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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Ruling shortens Idaho’s wolf trapping season

Wolves, such as this gray wolf, will see a shorter trapping season in parts of Idaho in the future.  (Courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
By Eric Barker Lewiston Tribune

LEWISTON – A federal judge’s ruling will shorten Idaho’s wolf trapping season by as many as nine months to prevent potential harm to threatened grizzly bears.

The ruling issued this week by federal judge Candy W. Dale at Boise applies to much of the Panhandle and Upper Snake regions – the parts of the state that have established grizzly bear populations – and the Clearwater and Salmon regions where grizzlies occasionally frequent.

It makes wolf trapping and snaring illegal in grizzly bear habitat between March 1 and the end of November – the time bears are not hibernating.

The effect of Dale’s order differs depending on land ownership. On private land that is open to wolf trapping year-round, the order lops off nine months of the season. On public land, it scuttles about six weeks of the Nov. 15-to-March 31 season.

“Today’s ruling is good for grizzly bears in these key areas,” Suzanne Asha Stone, director of the Idaho-based International Wildlife Coexistence Network, said in a news release. “Endangered Species Act protections have helped restore grizzly bears to their historic landscapes, where they once thrived for centuries. Today’s ruling recognizes the need for humans to actively coexist with these species and their natural habitat.”

Dale’s order stems from a lawsuit by a coalition of 13 environmental groups that sued the state in 2021, charging Idaho’s liberal wolf trapping and snaring rules pose a threat to grizzly bears because the bruins could be incidentally caught.

The Idaho Fish and Game Commission had been expanding wolf hunting and trapping opportunities over the past decade with an eye toward reducing the state’s wolf population. But in 2021, the Idaho Legislature intervened and passed a law that among other moves greatly expanded wolf trapping seasons and bag limits.

During the case, Idaho argued the lawsuit should be dismissed because there is no history of grizzly bears being caught in legally set traps or snares in the state and the odds of it happening are slim. Two grizzly bears, however, ended up in wolf snares during the 2020 season. One died in the snare and the other was shot by trappers who mistook it for a black bear.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game argued that in both cases the snares were set in a way that violated Idaho’s rules and thus shouldn’t be considered. Dale rejected the argument, saying the violations were minor and immaterial.

“Although Idaho makes much of the fact that the snares were not legal sets under Idaho’s laws and rules, even if they had been legal sets, they would not have prevented take of the two grizzly bears,” she said. “For instance, both snares did not have a breakaway device or cable stop incorporated in the loop of the snare. But neither of these devices will prevent capture of a grizzly bear. The lack of trap identification tags, the failure to report either capture, the proximity to visible bait, and the failure to check the site every 72 hours also would not have prevented take of these two grizzly bears.”

Dale also said Idaho’s long trapping season and elimination of bag limits increases the odds, however slim, that grizzlies will be harmed.

The judge said Idaho may apply for an incidental take permit that, if approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, would allow a certain number of grizzly bears to be incidentally killed through an otherwise legal activity. For example, Idaho routinely obtains incidental take permits allowing a small number of wild, threatened salmon and steelhead to be killed during the state’s fishing seasons targeting hatchery fish. The permits describe steps the holder must take to mitigate potential harm to listed species.

“It’s something Idaho could have and should have done from the beginning and we could have avoided all of this,” said Ben Scrimshaw, an attorney for EarthJustice, the environmental law firm that represented the plaintiffs.

Dale’s ruling allows this year’s public land wolf trapping season to remain open through its planned end on Sunday. It is unclear when the private land season will end. As of Wednesday, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and its governing commission had not taken steps to close the season where it overlaps with grizzly bear habitat.

“We are still trying to sort it out and determine what actions will be needed since our commission sets and closes seasons, but this is a federal directive,” Idaho Fish and Game spokesperson Roger Phillips said.

“We also have to figure out what’s defined as ‘grizzly habitat.’ ”