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Idaho hunters: Wolves taking too many elk

Becky Kramer The Spokesman-Review

KELLOGG – Steve Blahunka used to bow hunt in Idaho’s St. Joe region, but he switched his hunting grounds after he and his buddies saw fewer and fewer elk.

Wolves are having an impact on North Idaho’s elk herds, and Blahunka isn’t happy about it.

“I don’t want wolves, I want elk,” said the Pinehurst resident. “My family wants to eat elk.”

That was a common sentiment at the Shoshone County Sportsmen’s Association breakfast here Saturday, where about 150 people gathered to hear Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s proposals for the 2012 hunting season.

The department is recommending moving to a “bull only” general hunting season for elk in the Idaho Panhandle, with a limited number of either sex permits in some units.

By restricting hunting on cow elk, department officials hope to ease pressure on elk herds in the St. Joe, where wolves have had the greatest impact and elk calf survival is low, said Jim Hayden, Fish and Game’s regional wildlife manager. They also hope to keep elk herds healthy in the Coeur d’Alene River drainage, where wolf packs are expanding.

“Looking over the top of the St. Joe divide, we’ve got a problem there and we don’t want the same situation in the Coeur d’Alenes,” Hayden told the crowd.

Wolves aren’t the only natural predators of elk, Hayden reminded the audience. Bears eat elk calves, too, and last year’s rainy, cold spring also affected calf survival. But many in the crowd put the blame for low elk calf numbers squarely on wolves.

“Hunting is a lifestyle for a lot of families in the valley,” said Robin Stanley, a director for the sportsmen’s association. “They’re frustrated that they are having to give up their season because of the wolves.”

Idaho is in its second year of allowing hunting and trapping wolves, which were reintroduced to central Idaho in the mid-1990s. The state is acting aggressively to lower wolf populations, but doesn’t want to trigger a lawsuit that could result in a re-listing of gray wolves under the Endangered Species Act, either, said Tony McDermott, chairman of Idaho’s Fish and Game Commission.

To ensure that doesn’t happen, Idaho is committed to keeping at least 150 wolves in 15 packs.

However, “we’ve got a bellyful of wolves. We understand the problem,” McDermott told the crowd. “We didn’t raise these elk herds in Idaho to feed them to the wolves.”

Hayden said that hunters and trappers are making a dent in the Panhandle’s wolf population. Sixty-seven wolves have been killed so far, and Hayden expects a harvest of about 80 when the season closes March 31.

Together with natural mortality, illegal kills and hunting in Montana of wolves belonging to border packs, he anticipates a modest net decline in the Idaho Panhandle’s wolf population.

Last summer’s estimate was 130 wolves in the Panhandle, with another 130 wolves in border packs that use territory in both North Idaho and Montana or North Idaho and British Columbia. However, those figures don’t include new pups.

Fish and Game officials are recommending that Panhandle hunters and trappers be allowed to take up to five wolves each, or up to 10 wolves for an individual with both licenses. Hayden said the proposal would reward the most skilled wolf hunters and trappers, but predicted that few people would bag the full limit.

In response to audience questions, Hayden said he doesn’t recommend extending the wolf season into May or June, even though the longer season would reduce predation on elk calves. Hayden said such a season would give the impression that Idaho condoned “shooting (wolf) puppies,” and create public image problems for the state.

Public input on the 2012 hunting proposals will be accepted through Saturday. The Fish and Game Commission will make the final decision on seasons.