By ERIC BARKER of the Tribune
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game killed seven wolves in the state’s Lolo Elk Zone last month in an effort to aid struggling elk herds in the remote area, according to a news release from the agency.
The operation, carried out by a private contractor, was paid for with money raised by the sale of hunting, fishing and trapping licenses and transferred to the Idaho Wolf Depredation Control Board. Department spokesman Roger Phillips in Boise said the department is still tallying the costs.
The department has used helicopters and sharpshooters to reduce wolf numbers in the Lolo Zone for seven of the past eight years. Last year, 10 wolves were killed there. The nearly annual operation was not conducted in 2017.
Since the program began, an average of 14 wolves has been killed in the zone each year. In some years, the total has been higher. For example, 21 were killed in 2016, 19 in 2015 and 23 in 2014.
Jim Hayden, the department’s wolf manager in Coeur d’Alene, said the reduction in numbers killed in the past two years likely does not represent a decline in wolf numbers there. The agency is in the middle of a study that uses DNA samples in scat and hair to determine how many wolves are in the zone. Results are pending, but Hayden said wildlife biologists believe the zone still supports a healthy population of wolves.
“We really have not seen a decline in the number of wolves in the Lolo from anecdotal information,” he said. “So the number killed is related more to opportunity than it is to wolf numbers.”
For example, foul weather grounded the operation or made finding wolves difficult this year, he said.
The department authorizes wolf culling in areas where wolves are causing conflicts with livestock, people or are determined to be a significant factor in elk and deer populations not meeting objectives.
In a survey conducted in 2017, the department estimated about 1,900 elk were living in the zone that has a population objective of 6,100 to 9,100 cow elk and 1,300 to 1,900 bulls. In 1992, the department estimated the Lolo elk population at more than 10,000 animals. Since then, elk numbers have dropped because of habitat degradation, the harsh winter of 1996-97 and predation by wolves, black bears and mountain lions.
Where possible, the department uses hunting and trapping to manage wolf numbers. The rough terrain and snowy conditions of the Lolo Zone make access difficult during the winter, when wolves are most vulnerable to hunters and trappers.
This fall and winter, hunters and trappers have killed 18 wolves in the Lolo Zone. Trapping season runs through this month, and hunting season closes June 30.