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New Idaho Law Calls For Killing 90% Of The State's Wolves

An adult grey wolf walks at waters edge in Montana in October 2018. Twenty-five years ago, federal wildlife officials reintroduced wolves to Idaho. Recovery went well enough that in 2011 the animal came off the endangered species list. Since then, hunters have legally killed hundreds every year.
An adult grey wolf walks at waters edge in Montana in October 2018. Twenty-five years ago, federal wildlife officials reintroduced wolves to Idaho. Recovery went well enough that in 2011 the animal came off the endangered species list. Since then, hunters have legally killed hundreds every year.

Conservative lawmakers in Idaho and Montana have passed new laws to drastically reduce the number of wolves in those states. Concerns over the animal's impact on both livestock and wild prey have long festered among ranchers and some hunters and reached the floor of Idaho's House of Representatives in April.

"When [wolves] are so fearless that they are now walking down the center of a dirt road, that means there's too many of them, there's way too many of them," said Idaho state GOP Rep. Dorothy Moon. Her district includes many of the state's 1,500 estimated wolves and prime wolf habitat.

Twenty-five years ago, federal wildlife officials reintroduced wolves to Idaho. Recovery went well enough that in 2011 the animal came off the endangered species list. Since then, hunters have legally killed hundreds every year.

Moon, and many others, don't like how some of the state's prized elk herds have become smaller since wolves returned.

Recent counts of elk show populations above target in many regions of the state, and a total population near its all-time high.

Michael Lucid, a biologist formerly with Idaho's Department of Fish and Game who helped write the state's wolf management plan before the new law, says big herds of elk don't necessarily indicate healthy ecosystems.

Studies from Yellowstone National Park and other locations show positive ecological impacts from wolves being returned to ecosystems from which they were previously exterminated.

While the presence of wolves changes the behavior of elk — the animals congregate less and spend more time at higher elevations — Lucid says the predator actually makes its prey species healthier by "reducing disease and culling older and weaker members of those herds."

Wolf depredations on livestock was another argument proponents for the new law made, though the U.S. Department of Agriculture found only about 130 cattle and sheep in Idaho were confirmed or probable kills by wolves between July 2019 and June last year. The state is home to around 2.7 million cattle alone.

But lawmakers have a different idea of what a "reasonable" number of wolves is. Idaho's new law calls for killing up to 90% of them.

Idaho's Department of Fish And Game opposed the bill. Lawmakers like Moon were unswayed.

"We've got to get this in check," Moon said during debate. "All due respect to Fish and Game, they need our help."

That help means giving wolf hunters the right to do things that are illegal when pursuing other animals. Hunting wolves after hours with night vision goggles is now legal, as is using of motorized vehicles like snowmobiles or ATVs to chase them.

Those changes don't sit well with Ned Burns, mayor of Bellevue, Idaho, just south of Sun Valley and a short drive from wolf habitat. He's also a hunter and says it's more important to follow the principles of fair chase than what laws might allow.

"Particularly if it's in a wide-open area and they can't get into cover," Burns says of hunting wolves. "If you can just run one down until basically it exhausts itself: I don't necessarily know that that's the way I've ever been raised to hunt animals."

It's unclear how many hunters will respond to Idaho lawmakers' call to kill more than 1,300 wolves. The legislation also liberalized trapping rules and increased funding to hire professional exterminators, a process that can include shooting them from helicopters. Legislators moved that money from the Fish and Game budget.

Across the border in Montana there are similar new laws, although state game managers will have more say in how they're implemented, and Montana hasn't set an absolute number of wolves to be killed. The new laws will please ranchers in both states, many of whom have long opposed wolf reintroduction.

Lucid, who left Idaho Fish and Game last year to establish his own wildlife consultation business, is worried too many wolves will be killed.

"I think the new wolf law is overall going to have a very negative impact on wildlife in Idaho," he says. "Furthermore, it's going to have a negative impact on wolves' ability to disperse out of Idaho and recolonize other areas in the northwest where they need to recolonize."

He expects expanded trapping, especially the increased use of snare traps, will be noticeably detrimental to wildlife beyond wolves.

Conservation groups have already asked the Biden administration to step in and take back wolf management again, and are considering legal challenges as well.

The 2002 delisting agreement which gave Idaho control over its wolf population, identifies a minimum number of wolves as 15 packs, roughly 150 wolves. Below that number, the agreement states Idaho would begin remedial measures. The state would resume using federal standards to manage wolves if populations declined to ten packs, according to the document.

Public petitions could trigger a reevaluation of the need to place wolves back under endangered species protections, but U.S. Fish and Wildlife declined to say if there was a specific population decline number that could trigger the states to take back control of wolves in Idaho.

Idaho's Department of Fish and Game did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story.

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