By STEVE STUEBNER
Life on the Range
Following the 1995 reintroduction of 15 wolves into the central Idaho wilderness, an additional 20 wolves were transplanted into Idaho from Canada for a total of 35.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wanted to make sure they brought enough adults into Idaho so they could pair up, set up territories and produce young.
The experiment worked extremely well. The Idaho wolf population took off rapidly, just as transplanted wolves did in Yellowstone National Park. Idaho wolf numbers quickly grew to the official recovery goal — 10 breeding pairs or 100-plus wolves — in just three years.
There was a record-high elk population in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness at the time — about 6,000 animals — so the wolves had plenty to eat.
“I didn’t expect them to take off quite like they did,” said Gary Power, who was then the Salmon region supervisor of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. “I figured they’d expand and do quite nicely because they had a food source.”
Wolf advocates were overjoyed. Matt Miller and his wife went camping in Bear Valley, hoping they would hear wolves. The lead science writer for The Nature Conservancy, Miller has traveled to Africa and Brazil to see large predators.
“We climbed into our sleeping bags that night, and all of a sudden, my wife said, ‘Is that a siren?’ We had grown up around coyotes, ‘It’s not a coyote, it’s wolves!’,” Miller said. “For the next 45 minutes, there was this deep howling, echoing across the canyon.”
But it wouldn’t take long for wolves to begin preying on livestock. Just nine days after the first wolves were transplanted into Idaho, Wolf B13 ventured 60 air miles to Salmon rancher Gene Hussey’s cattle pasture and was found dead from a gunshot wound, lying next to a dead calf that B13 had presumably killed.
The incident was an emotional flashpoint and made instant headlines in the local and national media. “It was my determination that the wolf killed the calf,” says Layne Bangerter, who skinned out the calf and performed a necropsy for USDA APHIS Wildlife Services.
The wolf kill confirmed what ranchers had feared all along — wolves would not necessarily stay inside federal wilderness boundaries; they would kill livestock on private ranchlands. This was the first of many incidents to come of wolves killing livestock.
“The citizens of Salmon and Challis were on edge,” Bangerter says. “The classic clash between the federal government and the state and local government was happening right in the Wild West of Idaho.”
FWS had to contract with the Nez Perce Tribe to do wolf field work and monitoring because the Idaho Legislature prohibited Fish and Game from assisting with wolf reintroduction in any way.
Knowing the political realities, FWS had bypassed the state with wolf reintroduction by releasing the animals on federally controlled national forest lands. They didn’t need state permission. If they had asked for it, they wouldn’t have gotten it.
“We were obviously very opposed to it,” says former State Sen. Laird Noh, a Kimberly sheep rancher. “It just seemed somewhat insane; it didn’t make sense that you would bring a wolf back into the environment when you had worked so long for so many years over so many generations to eliminate that pain and suffering to your livestock.”
The gulf between urban environmentalists who wanted wolves in Idaho and rural ranchers, some of them state legislators, who opposed wolves, was as wide as the Grand Canyon. Big-game hunters had mixed opinions. Some feared wolves would decimate elk and bighorn sheep herds.
“It was the most controversial wildlife issue I was ever involved in,” Power says. “The emotion on both sides of the spectrum, from those who said they’re going to eat all the children, to those who said there’s never been a problem, was just extremely tense.”
Meanwhile, USDA Wildlife Services responded to wolf depredation incidents in Idaho, sometimes trapping and relocating wolves or taking lethal action to prevent further livestock kills.
In 2002, the Legislature adopted a wolf management plan for Idaho, which FWS accepted. The Legislature was ready for Fish and Game to take over wolf management in Idaho. Idaho’s wolf population had already surpassed the benchmark for delisting three years in a row.
For wolves to be delisted, Montana and Wyoming also had to create wolf plans that were acceptable to FWS. Wyoming was slow in getting that done.
In January 2007, FWS published a rule in the Federal Register that delisted wolves from the Endangered Species Act in Idaho and Montana. Both states had met and exceeded all the legal requirements.
In response, a coalition of 13 environmental and animal rights groups sued the secretary of the interior, contending that it wasn’t appropriate to delist wolves only in Idaho and Montana. They argued that Wyoming’s wolf plan was too hostile toward wolves.
In 2010, a federal judge from Montana blocked delisting. Finally, in 2011, Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., attached a rider to an appropriations bill, delisting wolves in Montana and Idaho. The congressional maneuver was upheld in federal court.
Fish and Game launched hunting and trapping seasons in the fall of 2011. With state management in place now, Fish and Game could manage wolves as a big game animal with hunting and trapping seasons.
It had taken 16 years to get wolves removed from the endangered species list in Idaho, even though the state met the criteria for delisting in 2002.
“That was the camel’s nose,” says former Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter. “The unintended consequences were the fact that after the introduction, even with the denials, the populations of wolves exploded, the federal government had control of them, and they weren’t going to turn it over to the states.”
Delisting goal: 10 breeding pairs each in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Final environmental impact statement predicted wolves would kill about 10 cattle and 57 sheep per year when the population goal was reached.
1999: 140 wolves in Idaho, 12 packs, 65 pups minimum.* Wolves killed 19 cattle and 64 sheep.**
2003: 375 wolves in Idaho, 38 packs. Wolves killed 19 cattle, 173 sheep and six dogs.
2006: 673 wolves in Idaho, 76 packs. Wolves killed 40 cattle, 237 sheep and four dogs.
2009: 835 wolves in Idaho, 94 packs. Wolves killed 98 cattle, 442 sheep, and 15 dogs.
2009: IDFG holds its first wolf hunting season. More than 29,000 tags were sold, 135 wolves harvested.
2011: 850 animals, 101 packs in Idaho and 24 packs on the borders with Montana, Wyoming and Washington. Wolves killed 90 cattle, 147 sheep, seven dogs, four horses and two domestic bison.
*Wolf numbers and livestock depredation information compiled by the Nez Perce Tribe and Idaho Fish and Game in annual wolf-monitoring reports.
**Livestock depredation numbers show wolf kills that were confirmed or probable kills. They do not include livestock losses that were not confirmed.
Go to LifeontheRange.org to see the Idaho Rangeland Resource Commission’s five-part wolf series and feature-length videos. For Part 2, visit