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

Originally published on May 22, 2021 5:19 am

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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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Conservative lawmakers in Idaho and Montana are going after wolves in those states. New laws call for killing more than a thousand wolves and paying people to shoot them, too. Boise State Public Radio's Troy Oppie says the laws passed despite objections from local wildlife managers.

TROY OPPIE, BYLINE: Twenty-five years ago federal wildlife officials reintroduced wolves to Idaho. They did well enough that 10 years ago the animal came off the endangered species list. Since then, hunters have legally killed hundreds every year. Idaho's current wolf population is about 1,500, and that's way too many for state lawmakers like Dorothy Moon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOROTHY MOON: You know, when they are so fearless that they are now walking down the center of a dirt road, that means there's too many of them.

OPPIE: Moon and many others don't like how some of the state's prized herds of elk have become smaller since wolves returned. But biologist Michael Lucid, formerly with Idaho's Department of Fish and Game, says big herds of elk don't necessarily indicate healthy ecosystems.

MICHAEL LUCID: One of the points of having wolves in the ecosystem is to have a reasonable number of them and have them perform their roles as predators, keeping elk and other prey wild animals and doing things like reducing disease and culling older and weaker members of those herds.

OPPIE: Lucid helped write Idaho's Wolf Management Plan, informed by studies showing positive ecological impacts from returning wolves to Yellowstone National Park and other locations. 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. Again, lawmaker Dorothy Moon, whose central Idaho district includes wolves and some of their prime habitat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MOON: We've got to get this in check. And all due respect to Fish and Game - they need this help.

OPPIE: That help means giving wolf hunters the right to do things that are illegal when pursuing other animals, like using night vision goggles, killing wolf pups in their dens and chasing wolves with motorized vehicles. Those changes don't sit well with Ned Burns, the mayor of a small town near where wolves currently roam. He's also a hunter and says it's more important to follow the principles of fair chase than what laws might allow.

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

OPPIE: It's unclear how many hunters will respond to Idaho lawmakers' call to kill more than 1,300 wolves. They've also liberalized trapping rules, and there's increased funding to hire professionals to exterminate wolves, including shooting them from helicopters. Across the border in Montana, there are similar new laws, although state game managers will have more say in how those laws are implemented and Montana has not 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. Michael Lucid, the former Idaho Fish and Game biologist who now consults on wildlife conservation, is worried too many wolves will be killed.

LUCID: I think the new wolf law is overall going to have a very negative impact on wildlife in Idaho. And 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.

OPPIE: Conservation groups have already asked the Biden administration to step in and take back wolf management again and are considering legal challenges as well. If the wolf population declines, citizens could petition the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reevaluate endangered species protections. For NPR News, I'm Troy Oppie in Boise.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLESTHEFIRST'S "THE DESCENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.