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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Idaho wolf population stable one year after liberalized hunting, trapping rules went into effect

A gray wolf is seen in this April 18, 2008, photo provided by U.S. Fish and Wildlife.  (U.S. Fish and Wildlife/courtesy)

Idaho’s overall wolf population has remained stable despite liberalized hunting and trapping laws that went into effect last year. That was Idaho Department of Fish and Game Director Ed Schriever’s message to Gem State lawmakers last week.

“What I do know is that human-caused mortality and natural-cause mortality is very similar to what it was the previous years,” he said during an Oct. 6 meeting of the Natural Resources Interim Committee.

In 2021, the Idaho Legislature passed Senate Bill 1211, which established a year-round trapping season for wolves on private property, allowed for unlimited purchase of wolf tags, and allowed for any method used for taking any wild canine in Idaho (foxes, coyotes) to also be available for taking wolves, among other things. An ongoing lawsuit is challenging the trapping and snaring portion of the new rules.

During the 2021-22 season about 50,000 hunters and trappers killed 389 wolves. Only 72 hunters and trappers killed more than one wolf, Schriever said. The majority of those wolves were killed in North Idaho. While Idaho’s annual wolf estimate won’t be published until January, Schriever characterized the state’s population as stable.

“I think the best way to describe Idaho’s wolf population is that it’s fairly stable and it’s fluctuating around 1,250,” he said. “Part of the year, it’s below that. Part of the year, it’s above that.”

Generally speaking, wolf populations are highest in the spring when wolf pups are born and lowest in late winter following harsh winter months and human trapping and hunting.

Schriever also explained how Idaho’s wolves came to be federally delisted while other wolf populations, the western two-thirds of Washington for instance, remain protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. In 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service attempted to delist the northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf population, including Idaho and Eastern Washington. That delisting was blocked by a federal judge, but in 2011 the delisting was approved by Congress. The original 2009 rules set a wolf population of about 500 for Idaho.

“I think there are a whole bunch of us that would be happy if we could get to what’s described in the federal delisting rule as a population fluctuating around 500,” Schriever said.

Per federal rules, if the population falls below 150 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will take over management.

In addition to expanded trapping and hunting, the state can also offer wolf bounties. Supporters of the law believe those changes will reduce attacks on livestock and help elk and deer herds.

Opponents argue there are scientifically backed nonlethal methods for reducing wolf-livestock conflict. They also point to some studies suggesting that killing wolves doesn’t ultimately reduce conflict.

“Idaho Fish and Game should be exploring ways to help livestock producers use proven methods to reduce wolf and livestock conflicts, not resorting to ineffective and antiquated bounty programs,” said Eric Clewis, senior representative with Defenders of Wildlife in a statement. “The science demonstrates that wolf hunting simply does not reduce conflicts with livestock; a decade-long study that explored wolf predations on livestock in Montana established that public harvest did not reduce recurrent predations.”

The Idaho Conservation League, which is based in Boise and has offices in North Idaho, believes IDFG is best-suited to manage wolves. Jeff Abrams, a wildlife program associate for ICL, characterized wolves in Idaho as recovered and said wolves should be managed “just as other predators are.”

Those management decisions, however, must be made using evidence-based science. Abrams hopes IDFG continues to tweak its population estimate model (which is derived from analyzing millions of remote camera images). That model “potentially has some flaws in it,” he said. He also urged the state to build a publicly accessible wolf database. While that information is available it often has to be obtained via a public records request.

“There is no central database and there is no clearing house,” Abrams said. “The absence of that is lending itself to an environment of suspicion on all sides and of accusations.”

Another concern for ICL is the way in which the liberalized wolf rules came to be.

Instead of originating from the state wildlife management agency, the change was pushed through by politicians. That flies in the face of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation; a model that intentionally relies on hunting and fishing license sales and taxes to fund state wildlife agencies, largely buffering biologists from the whims of politicians.