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Mountain West Lawmakers Take Aim At Wolves

Yellowstone wolf laying in snowy sagebrush
Jim Peaco

Several lawmakers in Idaho and Montana are concerned that wolf packs are getting too big to control, so they’re trying to make it easier to hunt and trap them.

In recent weeks, Montana’s new governor has signed three bills into law to ease wolf hunting restrictions and has another on his desk. Those include extending the season and allowing snares.

Meanwhile in Idaho, a proposal is rapidly making its way through the legislature that aims to reduce wolf numbers by 90% to about 150 (or 15 packs). That’s a minimum number laid out in a state management plan that’s been in place for nearly two decades.

Among other things, the law would permit wolf trapping year-round on private property, the hiring of outside contract wolf hunters, and hunting with ATVs and snowmobiles. There would also be unlimited wolf tags per person.

State Sen. Van Burtenshaw, a Republican, introduced the legislation.

“There’s nobody in this group that wants to wipe out wolves completely. They just want to manage to a group that we can manage within the state,” he said.

There are concerns this proposal could threaten an agreement with the federal government. That is, the 2002 Idaho State Wolf Management Plan, which the state completed in order to take back control over the species from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Burtenshaw said he had reached out to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife about this bill, but hadn’t heard back yet.

“In the end, we do still have to work with the feds to keep this agreement together," Idaho Sen. Michelle Stennett said. "I will not support the motion (to pass the bill out of committee).”

Idaho Conservation League spokesperson Jonathan Oppenheimer said he understands the concerns about wolf management in Idaho, but he says 150 wolves wasn’t a population objective. “It was seen that that was the minimum necessary in order to maintain some semblance of a stable population,” he said.

Environmental groups have long toutedwolf protections as a way to support the environment, and have grave concerns about efforts to increase hunting and trapping. Center for Biological Diversity senior attorney Andrea Zaccardi released a statement Wednesday saying “The consequences of this bill will be horrendous. This brutal war on wolves must be stopped, and we urge the (Idaho) House to deny this bill.”

Sen. Stennett also noted that even with all the wolves, the state already spends taxpayer dollars culling elk herds.

“We have more elk than we know what to do with in some areas, and have not been shy about dispatching herds because of depredation, paying a lot of money into depredation. Yet somehow we have too many wolves,” she said.

But proponents of slashing Idaho's wolf population are adamant that the state needs to protect livestock and certain large game herds that are preyed upon, and that they need more tools to get the job done.

“In 2019 we had a count of 1,566 wolves. That year we had a banner year and we killed 584 wolves. The next year in 2020, we had 1,556 wolves. We dropped the population by 10 wolves. That’s it,” Sen. Burtenshaw said.

“All we’re asking for is the ability to manage this crop of wolves,” he said.

Outside Montana and Idaho, Wyoming sees wolves as predators that can be shot year-round in most of the state outside the northwest corner. A small section of north-central Utah also sees them that way, and aimed to trap their first grey wolf there in years. Meanwhile, Colorado voted last year to reintroduce wolves to the Western Slope.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Madelyn Beck was Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau.

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