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Critics say Idaho bill would kill 90% of wolves. Hunters, wildlife experts have other worries

A wolf leaps across a road in 1995 into the wilds of central Idaho. On Tuesday, the Idaho House approved legislation allowing the state to hire private contractors and expand methods to kill wolves roaming Idaho, a measure that could cut the wolf population by 90%.  (Doug Pizac)
By Nicole Blanchard The Idaho Statesman

BOISE – “We need to talk about what’s happening in Idaho,” announces Wren Woodson, her face greenscreened over an image of a wolf in snow.

Woodson, who describes herself on TikTok as a Wisconsin-based “journalist & wildlife enthusiast,” has gone viral on the social media platform with a video posted earlier this week, captioned “Idaho’s Wolf Killing Bill.” In the short video, which has been watched more than 250,000 times, Woodson points to headlines from The New York Times and The Associated Press as she tells viewers that Idaho plans to kill 90% of its wolf population.

“Many environmentalists are concerned that such a drastic decrease of 90% might imbalance the ecosystem since wolves are a critical keystone species,” Woodson says in the video.

Thousands of comments on the video also decry the legislation, which originated in the Idaho Senate about a week ago and has since passed the House and Senate. Next it heads to Gov. Brad Little’s desk. Woodson’s TikTok profile links to a petition titled “protect wolf populations in Idaho” that had more than 7,000 signatures by Thursday evening.

While much of the alarm on social media is over the claims that 90% of Idaho’s wolves will perish if the bill becomes law, numerous Idaho hunting groups and wildlife experts say that’s not likely to happen. They have a different concern with the bill – that it could set a dangerous precedent letting legislators, not Idaho’s Fish and Game Commission, set hunting and trapping seasons and rules, and could even set the stage for management of Idaho’s wolf population to go back into the hands of the federal government.

The aim of Idaho’s wolf bill

Senate Bill 1211 does open a door to the much-cited 90% decrease in Idaho’s wolf population. The bill would remove the current 15-per-year limit on hunting and trapping wolves, and extend the trapping season on private land to run yearlong. It also would allow the Idaho Wolf Depredation Control Board to hire private contractors to kill wolves they deem a threat to livestock or, as part of the new provision, wildlife.

All of those activities would remain legal as long as the state’s wolf population stays above its wolf conservation and management minimum of roughly 150 animals. Should the population dip below that number, wolves could return to the endangered species list and their management would return to the federal government. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game estimates there are roughly 1,500 wolves statewide.

Roger Phillips, spokesman for Fish and Game, told the Statesman in an email that hunters rarely meet the state’s 15-wolf tag limit. In 2018, only one individual took more than 10 wolves. That number rose to six individuals with more than 10 wolves in 2019, and one individual took 20 wolves via a combination of hunting and trapping.

In the 2020 season, which has not yet concluded, three individuals have taken more than 10 wolves, and the highest number of wolves taken by a single individual is 13.

Sen. Mark Harris, R-Soda Springs, said he believes the wolf population would hover around 1,000 even if the bill becomes law. Similarly, Brian Brooks, director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation, said it’s unlikely the state’s wolf population would whittle down to its minimum quickly, if at all.

“The intent of the legislation … is that we need to get closer to that (minimum) level,” Brooks said in a phone interview. “It will not get us to that level, despite what most people seem to think.”

Even the bill’s sponsor, Van Burtenshaw, R-Terreton, said he wasn’t certain what impact the bill could have on the state’s wolf population. Instead, Burtenshaw said the purpose is to stop wolf depredations on livestock. He said that between 2015 and 2020, wolves killed 753 cattle, 952 sheep and 54 other animals. That represents a loss of less than 1% of Idaho’s estimated 2.5 million cows and calves.

For hunters, wildlife experts, concern is over management

Brooks said the Idaho Wildlife Federation supports wolf harvest. His concern is with the precedent the bill sets for allowing the Idaho Legislature or voters to manage wildlife, a task specifically designated to the Fish and Game Commission.

“We all need to understand that managing wildlife needs to be guided by science-based decisions,” Brooks said. “Those are thrown out the window when we favor these political decisions being made either by voters or legislators.”

Brooks said commissions like Idaho’s swept the nation in the 1930s after poor management of wildlife nearly destroyed animal populations.

“Managing wildlife by ballot box biology – voter initiatives – or by legislation does not tend to ever work out well for wildlife,” he said. “Voters and legislators are not scientists. They do not have all the ready data. They are influenced by arguments, (and) by donors and special interests.”

Ed Schriever, director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, testified before the House Resources panel on April 22 in his capacity as secretary of the Fish and Game Commission. He said the commission shares the bill’s stated goal – to reduce Idaho’s wolf population, as well as depredation on livestock and negative impacts on wildlife.

But he said parts of the legislation tread on the commission’s purpose.

“The proposed amendments … represent a significant downside to the state’s ability to manage our wildlife responsibly,” Schriever read from a written statement. “Accordingly, the commission has adopted the position to not support Senate Bill 1211.”

Schriever said the Legislature lacks the ability to address wildlife management issues as nimbly as the committee, which meets year-round rather than at the start of each year.

Ted Koch, the Boise-based chair of the Backcountry Hunters & Anglers North American board of directors, said the Idaho chapter of the organization also opposes the bill.

“Idaho Backcountry Hunters & Anglers strongly supports the authority of the Idaho Fish and Game Commission to manage all wildlife populations, set harvest and population objectives and regulate method of take and the application of management tools, including hunting and trapping,” Koch said. “BHA does not endorse advancing wildlife management policies and decisions by legislation or voter referendum, including Idaho Senate Bill 1211.

“Idahoans established the Fish and Game Commission by public initiative in 1938 in order to ensure that wildlife management is guided by science over politics and that the professionals entrusted with directing important decisions regarding Idaho’s remarkable fish and wildlife resources are empowered to do so. We encourage the legislature to keep the state’s promise to the people and defer important management decisions to the commission and Idaho Fish and Game biologists.”

Wolf bill stokes fears over federal influence

Some opponents of SB1211 have raised another red flag about the legislation. They say it is a significant change to wolf management in Idaho – the kind of significant change that could prompt the federal government to step in.

Idaho has managed its wolf population for the past decade after years of back-and-forth and collaboration with the federal government, which followed the species’ reintroduction to the state in 1995. Much of Idaho’s authority rests on the state’s population being removed from the endangered species list in 2011.

Brooks said that if Little signs the bill into law, he could be giving environmental groups – who have decried the bill since it was introduced – legal footing to bring lawsuits over the issue.

“We would hope the governor looks at this and sees that handing the keys over to the Biden administration for managing wolves is not a wise decision to make,” said Brooks, who instead urged Little to convene the Legislature’s Natural Resources interim committee to pursue alternatives.

In an open letter to Little published Wednesday, a group of more than two dozen wildlife biologists and conservation experts wrote they believe the bill violates “fair chase” ethics that hunters and trappers abide by. They, too, questioned whether it would trigger a federal review.

“Senate Bill 1211 calls into question the agreement that the state of Idaho made with the federal government in order to obtain management authority over wolves,” the letter reads. “This may open the door to relisting the species due to inadequate regulatory mechanisms and new pressures on the wolf populations.”

Brooks said at worst, the bill could be a legal nightmare for Idaho and a detriment to all future wildlife management. At best, he said, it’s poor public policy that was rushed through the political process without scientific review.

“If we go this direction with wildlife management, we’re going to regret it,” he said.