Idaho Substantially Loosens Restrictions On Wolf Hunting

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Wolf hunting opportunities in Idaho are about the grow by leaps and bounds. So is the controversy surrounding the hunting of wolves.

Management of the species is arguably the most complex conservation issue in the country. They’re an extremely charismatic animal,  but also an apex predator capable of ravaging livestock numbers and decimating prey populations.

Though wolf hunting is one of the most hotly debated issues in the great outdoors, what’s not up for debate is how rapidly wolf populations have grown in states like Idaho. In 2002 the state set a goal of 150 wolves as the species was recovering from the brink of extinction. Today they have more than 1,500 wolves.

That rapid growth has increasingly put the species in the crosshairs of hunters and ranchers aiming to protect their livestock and reduce the impact of predation on game species. The popularity of wolves with the non-hunting public often results in social media storms and visceral reactions to the idea of shooting them though.

That simmering controversy recently came to a boil.

Earlier this month, Idaho Governor Brad Little signed off on legislation that would greatly loosen the restrictions on wolf hunting in an effort to keep the population in check. Wolves were removed from the Federal Endangered Species List in the Northern Rocky Mountains back in 2011, which turned management of the species over to the states.

Quickly the decision was framed as an attempt to eliminate up to 90% of the states wolves, a somewhat calculated and misguided statistic shrouded more in anti-hunting rhetoric than actual concerns for wolf management. That number makes for a good headline and has successfully triggered backlash. The issue is much deeper than that though.

The decision was also framed as threat to undo decades of intense efforts that cost tens of millions in taxpayer dollars to recover wolves in the region. A somewhat contradictory statement that fails to acknowledge or celebrate just how overly successful those efforts and financial contributions have been in recovering wolf numbers to a level that far exceeds the initial criteria for recovery.

The most controversial part of the decision will allow for wolves to be hunted in a variety of new ways including being shot from airplanes, helicopters, ATVs, and snow machines. Baiting and night hunting with spotlights will be permitted. It allows trapping and snaring wolves on private property year-round, and each hunter can purchase an unlimited number of tags.

Some of these techniques may seem abhorrent and unsporting, but the need to implement these methods of take also speaks volumes to just how damn hard it is to actually successfully hunt a wolf. The vast majority of the wolf hunting tags purchased will undoubtedly go unfilled.

While the bill is ardently supported by the states ranching community, it did draw pushback from the Idaho Fish and Game Department, the government agency tasked with managing wolves within state borders.

The Department’s opposition to the bill is more about regulatory and legislative precedent than actual science-based wolf management though.

The way the process played out could open the door to further allow legislators to set seasons and regulations for hunting and trapping, something the Department has been solely responsible for since 1938.

IDFG Director Ed Schriever testified before the Senate on behalf of the Commission”

“While the Commission shares the sponsors’ stated objectives to manage the wolf population for lower levels of conflict and lower numbers, the proposed amendments…represent a significant downside to the state’s ability to manage our wildlife responsibly.

Accordingly, the Commission has adopted the position to not support this measure.”

It’s no secret that wolves prey on livestock. The state spends half a million dollars annually trying to mitigate conflict wolves with a taste for farm raised meat. Wolves also eat a lot of elk meat, and reports of declining elk herds have turned many hunters against a species they now perceive as competition.

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, one of the bill’s sponsors told the Associated Press:

“We have areas of the state where the wolves are having a real detrimental impact on our wildlife.

They are hurting the herds, elk and deer. This allows the Wolf (Depredation) Control Board and others to control them, also, which we have not done in the past.”

The numbers do seem somewhat disproportionate though.

According to National Geographic, in 2020, wolves killed approximately 102 cattle and sheep in Idaho.  On average, hunters in Idaho shoot about 500 wolves a year which has caused the states population to plateau at about 1,500 wolves in recent years.

The state’s wolf management plan was last revised in 2002, and it set the bar at maintaining at least 150 wolves and 15 packs in Idaho. If the population drops below 15 breeding pairs, or 100 individual wolves then the species would wind up back on the Endangered Species List, something that no one in the state wants to happen given the federal overreach and regulatory burdens for private landowners that comes with such a listing.

Despite the complexity of the issue, and despite the loosened regulations, there is very little legitimate concern that 90% of the states wolves will actually be removed from the landscape.

They’re an incredibly hardy species, reproduce quickly, and are extremely difficult to successfully hunt across the rugged terrain and vast wilderness of Idaho.

Simply put, wolves in Idaho aren’t going anywhere.

Neither is the desire some people have to shoot wolves. Nor is the dedication some people have to making sure no one ever shoots a wolf again.

Mix all those factors together, and that means the controversy surrounding wolf hunting ain’t going anywhere. It’s just getting started…

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