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Early data indicate that Idaho’s wolf population remains steady

BOISE, Idaho (AP) – Idaho’s wolf population appears to be holding steady despite recent changes by lawmakers allowing extended methods and seasons for killing wolves, the city’s top wildlife official said Thursday.

Ed Schriever, director of Idaho’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, told lawmakers on the Interim Natural Resources Committee that preliminary data on human and natural wolf mortality is consistent with that of the previous three years.

He also said the agency is using changes in wolf hunting laws that could lead to more wolves being killed in areas with livestock conflicts or where elk herds are below population goals, possibly through a wolf hunting reimbursement program for qualified trappers and hunters.

“I think the best way to describe Idaho’s population right now is that it’s pretty stable and fluctuates around 1,250,” he told lawmakers. “Part of the year is below that; part of the year is above. But the population fluctuates around 1,250.”

Schriever, in a chart presented to lawmakers, showed the state’s wolf population from 2019 to 2021 fluctuating from a high of more than 1,600 in May when cubs are born to a low of about 800 in April, while wolves die by natural deaths, hunting or trapping.

Schriever said the same pattern with potentially similar numbers could repeat itself this year. But the agency won’t have a firm estimate of the wolf population in 2022 until January, when it analyzes additional information and millions of photos taken by remote cameras.

In previous years, the agency has chosen August as the date to peg the wolf population, putting it at about 1,500. The estimate of 1,250 is a snapshot of the wolf population in November, about the middle of the annual population fluctuation.

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Idaho lawmakers passed a rancher-backed law in 2021 that dramatically expanded the culling of wolves in what some lawmakers said could reduce the wolf population by 90 percent. Supporters said it would reduce the wolf population and attacks on livestock, while boosting deer and elk herds.

Last year, Idaho wildlife officials also announced that the state would make $200,000 available to distribute in payments to hunters and trappers who kill wolves in the state.

However, there were concerns that the new rules would overstep the mark, because if the state’s wolf population falls below 150, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could take over management of the state’s wolves.

“If you go below that (150), that’s bad news,” Schriever told lawmakers.

Schriever cited a 2009 Fish and Wildlife Service rule that removed gray wolves from the northern Rockies. The rule was blocked in federal court, but went into effect when it was passed by Congress in 2011. Schriever noted that the rule has a wolf population for Idaho hovering around 500, with a potential maximum of about 650 and a minimum of around 350.

“I think there’s a whole bunch of us that would be happy if we could come up with what’s described in the federal delisting rule as a population hovering around 500,” Schriever said.

Getting there can be difficult because wolves, Schriever noted, are cautious when being hunted.

He detailed the 389 wolves killed last year by some 50,000 hunters and trappers, noting that only 72 hunters and trappers killed more than one wolf, which amounts to 236 wolves in the entire year.

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“These people are very important in the concept of managing the wolf population,” Schriever said, suggesting the reimbursement program could be a key part of targeting wolves in specific areas of the state.

“The compensation program could actually be very important in keeping some of these highly qualified people involved in this field for a longer period of time,” he said.

In addition to implementing the compensation scheme, the law passed in 2021 also expanded the methods of killing wolves to capture and trap wolves on a single hunting tag, no restrictions on hunting hours, the use of night vision equipment with a permit, the use of bait and dogs and allows hunting from motor vehicles. It also authorized year-round trapping of wolves on private property.

Montana lawmakers also changed their laws to expand wolf culling. 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 given federal protection under the Act. Endangered Species must recover. Such a decision would remove Idaho’s management of the species.

On another front, a U.S. District Court judge in August denied a request by conservation groups to temporarily block Idaho’s expanded wolf trapping and trapping rules. Environmental groups said Idaho’s expanded wolf hunting regulations violate the Endangered Species Act because they would lead to the illegal killing of federally protected grizzly bears and Canada lynx. Schriever said Thursday that no grizzly bears have been caught in a wolf trap so far.

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It is not known when the court will make a decision on the merits in this case.

Keith Ridler, Associated Press

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