The wolf wars are back and there is no winner in sight.
Issues surrounding wolf management are complex, but suffice to say, it has less to do with wildlife management and more to do with managing people. Not having a shared set of facts complicates conversations surrounding the wolf wars.
Wolf wars are a zero-sum game
Wolf advocates may feel as though they’ve lost, since wolves are now being hunted, trapped, and snared with a zeal not seen since the 1940s. This is driven, in part, by the Idaho Legislature’s recent actions targeting up to 90% of wolves. Ironically, this ill-conceived frenzy to reduce wolf numbers is also likely to be unproductive in the long run. Wolves are very resilient, and anything short of poisoning is unlikely to reduce their numbers to anything close to 150 wolves, one of the metrics for protections under the Endangered Species Act. However, in the effort to get to this number, non-target animals will perish as unrestricted trapping and snaring can kill dogs and rare species such as wolverines, grizzly bears, and lynx.
Wolf opponents may feel that they’ve lost because there are hundreds of more wolves than the minimum number needed to stay off the Endangered Species List. Hunters and outfitters remain concerned that wolves adversely impact elk populations. There are also concerns around wolves preying on livestock in the front country. While elk numbers are high overall and wolf depredation constitutes a tiny percentage of total livestock losses, there are localized examples of both depressed elk numbers and livestock depredations that create frustration and are interpreted as occurring statewide.
Much of the current mismanagement we are seeing fixates on whether 150 wolves is a ceiling number or a floor, as the 2002 Idaho Wolf Conservation and Management Plan states. That plan requires the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) to manage a population greater than 150 wolves and above 15 breeding pairs.
Some wolf critics claim that Fish and Game set a hard cap of a maximum population of 350-500 wolves. However, Fish and Game did not set any maximum number of wolves in the plan:
If it can be shown that wolves can expand their range without causing unacceptable conflict, they will be allowed to do so. However, population growth is unlikely to be controlled by sport hunting. In general, regardless of their location, wolf packs that are not creating conflict will be allowed to persist.
-Idaho Wolf Management Plan
The key phrase in the plan is how one defines “unacceptable conflict.” For some, any number of wolves above 150 wolves is “unacceptable conflict.” Idaho’s Wolf Depredation Board is contributing to the debate by going above and beyond the controversial wolf bounty program to allow special contractors to collar suspect wolves from helicopters.
And the Idaho Legislature threw gasoline on the fire last May with the changes they imposed, undermining the authority of the Idaho Fish and Game Commission, eliminating bag limits, and treating wolves unlike any other wildlife species in Idaho. Their actions invited review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that many believe will return wolves to the Endangered Species list. According to the delisting rule for wolves:
…three scenarios could lead us to initiate a status review and analysis of threats to determine if relisting was warranted: (1) If the wolf population in Idaho, Montana, or Wyoming fell below the minimum NRM wolf population recovery level of 10 breeding pairs and 100 wolves at the end of any one year; (2) if the portion of the wolf population in Montana, Idaho, or Wyoming falls below 15 breeding pairs or 150 wolves at the end of the year in any one of those States for 3 consecutive years; or (3) if a change in State law or management objectives would significantly increase the threat to the wolf population.
-US Fish and Wildlife Service, Wolf Delisting Rule
So, what’s the current status?
Numerous petitions and lawsuits are ongoing from actions taken by both the Montana and Idaho Legislatures. And in August of 2021, ICL joined with the Endangered Species Coalition to call upon the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to review the status of wolves in Idaho and Montana.
In September, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to review the status of wolves to determine whether relisting is warranted. Separately, the Center for Biological Diversity and others submitted a petition to relist wolves under the Endangered Species Act. And in December, Earthjustice sued the State of Idaho on behalf of the Humane Society of the US, International Wildlife Coexistence Network, and others to limit trapping in grizzly bears and lynx habitat.
While conservation groups were often critical of the State of Idaho’s post-delisting management of wolves, the Idaho Legislature’s actions violated any “uneasy truce” that had developed. Since wolves were delisted in 2011, many hoped that the embers of the wolf debate would die down. Collaborative efforts focused on avoiding conflicts and habitat restoration that would benefit multiple species.
But recent actions threaten to drag us back into the wolf wars, and it’s possible we’ll see renewed efforts in the upcoming legislative session. Last year, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle said, “This bill isn’t the end-all for the wolf problems, just a starting point,” promising more legislation in the new year.
In our testimony last year, we testified that the bill would have unintended consequences and could lead to the relisting of wolves under the Endangered Species Act, and that there are opportunities to find common ground, manage, and mitigate wolf conflicts, while allowing wolves to play their essential ecological role. Our concerns fell on deaf ears.
Instead of solely spotlighting conflicts with wolves, we should be highlighting success stories such as the Wood River Wolf Project, which has successfully minimized wolf-livestock conflicts and the availability of additional funds for non-lethal approaches. Working collaboratively with diverse interests, listening to each other, agreeing on common facts, and working to find common ground is the best way we can move beyond the wolf wars.
In the meantime, we encourage you to join with us in respectfully reminding your local Idaho Fish and Game Commissioner that you value wolves on the landscape and science-based management of this important, albeit controversial species.