The State of Idaho is making a shameful spectacle of itself in targeting wolves for extirpation. The Fish and Game Commission recently expanded hunting seasons to allow wolves to be shot year-round across most of the state, and now the legislature is considering “wolf-free zones” across much of Idaho. Like Wyoming, Idaho is becoming a cautionary tale demonstrating that states heavily influenced by the livestock industry can’t be trusted to manage wolves according to science.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game has an obligation to inform policymakers about the scientific realities of wildlife management. Instead, the agency cowers in silence while the Idaho Legislature —band the Republican-dominated Fish and Game Commission — decide wildlife management for them.
Since state biologists aren’t informing political appointees and state legislators about the scientific facts on wolves, it’s up to public interest nonprofits like Western Watersheds Project to shine a light into the dark corners of Idaho wildlife policy.
Idaho’s extinction agenda seems to be based on the fiction that wolves are killing all the elk and putting ranchers out of business.
Contrary to the fairy tales promoted by hunting and trapping groups like Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the so-called Foundation 4 Wildlife Management, wolves do not decimate elk populations.
In 1995, before wolves were reintroduced, the Idaho population estimate was 112,333 elk, and hunters took 22,400. In 2017, Idaho had a population of 116,800 elk, and hunters took 22,751 animals. After decades of wolves in Idaho, and a (dubious) state wolf population estimate of 1,500, there are no fewer elk today, and just as much hunter success, as in the days before wolf reintroduction.
Hunters who didn’t get their elk should stop making excuses by blaming wolves, and work on improving their hunting skills.
Wolf killing to “save” elk while elk populations are high has led to the absurd situation that the state is killing off wolves at the behest of sheep and cattle ranchers, while at the same time killing off elk in places like the Wood River Valley and Magic Valley to satisfy ranchers and farmers who want fewer elk.
Wolves are hardly putting ranchers out of business. The 2018 USDA statistics show that wolves accounted for less than 3% of Idaho sheep losses. For cattle, the most recent figure for cattle losses (2015) indicates only 0.7% are attributed to wolves.
Killing wolves won’t do anything to reduce these already negligible livestock losses. A 2014 study on wolf “control” across Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming demonstrates that livestock losses increased in the year following wolf killings, rather than decreasing.
A more recent study from Michigan showed that revenge killings of wolves resulted in fewer livestock losses on the farm where the wolf was killed, but greater livestock losses on neighboring farms. In general, studies touting lethal controls to address predator problems have been so poorly designed that researchers worldwide have concluded they are scientifically invalid.
Instead of targeting wolves for extinction across much of the state, the livestock industry should be adapting to the native wildlife and learning to coexist with all of them, including both elk and wolves. Coexistence means no wolf killing, under any circumstances.
Ranches like the B-Bar, just outside Yellowstone National Park, are showing how it’s done. Ranchers unable or unwilling to manage their livestock to minimize predator losses when grazing on public lands are welcome to find somewhere else to graze them.
Idaho wolf management has been hijacked by ag industry politics. States like Idaho and Wyoming — renewing efforts to drive wolves extinct across large areas — are proof that the protections of the Endangered Species Act never should have been lifted.
Erik Molvar is Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, an environmental conservation group dedicated to protecting and restoring wildlife and watersheds across the West. He is also a wildlife biologist with published studies on moose population dynamics and how predation risk affects moose behavior and ecology in Alaska.