VICTOR, Idaho— Population numbers released by the state of Idaho late last week showed an increase in wolf numbers from 659 in 2013 to 770 in 2014, suggesting an increased population. Idaho’s estimate, however, is based in large part on extrapolation and belied by a drop in the number of breeding pairs, which has sharply declined since 2009, when wolf hunts were first allowed. Last year Idaho reported just 26 breeding pairs down from 49 in 2009. It’s unknown whether this drop is because Idaho is verifying fewer packs or because breeding pairs have been lost, but either way it suggests a problem in Idaho’s monitoring of what was so recently an endangered species.
“Since 2009 more than 1,300 wolves have been hunted or trapped in Idaho, and another nearly 500 have been lethally removed from Idaho’s landscape,” said Andrea Santarsiere, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “In the face of these astounding numbers, it’s no wonder that Idaho may have experienced a nearly 50 percent drop in breeding pairs.”
Unlike Montana and Wyoming, Idaho does not base its population estimate solely on observation of wolf packs by the state’s biologists, but rather combines direct observations with extrapolated wolf numbers. Idaho’s biologists actually documented only 272 wolves in 43 packs, but the state claims 770 wolves in 104 packs based on hunter reports and an average pack size of 6.5 wolves. There are probably more than 43 packs, but because hunters likely report dispersing wolves or even coyotes and pack size varies considerably, the exact number is unknown. This is why both Montana and Wyoming present a minimum count of just the wolves that they themselves count.
“We don’t think wolves should be hunted at all,” said Santarsiere. “But with such aggressive killing of a species so recently considered endangered, there at least needs to be careful monitoring.”
Gray wolves were protected under the Endangered Species Act after being extirpated from most of the lower 48 states. In 1995 and 1996, the Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone National Park and other parts of the northern Rocky Mountains. In 2011 Congress took an unprecedented step to remove the protections of the Act from gray wolves in Idaho and Montana. Since then Idaho has allowed aggressive hunting and trapping of wolves across the state.