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Sports >  Outdoors

Wolf trapping is a tool Idaho wildlife managers want to keep, but at what price?

UPDATED: Wed., Feb. 20, 2019

Justin Webb poses with one of 18 wolves he's trapped in North Idaho in seven years. Webb is the executive director of the Foundation for Wildlife Management, which pays cash rewards to trappers to kill wolves. (COURTESY / COURTESY)
Justin Webb poses with one of 18 wolves he's trapped in North Idaho in seven years. Webb is the executive director of the Foundation for Wildlife Management, which pays cash rewards to trappers to kill wolves. (COURTESY / COURTESY)
By Rich Landers For The Spokesman-Review

You can earn more than $1,000 for trapping a single wolf in Idaho, but it will cost you.

The traps and gear will set you back a couple thousand dollars and driving or snowmobiling a circuit of more than 50 miles several times a week from November through March gets spendy, not to mention the time.

It could cost friends, too, especially any who think wolves shouldn’t be managed to limit their impacts on big game and livestock.

Wolves are perhaps the most polarizing creatures in North America. Some people deplore the killing of a wolf for virtually any reason. The opposite faction wants them gone. All gone.

Somewhere in between is the Foundation for Wildlife Management (F4WM), which packed a sell-out crowd of more than 600 in the Bonner County Fairgrounds on Feb. 9 for its seventh annual benefit banquet.

Through membership, fundraising and sponsors – including the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation – F4WM offers rewards of $500-$1,000 for trappers who bag a wolf in Idaho. (Fur buyers might offer another $150 for the carcass.)

“There needs to be a balance,” said Kevin Sawyer, a Sandpoint-area sportsman, trapper and banquet co-host. “Wolves are flourishing and big game is hurting, especially in some units.”

“Trapping can be very focused where problems exist,” said Clay Hickey, Idaho Fish and Game Department (IFG) regional wildlife manager in Lewiston. “When dealing with a very smart critter, wolf trapping is a tool we want in our tool box for sure.”

Fourteen years after their mid-’90s releases, wolf reintroduction to the Northern Rockies was declared wildly successful by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials. Management authority was turned over to Idaho (also Montana) with the caveat that federal Endangered Species Act protections would kick in again if wolf numbers dropped below 150.

“We don’t want to get down anywhere near that number,” Chip Corsi, IFG regional manager in Coeur d’Alene, said last month. “I don’t really see any way that could happen.”

Even though Idaho opened wolf seasons for both hunting and trapping in 2011, wolf numbers have continued to increase to roughly 1,000 in more than 90 packs, according to the state Office of Species Conservation.

“Idaho Fish and Game officials have said for several years that wolves occupy virtually all of the available habitat in Idaho north of Interstate 84,” said Justin Webb, a trapper and F4WM executive director.

“Recovery is complete. Wolves should be managed like other wildlife, just like elk are targeted when their numbers get too high in some areas and they start damaging crops.”

The take of Idaho wolves by hunters and trappers has leveled out in recent years to around 300 annually. The split is roughly 50-50, but trappers are more efficient, taking nearly as many wolves while being outnumbered 100-to-1 by hunters with wolf tags in their pockets.

Wildlife Services, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s animal control agency, also targets wolves each year, reporting 83 killed related to livestock depredations in 2018, a record year for Idaho livestock attacks.

The Idaho Office of Species Conservation coordinates compensation to livestock producers related to wolf attacks. In 2018, ISCO reimbursed $166,600 in federal funds for confirmed livestock losses, said Scott Pugrud, administrator. Some producers did not file claims for losses, he said.

In seven years, through 2018, F4WM has paid trappers about $250,000 of privately raised money for harvesting more than 470 wolves, Webb said. The average reimbursement is more than $500. Some payments reach $1,000 for taking wolves in difficult backcountry locations such as the Lolo Zone, where IFG has identified wolf pressure as a reason for severely depressed elk numbers.

“We’re a bargain for the state,” Webb said, “considering that Wildlife Services and the Idaho Wolf Board have been spending $8,000-$9,000 on average to remove a problem wolf when the costs of investigating livestock depredations are included.”

Idaho lawmakers have allocated the state Wolf Depredation Control Board $400,000 a year during a just-ending five-year pilot program. The funding, which likely will be extended at a lower level, pays federal Wildlife Services agents to eliminate wolves caught preying on livestock. The livestock industry and sportsmen, through IFG, have annually chipped in another $110,000 apiece.

Since reintroduction, confirmed wolf depredations in Idaho have claimed more than 700 cattle and 550 sheep, impacting at least 412 different ranchers.

“Wolves are reproducing at a rate of 25 percent each year,” Webb said. “They’re reproducing faster than we can harvest them. The No. 1 killer of wolves is other wolves. Trappers are just a piece of the management.”

