central Idaho in 1995 and 1996.  It’s possible that wolves transplanted into Yellowstone are part of the re-colonization of the Panhandle.  The first documented wolf pack in the Panhandle was in 1998, in the Snow Peak area.  It is likely that dispersal of wolves into the Panhandle from B.C. and Montana is ongoing.

How many wolves are there in the Panhandle?

Our best estimate is that there are currently between 100 and 200 wolves in the region.  At the end of 2010, there were a minimum of 11 packs in the Panhandle.  Based on additional reports and photos from remote cameras, our best current estimate is 15 packs.  Packs generally range average 7 to 8 wolves per pack, with an additional 10-15% not associated with a pack.

Are wolf numbers in the Panhandle increasing, stable, or decreasing?

Increasing.  Since the first pack was documented in 1998, wolf numbers in the Panhandle have averaged a 23% annual rate of growth.  This rate will slow as vacant areas are colonized by wolves, as has been seen in other parts of their range.

How do Idahoans feel about wolf management?

In 2007, the Department conducted a survey to objectively assess attitudes and preferences of a random survey of Idaho residents regarding wolves.  Here are a few of those results:

  • A strong majority of Idahoans felt that steps should be taken to manage the size of wolf populations.
  • The majority of both non-hunters and hunters felt that both hunting and use of trained professionals should be a part of Idaho’s wolf management strategy.
  • A strong majority of Idahoans felt that the 2007 wolf population was either too high or about right; very few felt the 2007 wolf population was too low.

What impacts have wolves had on elk herds to date in the Panhandle?

In most of the Panhandle Zone, calf ratios are solid, ranging from 32 to 39 calves per 100 cows, and conservative cow hunting is resulting in a positive growth of the elk herd.  Wolves are present in these areas, but densities are relatively low (but growing).  Without management of wolf numbers, we can expect an increase in wolf predation, and consequential drops in these elk herds.

The most pronounced impact in the Panhandle has been in the St. Joe and Little North Fork Clearwater drainages (Game Management Units 6, 7, and 9).  Here, we have seen a drop in mid-winter calf ratios from a very solid 40+ calves per 100 cows just a few years ago, to just 12 to 19 calves per 100 cows.  Research in the North Fork Clearwater drainage indicates that these mid-winter ratios likely dropped further to 6 to 10 calves per 100 cows by June, when they became yearlings.  It is likely that the elk herds in these three units are now declining by roughly 15% annually.

What is the objective of managing wolf numbers?

Wolf numbers in Idaho are managed in a balance across a wide variety of needs and concerns.  The state is committed to managing a healthy wolf population sufficient to keep them from being threatened or endangered, while addressing the concerns of Idaho residents for safety and unacceptable impacts to other wildlife and to livestock.  Idaho’s 2002 Wolf Conservation and Management Plan specifies the goals under which wolves will be managed in Idaho.

The state did manage wolves during 2009 by establishing a hunting season.  What were the results of the 2009 wolf season in the Panhandle?

The 2009 season originally was set for Oct 1 – Dec 31, with a Panhandle Zone harvest limit of 30 wolves, intended to check growth in the Panhandle portion of the population.  It quickly became obvious that hunters would not come close to the harvest limit during this time period, and the season was extended by Commission order to March 31st.

Despite the extension, the 2009 harvest was still limited by season length, not the harvest limit of 30 wolves. In all, 27 wolves were taken by hunters, with an illegally-killed wolf added to make 28 wolves.  This harvest slowed growth substantially, but it’s most likely that the Panhandle wolf population still increased slightly.

How many wolves need to be removed from the population during 2011 to keep this portion of the population from growing?

The January 2011 wolf population is estimated at 120 wolves.  In the absence of management, this population is projected at 147 wolves by the end of the year given average conditions.  A harvest of at least 27 wolves therefore is necessary to check growth of this portion of the population.  However, wolf studies across North America suggest that changes in wolf emigration and immigration provide resistance to change, and that it is reasonable to expect a harvest of 40%  or more (in this case 48 wolves) is needed before a wolf population is brought to zero growth.

What hunting season changes are proposed for 2011?

 Season Dates: August 30 – Mar 31st

Although we only have a single year’s experience with a wolf hunting season, we have no reason to suspect different results in the Panhandle during the same Oct 1 – Mar 31 portion of the season.  Based on observed patterns from the 2009 harvest elsewhere in the state, a harvest increase of about 18% can be expected by opening the season earlier, on August 30th.  Thus, the proposed season of Aug 30 – Mar 31 can be expected to result in a harvest of roughly 32 wolves in the Panhandle Zone.  This level of harvest may not allow growth of the Panhandle wolf population, but it would be very unlikely to result in a drop in wolf numbers.

 Allow hunters to purchase two wolf tags per calendar year.

During 2009, hunters were able to purchase one wolf tag during a calendar year (two over the course of the season).  Less than 1% of purchasers of wolf tags harvested a wolf during the 2009-2010 season.  None harvested two wolves.  Allowing two wolf tags to be purchased during a calendar year will allow successful hunters to take a second wolf during a calendar year, but this harvest is expected to be very low.

What is the expected impact of the 2011 hunting season on the wolf population?

The expanded hunting season is unlikely to result in a decrease in the Panhandle wolf population, and may result in slow growth.  Harvest will be monitored closely through a mandatory check, and adjustments can be made quickly if needed.

What trapping seasons are proposed?

Season Dates: Dec 1 – Feb 15th

Based on patterns in Western Canada and in Alaska where both trapping and hunting wolves is allowed, we should expect a trapping harvest of up to 24 wolves in the Panhandle given similar circumstances.  However, Idaho wolf trappers will not be as experienced or numerous as trappers in Alaska and Canada, and they will be limited to 5 wolves per trapper per year (there is no limit in Alaska and most of Canada).

What are the over-arching expectations as the result of the proposed wolf hunting and trapping proposal?

Under the scenario above, about 40% of the pre-season population of wolves in the Panhandle Zone would be removed during the 2011-2012 season.  Under conservative assumptions, this would result in maintenance of the March 2011 (pre-reproductive) numbers.  Under liberal assumptions, this would result in about a 20% decrease in March numbers.

Rich Landers
Rich Landers joined The Spokesman-Review in 1977. He is the Outdoors editor for the Sports Department writing and photographing stories about hiking, hunting, fishing, boating, conservation, nature and wildlife and related topics.

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