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Idaho Fish and Game wants to reduce the wolf population by 60%

A gray wolf hops through a snow-patched woods.
Doug Pizac
FILE - In this Jan. 14, 1995, file photo, a wolf leaps across a road into the wilds of Central Idaho. Idaho Gov. Brad Little has signed into law a measure that could lead to the killing of 90% of the state's 1,500 wolves. The Republican governor signed the bill on Thursday, May 6, 2021, that had passed the Senate and House with enough votes to overcome a veto. (AP Photo/Douglas Pizac, File)

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game wants the state’s wolf population to be reduced by approximately 60% from 2021 numbers. That’s according to an initial overview of a new statewide wolf management plan presented by department staff to the Fish and Game Commission Thursday.

On average, there have been about 1,270 wolves in Idaho in 2019, 2020 and 2021, though the population fluctuates over the course of the year. The Department wants that number closer to 500 within six years.

Idaho’s wolf management plan was passed in 2002.

The reason the state agency is proposing a new one now is twofold: according to new data presented Thursday, staff believe Idaho’s wolf population declined in 2022, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is still mulling whether gray wolves in the Rocky Mountains should be relisted under the Endangered Species Act.

“We thought it would be an appropriate time to release a draft wolf management plan to frame the future direction of management,” said Jon Rachael, the Fish and Game wildlife bureau chief.

The agency has used August numbers as a benchmark for wolf population abundance since 2019 when it began a new count method involving analyzing photos from hundreds of remote cameras. That year through 2021, the population was thought to be stable at around 1,550 wolves. But in August of 2022, there were around 1,340, said Shane Roberts, wildlife research manager.

The decline comes about a year after the law that greatly expanded opportunities to hunt and trap wolves in Idaho went into effect.

Agency officials did not thoroughly discuss the reasons for the dip in 2022 on Thursday, and the number of wolves killed by humans has varied but has largely been around 500 for the past few years.

On Thursday, Rachael presented an overview of the management plan, which would be in place from 2023-2028.

The goals include managing a population that fluctuates around 500 wolves, continuing to monitor the wolf numbers annually, reducing wolf depredations on livestock and reducing predation on deer and elk.

The 500 benchmark is what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended as a target population for Idaho when it delisted Rocky Mountain wolves in 2009.

Fish and Game officials emphasized during the meeting they don’t want the population to get to the bare minimum of 150 wolves, which would trigger federal management, though that is what SB 1211 allows for.

“This plan is not a ‘reduce the wolf population by 90%’ plan,” Rachael said. “That was thrown around a whole lot in the media following legislative action a couple of years ago. And the accusation was that the Department was going to reduce wolf numbers by 90%. That's not this.”

The Idaho Fish and Game Commission opposed the bill.

Garrick Dutcher, the program and research director at the nonprofit Living with Wolves, said the agency could be feeling pressure from the legislature.

“I think that we do not need to be targeting a population of 500 wolves, though I do believe there are members of the Senate that want that and more,” he said.

Still, some advocates like Patrick Kelly with the Western Watersheds Project continue to question Idaho Fish and Game’s population estimate method – which it developed with biologists at the University of Montana – suggesting that the wolf population could already be lower than the state data show and that management actions built around it could risk dropping the population lower than the state is anticipating.

Under the new plan, the agency would continue using hunting and trapping as its primary management tool. It would also continue incentivizing and paying private contractors to kill wolves.

The proposed plan will be available to review on the state Fish and Game website next week. After that, people will have 30 days to submit comments.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2023 Boise State Public Radio

I cover environmental issues, outdoor recreation and local news for Boise State Public Radio. Beyond reporting, I contribute to the station’s digital strategy efforts and enjoy thinking about how our work can best reach and serve our audience. The best part of my job is that I get to learn something new almost every day.

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