BOISE, Idaho – Idaho's wolf population appears to be holding steady despite recent changes by lawmakers that allow expanded methods and seasons for killing wolves, the state’s top wildlife official said Thursday.
Idaho Department of Fish and Game Director Ed Schriever told lawmakers on the Natural Resources Interim Committee that preliminary data on human-caused and natural wolf mortality looks similar to three previous years.
He also said the agency is using changes in wolf hunting laws that could lead to killing more wolves in areas with livestock conflicts or where elk herds are below population goals, potentially through a wolf-killing reimbursement program for skilled trappers and hunters.
“I think the best way to describe Idaho’s population right now is that it’s fairly stable, and it’s fluctuating around 1,250,” he told lawmakers. “Part of the year it’s below that; part of the year it’s above that. But the population is fluctuating around 1,250.”
Schriever, in a graph presented to lawmakers, showed the state's wolf population from 2019 to 2021 fluctuating with a high of more than 1,600 in May when wolf pups are born down to a low of about 800 in April as wolves die through natural mortality, hunting or trapping.
Schriever said that the same pattern with potentially similar numbers could be repeated this year. But the agency won’t have a solid estimate for the 2022 wolf population until January when it analyzes additional information and millions of photos taken by remote cameras.
The agency in previous years picked August as the date to set the wolf population, putting it at about 1,500. The 1,250 estimate is a snapshot of the wolf population in November, at about the midpoint of the annual population fluctuation.
Idaho lawmakers in 2021 approved a law backed by ranchers that greatly expanded wolf killing in what some lawmakers stated could reduce the wolf population by 90%. Backers said it would reduce the wolf population and attacks on livestock while also boosting deer and elk herds.
Idaho wildlife officials also last year announced the state would make available $200,000 to be divided into payments to hunters and trappers who kill wolves in the state.
However, there has been concern the new rules could overshoot the mark because if the state's wolf population were to fall below 150, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could take over management of wolves from the state.
“If you go below that (150), that's bad news,” Schriever told lawmakers.
Schriever cited a 2009 Fish and Wildlife Service rule delisting northern Rocky Mountain gray wolves. The rule was blocked by a federal court but took effect when approved by Congress in 2011. Schriever noted the rule has a wolf population for Idaho fluctuating around 500, with a potential high of about 650 and a low of about 350.
“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.
Getting there could be challenging because wolves, Schriever noted, get wary when hunted.
He gave a breakdown of 389 wolves killed last year by some 50,000 hunters and trappers, noting only 72 hunters and trappers killed more than one wolf, accounting for 236 wolves in all that year.
"Those people are very important in the concept of managing the wolf population,” Schriever said, suggesting the reimbursement program could be a key component to target wolves in specific areas of the state.
“The reimbursement program may, in fact, be very important in keeping some of these highly skilled people engaged in this for a longer period of time," he said.
Besides setting up the reimbursement program, the law passed in 2021 also expanded wolf killing methods to include trapping and snaring wolves on a single hunting tag, no restriction on hunting hours, using night-vision equipment with a permit, using bait and dogs and allowing hunting from motor vehicles. It also authorized year-round wolf trapping on private property.
Montana lawmakers also changed their laws to expand wolf killing. That prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service late last year, at the request of environmental groups, to announce a yearlong review to see if wolves in the western U.S. should be relisted and again receive federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. Such a move would take away Idaho's management of the species.
On another front, a U.S. District Court judge in August rejected a request by conservation groups to temporarily block Idaho’s expanded wolf trapping and snaring rules. Environmental groups said Idaho’s expanded wolf-killing regulations violate the Endangered Species Act because they will lead to the illegal killing of federally protected grizzly bears and Canada lynx. Schriever said Thursday that no grizzlies have so far been caught in a wolf trap.
It's not clear when the court will make a ruling on the merits in that case.