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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Sports >  Outdoors

As Idaho’s wolf numbers decline, Fish and Game hopes to whittle population by additional 60%

Researchers spotted this wolf pup while sampling a rendezvous site in Idaho.  (Courtesy of Spencer Rettle)
Researchers spotted this wolf pup while sampling a rendezvous site in Idaho. (Courtesy of Spencer Rettle)
By Nicole Blanchard Idaho Statesman

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game estimates wolf populations have dropped, and officials said they hope to implement a plan that would slash numbers to less than half of the current population.

In a Fish and Game Commission meeting last week, agency officials presented a new wolf population estimate and debuted a draft for a wolf management plan that will likely be approved this spring.

Shane Roberts, a Fish and Game wildlife research manager, told commissioners data collected from June to September last year put wolf population estimates at 1,337 animals. That’s 206 fewer wolves than the 2021 population estimate of 1,543 – a 13% decrease.

For the last four years, Fish and Game has used a technique involving hundreds of trail cameras taking photos at the same time to estimate wolf numbers. The 2022 estimate is the lowest population Fish and Game has reported since it began using trail camera estimates in 2019.

According to Fish and Game, wolf populations reach a peak in the spring when new pups are born. Population estimates stem from data collected in the summer, and in the fall, populations drop as wolf hunting and trapping increases.

Officials said human-caused wolf deaths are also on track to be lower than previous years. Between July 1 and Dec. 31 last year, Fish and Game reported 234 human-caused wolf deaths – fewer than the same time period in previous years.

The agency measures wolf mortality based on the fiscal year, from July 1 to June 30.

In 2021, Fish and Game estimated the wolf population at 1,543 with 486 human-caused wolf deaths. In 2020, the population was estimated at 1,556 with 477 human-caused deaths. The initial 2019 estimate put the population at 1,545 with 585 deaths.

Fish and Game spokesperson Roger Phillips told the Idaho Statesman in a phone interview that it’s not yet clear what led to the population and mortality declines. In the last few years, the Fish and Game Commission and Idaho Legislature have extended wolf hunting and trapping seasons statewide and removed tag limits, prompting outcry from wolf advocates.

Still, Phillips told the Statesman that harvest rates for wolves remain relatively low, so a smaller wolf population would likely correlate to fewer wolves killed by hunting and trapping each year. Roberts also noted that some research suggests as wolf packs get smaller, they produce fewer offspring per litter, which could be a factor in Idaho’s wolf population decline.

A Fish and Game wolf management plan presented by wildlife bureau chief Jon Rachael during the commission meeting shows the agency hopes to reduce wolf numbers an additional 62% from last year’s estimate. Rachael presented a draft of a six-year wolf management plan that would put the state’s wolf population closer to 500 animals.

That’s the target population Idaho laid out in 2009, when the state’s wolves were removed from Endangered Species Act protections and transferred from U.S. Fish and Wildlife management to Idaho Fish and Game.

Rachael said populations remained stable from 2019 through 2021 as human-caused deaths reduced the wolf population by an average of 515 animals – or 33% – each year. Rachael said killing roughly 37% of the wolf population annually would gradually reduce wolf numbers to the agency’s goal.

According to projections Rachael shared with the commission, Idaho’s wolf population could fall to 500 animals in three years and stabilize by 2028. Rachael said hunting and trapping would continue to be the main approach for reducing wolf numbers.

Phillips told the Statesman that Fish and Game is already using all of its potential tools to control wolf populations, including contracting with the Fish and Wildlife Service to kill wolves that prey on livestock. Fish and Game occasionally kills wolves to reduce elk predation, Phillips said.

Officials said they would continue to monitor wolf populations to ensure they stay a healthy levels. Under Fish and Game’s agreement with federal authorities, the state’s wolf population must meet a minimum of 150 animals. If the population falls below that number, wolves could return to Endangered Species Act protections and federal management.

Phillips told the Statesman the public will be able to comment on the proposed management plan before it’s finalized and submitted for approval by the commission in the spring. Commissioners indicated they would be in favor of approving the plan.

Fish and Game is likely to hear criticism during its public comment period.

Proposed changes to wolf management have been met in recent years with loud public outcry from environmental groups and wolf advocates around the world.

In 2020 when the commission weighed proposals to expand hunting and trapping, the agency fielded more than 27,000 comments, most of them in opposition to the proposals. Officials at the time said roughly 80% of the comments originated outside of Idaho.

Suzanne Stone, cofounder of the Wood River Wolf Project, told the Statesman it’s “very disappointing to see the state take such a hard line.”

Stone’s organization works with ranchers in the Wood River Valley to use non-lethal deterrents to prevent wolves from preying on livestock.

She said the project is going into its 16th year of partnerships and has shown that non-lethal wolf deterrent programs are effective at eliminating livestock depredation. Stone said Fish and Game seems to be listening only to hunters, trappers and ranchers rather than embracing the wolf population as part of Idaho’s natural landscape.

“It’s not management when you’re pressuring a wildlife population at such a low level,” Stone said. “That’s just persecution.”

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