Inside Idaho’s crackdown on wolves
For decades, Carter Niemeyer—wildlife biologist, avid hunter and former wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—has captured and collared gray wolves in Idaho and Montana.
A key player in the canines’ debut in central Idaho 25 years ago, Niemeyer served as a member of the state’s original wolf-capture team, retrieving the animals from the Canadian backcountry after they were darted and transferring them into a helicopter.
According to Niemeyer, who also served as Montana Wildlife Services’ western supervisor, a greater emphasis was put on wolf relocation back in the day.
“It used to be that every wolf counted,” he said. “We would move the ones that strayed too far [into urban areas] back into the backcountry. Now it seems to be the opposite.”
Idaho’s wolf-relocation program fizzled out in tandem with wolf population growth. Starting in 2009, Idaho’s wolves began flip-flopping between classifications as state-managed big game animals and federally protected species.
A federal judge nullified the decision to delist wolves as endangered species in 2009. In 2011, with the help of Rep. Mike Simpson, they were delisted again. With the animals pulled from the federal Endangered Species Act that year, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game officially took over the reins of wolf management from the federal government—a superintendence that continues today.
The Fish and Game Commission has continually pushed for more relaxed wolf-hunting rules and more wolf-hunting opportunities in the past year, much to the benefit of hunters, trappers and ranchers in Idaho. On Feb. 20, the commission formally authorized year-round wolf hunting in most of the state’s game units, citing chronic predation by wolves on “livestock, domestic animals and elk.”
In interviews with the Express, several wolf advocates, including Niemeyer, argued that the reasoning behind the year-round hunt—and other state-backed wolf killing activities—is not backed by the data.
Most of Idaho’s game units have experienced fewer livestock depredations in the last year, according to Idaho Wildlife Services statistics. From July 2019 to this past June, Wildlife Services confirmed 102 wolf depredations on livestock across the state, a 42 percent drop from the 175 confirmed depredations in the 2019 season.
Whereas Wildlife Services is tasked with killing wolves for the protection of domestic livestock, Fish and Game oversees the protection of wild ungulates. The department dispatched over 35 wolves in aerial gunning operations this year to reduce depredations on elk.
According to a recently published Fish and Game hunting outlook, however, Idaho is in a “golden age” of elk hunting.
“Fish and Game is currently meeting or exceeding its population goals for bull elk in 17 of 22 elk zones, and 16 out of 22 for cow elk,” wrote Rick Ward, Deer and Elk Program Coordinator. “We are in the second golden age of Idaho elk hunting.”
Niemeyer acknowledged that in the Lolo Zone near the Montana border, elk populations are notably weaker than in the rest of the state and wolves prey on the ungulates more frequently.
“Yes, elk number have dropped there, but environmental factors have a much greater impact on the herds than wolves,” he said. “You can’t grow elk in that kind of country.”
One misguided assumption is that fewer wolves equal more elk, Niemeyer said—elk numbers have actually increased in most parts of the state since wolf introduction.
“Elk herds are stable,” he said. “For people to keep repeating this mythology that wolves have been detrimental to elk makes no sense to me as a biologist, hunter and trapper. [It] is not backed by any science.”
Silver Creek-area farmer Larry Schoen, a former Blaine County Commissioner who serves on the nonprofit Wood River Wolf Project’s steering committee, agreed.
“We have record elk population numbers in the state, yet people are convinced that wolves are destroying elk populations in Idaho,” he said.
On Feb. 21, one day after the year-round wolf hunt was announced, Fish and Game crews targeted wolves in the Lolo Zone, killing a total of 17 wolves.
Regional Fish and Game Wildlife Manager Clay Hickey wrote in an email to the Express that the Fish and Game removal operation in February was based on a “predation management plan.”
“In short, it was driven by performance of prey populations, or in this case, elk,” Hickey said.
A closer look at 2020 wolf mortality data from Fish and Game reveals that the 17 wolves killed during the operation came from five packs.