Sawyer was among the hunters and trappers who felt obliged to use their skills starting in 2011 to bring burgeoning wolf numbers under control before they decimated Idaho’s prized elk herds.

Wolves should not be protected as game animals, he says. Idaho Fish and Game should reduce wolves to predator status, which would allow hunters and trappers to take them without restrictions.

“Why should I break my neck?” he said. “It’s their job.”

Webb, as the F4WM executive director, takes a different approach. “We work with the state to help manage wolves,” he said.

In addition to paying rewards to wolf trappers, Webb conducts classes to help promote legal and ethical wolf trapping.

“(Webb) works with Fish and Game to try and change policy, while I feel Fish and Game are dragging their feet to stay out of litigation,” Sawyer said.

Indeed, avoiding legal interference is a factor in managing wolves, Corsi and other department managers say, but department staff only suggest rules. The state Fish and Game Commission and ultimately the legislature set rules, such as how often traps must be checked.

The current 72-hour requirement limits trappers from penetrating into backcountry areas, such as the Lolo Zone, where elk recovery is being limited by wolf pressure. The Idaho Trappers Association is lobbying to extend the check period for snares to a week.

“They make the point that an animal caught in a snare is soon dead anyway,” said a Fish and Game commissioner who asked that his name not be used.

Snares are a touchy subject in wolf trapping and wildlife management circles. Made of steel cable, snares are relatively cheap and efficient traps for wolves, but they’re also deadly.

While leghold traps are employed even by wildlife biologists for catching, collaring and releasing wolves unharmed, wolf snares generally kill what they catch, whether it’s a wolf or a bear, cougar, deer, elk, moose calf – or domestic dog.

“I don’t have numbers on incidental catch, but I have some concerns,” said Hickey, the Clearwater Region wildlife manager.

Jim Hayden, Idaho’s statewide wolf biologist, said, “We, and trappers alike, always want to reduce nontarget catch with any form of trapping.”

The biologists had little more to add on the subject and IFG wildlife officials in Boise did not respond to requests for interviews. (This writer’s Freedom of Information Act request for files on incidental catch is still pending.)

But one former IFG conservation officer said he saw enough incidental catch during his career to call for more restrictive regulations on snaring.

“The average sportsman has no clue how many deer and elk trappers are catching,” said Greg Johnson, who retired three years ago after 31 years of enforcing Idaho fish and wildlife regulations in Bonner and Boundary counties.

“There are some good trappers; I worked with a lot of them,” he said. “But we were getting call after call about incidental catch in wolf snares. Some trappers will set dozens of snares at a time.

“One incident in Bonner County which did result in a prosecution involved around a dozen deer and elk that were incidentally caught in snares and killed by one trapper. The trapper’s only crime was that he did not report the catches.

“If Montana can control wolves without using snares, then Idaho ought to do the same,” Johnson said.

Matt Haag, IFG conservation officer who conducts trapline checks on some of the same Panhandle turf that Johnson patrolled, said trappers have been improving.

“Generally speaking, non-target catch is way, way down because trappers are getting smarter on how and when they trap,” he said last month. “Honestly, every trapper I work with absolutely hates non-target catch and they do everything they can to avoid it by moving snares or choosing to use leghold traps.”

Webb said he’s professionally devoted to promoting ethical trapping and personally motivated to target wolves.

“Trapping wolves requires a ton of skill, dedication and persistence,” he said in December, the morning after a 70-mile odyssey of bad roads and foul weather to check his trapline.

Wolves had finally come through a set of leghold traps four weeks after he’d documented them being in the area. “They roam a circuit and it can take five weeks for them to return, and they did,” he said.

“I missed at three different traps by less than 2 inches from the pan. “Deep snow makes it even more difficult to get them to put their foot on the pan and release the trap. It’s frustrating, but we’re generally not allowed to trap in the best times of year.”

Regulations are necessary, Webb said. “But most of the regs are not there for biological reasons. They’re to satisfy groups that do not want wolves harvested.”

F4WM had 1,525 members at the end of 2018. Webb is among 30-35 of the regularly active wolf trappers. In seven years, Webb said he’s spent more than $1,600 in fuel and 280 hours running trap line for each of the 18 wolves he has caught. He knows of only a handful of trappers who come close to their limit of 10 a year.

“Elk aren’t on the mountain tops like they used to be,” he said. They’re down on the ranch lands and farmers fields. So Fish and Game has cow seasons from August to January to satisfy the landowners. That translates to fewer available elk. They would rather stay low and get shot because if they move up they have to face wolves.

“I really want my kids and their kids to hear an elk bugle, go to elk camp and have success. I hear a lot of wolves howling where I used to hear elk bugling.”

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