As many as 428 wild gray wolves will be allowed to die in Idaho this year under a plan approved by the Idaho Fish and Game Commission in Jerome on Thursday.
That's 100 more than originally proposed by staff biologists with the Department of Fish and Game prior to this week's much-anticipated meeting. Both tallies—the level proposed by Fish and Game staff and the higher number approved by the politically appointed commissioners—would represent all reported wolf deaths in the state this year. It will include deaths from natural causes, accidents, wolf predation-control actions and hunter kills.
Speaking after the commissioners' consideration of proposed rules for what may be the first-ever managed wolf hunt in the state later this fall, Fish and Game director Cal Groen noted the significance of the decision.
"It's time to take a collective sigh," Groen said. "This is history."
Wolves living in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, eastern Washington, eastern Oregon and northern Utah were officially removed from protection under the federal Endangered Species Act on March 28. The delisting transferred management duties from the federal government to wildlife management agencies in the six states.
Groen said that despite the high number of wolves that could die under the approved plan, state wildlife managers will still manage the predator at levels higher than the federal government originally agreed was an acceptable level for recovery in the northern Rockies prior to their reintroduction in Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in 1995-96. The original plan stated that wolves would be delisted in the region when they achieved a minimum of 30 breeding pairs and at least 300 wolves split between the states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming for three consecutive years. That threshold was achieved in 2002.
As of this spring, Idaho has more than 1,000 wolves statewide, Fish and Game estimates.
Idaho's wolf management plan calls for managing wolves at a population level of 500-700 wolves for the first five years following delisting. The plan envisions using hunting as one of the primary tools to control the population.
Even if the 428 figure is reached, the state will have far more than the federal government originally proposed, Groen said.
"We're saying we are going to be at least five times above (federal) government recovery levels," he said.
But still hanging over the entire discussion of wolf management in Idaho and the other states is a lawsuit filed by 12 conservation groups in April that seeks to overturn the delisting decision. U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy is set to consider the lawsuit during a May 29 hearing in Missoula, Mont.
Groen contended that overturning the delisting would be detrimental to Idaho as well as future endangered species recovery.
Also Thursday, Fish and Game commissioners set the statewide season for wolf hunting this fall should conservationists fail to overturn the Northern Rockies delisting. In this first year, hunters will be able to pursue wolves from Sept. 15 to Dec. 31. From Sept. 15 until Oct.1, only Idaho's backcountry areas in the Frank Church-River of No Return and Selway Bitterroot wilderness areas will be open to wolf hunting. Hunters will be able to use any weapon during that time.
From Oct. 1 through Dec. 31, all of Idaho will be open to wolf hunting and hunters will be able to use any weapon.
According to Fish and Game, achieving the quota would result in an estimated population of 500-700 wolves at the end of 2008.
Though some commissioners indicated they'd like to see a longer season, in the end they chose to take what they deemed a more "cautious" approach. However, during their upcoming November meeting, the commission will consider whether to extend the season depending on how it's progressing.
"It seems like a good compromise," said Cameron Wheeler of Ririe, the commissioner representing the Upper Snake Region in eastern Idaho.
A provision of the proposed hunting rules Fish and Game commissioners approved states that once the statewide quota is reached, all hunting will cease. Similarly, once pre-set quotas in individual wolf hunting zones is reached, hunting in those zones will stop.
Under the rules, holders of Idaho hunting licenses and wolf tags would be allowed to harvest one wolf. The cost of a resident Idaho wolf tag will be $10.50.
Under the previously established mortality quotas for each management zone, as many as 50 wolves would be allowed to die this year in north-central Idaho's Lolo wolf zone, which covers Big Game units 11 and 12. In the Southern Mountains wolf region, which covers all of the Wood River Valley and extends east through the Pioneers, White Knob, Lost River and Lemhi ranges to the Montana border, Fish and Game originally set a mortality figure of 34 wolves for 2008.
But because the commissioners upped the statewide mortality amount, the additional 100 deaths will be spread out among all the state's wolf zones.
Fish and Game will establish a hotline for hunters to call in to find out if the wolf quota has been met in the wolf zones and statewide. Hunters will be required to report the taking of a wolf within 72 hours after it's been harvested. Fish and Game will require that external evidence of sex be left attached to the animal's hide until the mandatory check requirement has been satisfied. Though hunters will not be required to retrieve meat from a harvested wolf, they will have to present the animal's hide and skull to a Fish and Game regional office within 10 days of the kill.
Under the proposed rules, wolves will not be allowed to be harvested by trapping or through the use of bait, electronic calling or dogs. While radio-collared wolves will be allowed to be shot, Fish and Game is asking hunters to avoid harvesting them so it can continue to monitor them.
In the end, Groen asked for the trust of everyone as Idaho wildlife managers embark on this new path of managing wolves. He said wolves join a list of 11 other big game species Idaho managers must keep watch over.
"I think our staff are very good managers," he said.
This story first appeared in the Idaho Mountain Express on May 23, 2008.