In one pack, seven out of eight wolves were dispatched via shotgun. (The remaining animal, which had been radio-collared a month earlier, was pardoned for future tracking.) In another, four out of seven wolves were killed. In yet another pack, three out of six. A smaller pack of three was reduced to one lone wolf, which, like in the first pack, was outfitted with a radio collar.
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“Wolves will be managed as big game animals, similar to black bears and mountain lions,” the Idaho Department of Fish and Game states in its wolf-management plan. “Hunting seasons will be set by the Idaho Fish and Game Commission.”
From his experience working with Wildlife Services—including time spent gunning down wolves from the air—Niemeyer said that plan isn’t being followed today.
“Wolves are not managed similarly to bears or mountain lions. There aren’t year-round seasons on bears and lions,” he said. “No one can kill female bears or lions accompanied by their young, but any wolf pup and its mother can be killed—it’s simply retribution politics.”
In Wildlife Services lingo, wolves with tracking collars are referred to as “Judas wolves,” Niemeyer said. The “Judas wolf” is a tool to enable Wildlife Services crews to key in on a pack from a plane or helicopter using a radio telemetry unit.
“If you make a flight and see a pack, you’ll shoot the entire group except the Judas wolf. You’ll go back a few days or weeks later, again find that Judas wolf and kill any surviving members of that pack,” he said. “If you find the Judas wolf alone, you’ll either leave it for next year, so you can kill more wolves, or shoot it and take its collar off.”
Schoen said the Wood River Wolf Project used to collar wolves to keep track of the animals in the Wood River basin after they first began denning in the area in 2007.
“Having a livestock producer being able to track wolves’ locations with collars was very helpful, and producers could prepare their [sheep] flocks for the night,” he said. “But hunters started asking why these ‘wolf-lovers’ were allowed to use these collars, and they weren’t. Around 2009, Fish and Game no longer provided the project with collars.”
Schoen said that many ranchers will call Fish and Game after experiencing livestock depredations to request lethal control—and Wildlife Services will execute that control.
“If a livestock producer asks for lethal control action, [Wildlife Services] is Johnny-on-the-spot,” he said. “I’ve observed several cases over the last couple of years in which it’s not been determinable at all that wolves have been responsible, yet my observation is that wolves typically pay the price.”
Niemeyer said in predation investigations, Wildlife Services agents will perform necropsies on dead livestock and locate wolf packs in close proximity.
“It’s assumed one or more of those wolves in that pack are responsible, so the whole pack will be killed,” he said.
Records recently obtained by the Idaho Mountain Express reveal that five wolf pups north of Carey were dispatched by rifle in a Wildlife Services control operation on May 28, 2020. Another wolf pup and a female adult wolf with the pack, presumably the mother, were killed two days prior.
“The number of juvenile wolves removed from a pack is not necessarily related to a difference in wolf behaviors between young and adult wolves, but more often with what individuals are encountered during management operations,” Gail Keirn, a spokeswoman for federal Wildlife Services, wrote in an email response to the Idaho Mountain Express.
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Both Idaho’s Wildlife Services and Department of Fish and Game are allowed to conduct preemptive strikes in areas with historic livestock or ungulate loss to wolves.
“[Game officers] are permitted to shoot wolves before they kill anything,”
Niemeyer said. “You don’t have to prove that that animal killed a herd of elk, or a herd of sheep.”
Ultimately, lethal control reigns in Idaho as the status quo today because government agencies aren’t willing to invest the same kind of money in nonlethal measures, Niemeyer said. He believes the average livestock producer also wants to see a tangible “fix” after losing his or her animals to a wolf.
“With nonlethal methods it’s difficult to show that you’re doing any good. A dead predator is measurable ‘good,’ and the [killing] agent will get a pat on the back from the rancher,” Niemeyer said. “But after spending thousands of dollars killing wolves that will just come back, year after year, are we really farther ahead or are we throwing money at a bottomless pit?”