BOISE — Most ranchers and farmers were howling mad when the federal government announced plans to reintroduce wolves in Idaho starting in 1995.
During standing-room-only public hearings on bringing the predators back to the state, “Almost to a person, rural Idaho said, ‘We don’t want wolves here,’” said Idaho Farm Bureau Federation spokesman John Thompson. “The federal government completely disregarded what those people in rural areas said.”
Twenty-three years later, that bitterness still remains — and so does the debate — over bringing wolves to Idaho.
The initial 35 gray wolves released during 1995 and 1996 in central Idaho came from Alberta, Canada. More wolves were also released to the east in Yellowstone National Park.
At first, Idaho wolf numbers skyrocketed, peaking at an estimated 856 in 2009 before subsiding to the current 700. In the meantime, the number of wolf depredations of livestock has also stabilized.
To some, the state has reach something of an equilibrium in regard to wolf numbers and their impact on livestock and wildlife.
Rancher Wyatt Prescott, former executive vice president of the Idaho Cattle Association, said that, all things considered, the state is doing a pretty good job of managing the predators, and the stable population and depredation numbers show that.
“We’re in a good spot,” he said. “But we still need to remain active in managing wolves that are taking out livestock.”
But those at ground zero — producers who continue to lose animals to the predators — feel very differently about wolves.
“You’re not in a good place if you’re producing the livestock they are killing,” said Richard Savage, a past president of the cattle association. He ranches in Clark County, near the Montana border in Eastern Idaho. “That’s still a major concern.”
Congress took wolves in Idaho off the federal endangered species list in 2011. The state then assumed management of the animals from the federal government for a five-year probationary period. In 2017, the state assumed full management of wolves without federal oversight.
Idaho stopped estimating its wolf population after 2015, when the population was about 786. It had varied between 681 and 786 from the years 2010 to 2015.
“Based on the trend between 2010 and 2015, I’d say the population remains within that range,” said Idaho Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist Jim Hayden, who manages the wolf program. Idaho now manages wolves based on the total number of packs — 108 — using a network of trail cameras across the state to monitor them.
Some livestock producers believe the wolf population is much higher than the estimate.
Wilder, Idaho, sheep rancher Frank Shirts said wolves in the hills howl around his sheep every night.
“They have way more wolves than they think they have,” he said at his ranch 40 miles west of Boise. “If the men aren’t with the sheep 24 hours a day, wolves are going to be in there because they’re everywhere....”
The Farm Bureau’s Thompson agrees.
“I don’t think people realize they’re all around us,” he said. “They’re in the Boise foothills. They’re everywhere that coyotes are.”
Idaho’s wolf population had been growing at about 28 percent a year and peaked at about 856 in 2009. But that trend stopped once the state began a wolf hunting season for part of 2009 and then resumed it in 2011 after a lawsuit temporarily halted it.
Idaho hunters have harvested between 205 and 358 wolves annually since 2012. About 62,000 wolf hunting tags are purchased each year.
Impact of hunting
Hunting has “absolutely had an impact,” said Todd Grimm, the Idaho director of Wildlife Services, a USDA agency that resolves conflicts between humans and animals.
“When sportsmen and trappers are able to remove (up to) 350 wolves a year, it stops wolves from overpopulating in those areas and spilling over into the agricultural areas,” Grimm said.
But not everyone supports hunting wolves. Defenders of Wildlife is one of the conservation groups that has been most active in supporting the animals’ return to Idaho.
The organization advocates non-lethal control methods to keep wolves away from livestock and believes the evidence shows that it reduces livestock depredations in the long-term, said Suzanne Stone, the group’s regional director.
“Lethal control can cause more livestock losses long-term than using non-lethal control methods,” she said. “If your goal is to minimize livestock depredations, then you need non-lethal methods to do that.”
Thompson said non-lethal methods are expensive and have never been proven to be effective.
“I think that’s a load of crap,” he said about the assertion non-lethal control works better than lethal control for problem wolves.
Attacks add up
Since wolves were reintroduced in Idaho in 1995, 396 livestock producers have reported confirmed wolf depredations, according to Wildlife Services.
The agency has conducted more than 2,150 wolf depredation investigations since 1995 and confirmed more than 1,400 attacks on livestock and domestic animals. Confirmed and probable wolf kills of livestock and domestic animals since then include 4,068 sheep, 1,055 cattle, 102 dogs, 10 horses and one bison, according to Wildlife Services.
That doesn’t include hundreds more animals that were injured by wolves.
And it doesn’t include other losses that ranchers believe are due to wolves but that they can’t prove, partly because the animals can’t be found, said Shirts, who estimates he has lost 300 sheep to wolves. Most of those are unconfirmed.
Shirts also says the pounds that his lambs don’t put on due to the presence of wolves is where he takes the biggest financial hit. He estimates harassment by wolves makes his average lamb eight pounds lighter. At $1.50 a pound, that’s about $12 a lamb — and he runs 15,000 lambs a year.
“Weight gain losses are costing me a couple hundred thousand dollars a year,” he said.
Stone, of the Defenders of Wildlife, maintains that “there is no proof that wolves being present causes weight loss in livestock.”
Given the total number of livestock that die for other reasons such as illness, Idaho’s wolf depredation numbers are minimal, Stone said. “We’ve never had a large number of livestock lost to wolves in Idaho.”
She said her group ”would like to see more wolves out there and have them less harassed than they are now.”
“I think Idaho is still heavy-handed when it comes to wolves and has a lot to learn,” Stone said. “We’re hopeful Idaho will learn to live with wolves and let go of some of these archaic killing programs and work on improving their management.”
Ranchers directly impacted by the animals have a far different take. Most would prefer the state take more lethal control actions.
“There are a lot of wolves in Idaho,” said Cascade, Idaho, cattle rancher Phil Davis, who has had more than 60 confirmed cattle losses due to wolves. “We have to use every tool we have available to us to keep the numbers at an acceptable level.”
Shirts said pro-wolf advocates have no skin in the game and don’t feel the pain the producers do.
“These people that want to hear them howl, they’re not paying anything for that,” he said. “We’re the ones paying for it. How would they feel if someone was sneaking into their house and eating the groceries out of their house every day?”
Ranchers are indemnified for livestock that is confirmed as killed by wolves, but it doesn’t make up for the added time, effort and expenses of dealing with the predators, the lost weight in livestock or the losses that can’t be confirmed as wolf kills, they said.
Dustin Miller, who manages the Idaho Governor’s Office of Species Conservation, said the state will always maintain a robust population of wolves to prevent the federal government from putting them back on the endangered species list, but it will also continue to respond to problem wolves and the concerns of the livestock community.
Idaho is now “managing wolves ourselves and we intend to keep it that way,” Gov. Butch Otter, a rancher, told Capital Press in an email.
“With more than 700 of the big carnivores now roaming our state, Idaho wildlife managers are working full-time to ensure wolf numbers stay above recovery thresholds while aggressively removing those that prey on livestock and weaken our deer and elk herds,” Otter said.