On Thursday, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission approved a revised draft of the 2023-2028 Grey Wolf Management Plan, outlining the state’s objective to bring its wolf population down from 1,200 to 500 animals. In the new plan, reviewed by MeatEater but not yet released to the public, Idaho Fish and Game (IDFG) lays out its strategy by increasing hunting efforts through monetary incentives and authorizing the lethal removal of both individual wolves and entire packs in response to livestock conflicts.
Wolf populations are hard to control because they’re highly fecund (i.e., they have lots of offspring). Research shows that even if humans kill 29% of a wolf population in a year, the population won’t decrease. And in some cases, populations could remain stable in the face of up to 45% human-caused mortality.
In Idaho specifically, the currently-booming population of wolves boils down to the inability of hunters to harvest enough wolves to keep the population in check. Part of the challenge is due to the remoteness of the state. In central Idaho, the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness encompasses 2.3 million acres of public land, and is accessible only via a few access roads on the exterior, a handful of airstrips that were grandfathered in, and several floatable rivers cutting through the heart of it. That translates to low hunting pressure and even lower hunter success in large parts of the state.
The new management plan makes this phenomenon abundantly clear: “In remote areas with limited access, wolf densities will likely not be significantly altered by human harvest.” Even in areas with easier access, biologists estimate that human harvest still only accounts for between 11% and 28% of mortalities. That makes it extremely difficult to control wolf populations through ordinary means, the likes of which work fine on other game species like elk and deer.
The Idaho state legislature passed a bill in 2021 designed to increase the wolf harvest. It was criticized in the media for liberalizing means of take, and conservationists took issue with the legislature circumventing the IDFG’s management of the resource.
The new law, however, had no impact on wolf harvest, and 2021 harvest numbers were nearly identical to past seasons. “We haven’t seen dramatic swings in harvest the past few years,” Katie Oelrich, one of the lead wildlife biologists in the preparation of the management plan, told MeatEater. “Things have been pretty stable.”
In 2021, only three wolves were taken with the expanded harvest methods beyond hunting and trapping, and according to IDFG, 84% of sportsmen who killed a wolf still harvested two or fewer. No one killed more than 10 wolves. In fact, the most one person has ever harvested in a single year is 20. That was in the 2019-2020 season.
Ultimately, as most hunters can likely attest, hunting wolves is difficult. They’re elusive, hard-to-find creatures and harvest numbers reflect that. In the 2021 season, Idaho hunters harvested 174 wolves and trappers another 237. Based on a state-wide population estimate of 1,270 animals, that’s 32% of the wolf population—enough to keep it stable but not decrease it by any significant amount.
Upon delisting in 2011, the US Fish and Wildlife Service identified a management goal of 1,200 wolves in the northern Rockies, broken down into around 400 in Montana, 500 in Idaho, and 200 to 300 in Wyoming.
Oelrich clarifies, however, that the Idaho objective is not the biological carrying capacity. It’s actually a common misconception that just about any wildlife species, elk and deer included, are managed to their biological carrying capacities. “If elk populations were at biological capacity, we’d have a lot more agricultural damage,” says Oelrich. The same goes for wolves but with respect to livestock depredation.
Idaho’s new wolf management plan seeks to knock down its population, stating the main objective is to “manage for a stable, well-distributed, self-sustaining Idaho wolf population that fluctuates around an average of 500 animals annually.” To do so by the year 2028, biologists predict that annual wolf mortality needs to increase to about 37% for the next six years. That’s roughly 513 animals next year alone.
The main methods outlined for reaching those numbers are two-fold: incentivize hunters to target wolves and expand the use of lethal means to resolve wolf-livestock conflicts.
The first method is aimed at increasing the number of wolf hunters in the state. As mentioned earlier, harvest is essentially at its maximum with the current amount of hunting pressure. There simply aren’t enough hunters and trappers, or there isn’t enough hunting pressure to kill 37% of the wolves annually. Under the new plan, IDFG outlines an effort (through third-party programs) to reimburse successful wolf hunters for hunt-related expenditures. What those expenditures are is not specified, but presumably could include things like the cost of gas, food, lodging, and tags.
The state also plans to use this incentive program to concentrate effort in areas with particularly high livestock conflicts or in hunting units where elk populations are below objective due to wolf predation. The idea is to motivate hunters to target wolves in specific areas. And the fact that reimbursement is contingent upon success will likely mean people hunting longer, harder, and more intently when in the specified units valid for reimbursement.
The second method authorizes the department to liberally apply lethal means of resolving wolf-livestock conflicts. These authorizations, the plan states, “would target removal of entire packs rather than individual wolves while the wolf population remains above the goal.”
To be clear, that means the state would have the authority to kill entire packs of wolves in response to livestock depredation, which between 2014 and 2022, cost the state $0.7 million in compensation to ranchers. As such, livestock depredation is clearly an issue, but the way the plan reads makes the state’s authorizations sound like an extreme response to often-isolated incidences. But ultimately, if the state hopes to reach that magical 500 number, it’s likely a necessary management move.
Notably, poison will not be used as means of lethal removal. “Use of poisons is tightly restricted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,” the plan states, and “poisons will not be used to manage the wolf population in Idaho.”
Finally, if all else fails, the plan is as follows: “Where harvest cannot reduce wolf impacts on ungulate populations, implement area-specific predation management plans and agency control actions that balance effectiveness with cost-efficiency.” It’s the last line of the management plan, and it’s awfully vague, but spells out imminent doom for Idaho’s wolves–down to at least 500 animals, anyways.
In all, Idaho is taking an aggressive approach to managing its wolf populations. But, as Oelrich says, “every species we have to manage and preserve.” The state’s goal is not to exterminate wolves but to bring their populations into closer alignment with its broader wildlife and livestock goals.