Wildlife officials say wolf populations in Idaho are steady

Wildlife managers in Boise, Idaho, said Thursday that wolf populations in Idaho remained steady at about 1,500 last year.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game announced the population estimate during the Idaho Fish and Game Commission meeting.

Wildlife officials said the estimate represents wolf numbers during August, and is based in part on information from a system of hundreds of tracking cameras scattered across the state in the wolf’s habitat.

Officials said the state’s wolf population has fluctuated every year for the past three years, from a high of around 1,800 in May when wolf pups are born and from lower to about 900 in April as wolves die from natural mortality, hunting or hunting.

Officials said the population numbered about 1,500 in each of the past three years in August.

Idaho lawmakers last year approved a law, backed by ranch owners, that dramatically expands killing of wolves in what some lawmakers said could reduce wolf populations by 90%. Supporters said this would reduce the number of wolves and attack livestock while increasing deer and elk herds.

This law entered into force on the 1st of July. Wildlife officials said Thursday that the population estimates for August may not reflect any possible coyote killings that occurred in the previous month when the new law was in effect.

“Very few, if any, changes are a result of a law that went into effect a month before this recognition was recognized in this estimate,” said Ed Shriver, director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

Shane Roberts, director of wildlife research at Fish and Game, said that roughly the same number of wolves were killed by hunters and poachers during the last six months of 2021 as in 2020. This suggests there hasn’t been a sharp increase in wolves being killed yet. The new law is in effect.

Idaho Department of Fish and Game officials have spent a significant amount of time defending the methodology for coming up with an estimate of the state’s wolf population, which they said is a unique effort in the United States.

“There have been multiple messages from people at this time who, because they don’t like the answer, have chosen to challenge the science and call the science wrong,” Shriver said. “On controversial topics, people just choose to take easy and uncertain pictures in science, and it’s not fair. It’s not right.”

The Western Watershed Project, an environmental group, and others have criticized the estimate of fish, game and wolf, saying the agency is overestimating the number of wolves in the state.

The state’s appreciation of wolves is important because in September the US Fish and Wildlife Service, at the request of environmental groups concerned about expanding wolf killings in neighboring Idaho and Montana, announced a year-long review to see whether wolves should be reclassified in the western United States. And again it gets federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. Such a move would disarm Idaho’s management of species.

In 2019, Roberts said, Department of Fish and Game officials began a new technique for estimating wolf abundance in the state using remote tracking cameras.

“It’s like having 500 sets of eyes in the field for two months in a row,” he said.

The 533 cameras are scheduled to take pictures simultaneously during July and August, Roberts said. Some areas have cameras in the well-known wolf habitat. He said that 9 million images were then put into a process to identify the wolves and then a mathematical formula was used to make an estimate of the population.

He added that many scientific papers supporting the method have been published.

Roberts said that extensive field collection of wolf skats used DNA to estimate the wolf population, then compared that number to the camera estimate. Average pack sizes and number of pups per pack were also used to obtain an estimate.

A fundamental change in Idaho law allows the state to hire private contractors to kill wolves and provides more money for state officials to hire contractors.

Idaho wildlife officials announced in October that the state would save $200,000 to split into payments to hunters and poachers who kill wolves in the state over the next summer.

Besides setting up the reimbursement program, the new law also expanded coyote killing methods to include catching and hunting wolves on a single hunting card, no restrictions on hunting hours, use of night vision gear with a permit, use of bait and dogs and permitting hunting from vehicles. It also authorized the hunting of wolves throughout the year on private property.