Official credits mild weather, relaxed tag rules for success
By JOHN O'CONNELL
Idaho and Montana sportsmen bought thousands more wolf tags and have killed more animals in their second season of hunting the controversial predators.
Idaho sold 43,300 tags for its 2011-12 hunt, which began Aug. 30. That includes 3,600 tags sold to nonresidents taking advantage of lower fees.
With all but the Lolo and Selway zones closed effective March 31 -- those two zones remain open through June 30 -- Idaho hunters and trappers have harvested 375 wolves. Another 27 wolves have been killed by other government control actions.
During the 2009-10 season, Idaho hunters harvested fewer than 200 wolves and bought 32,000 tags. That year, nonresidents purchased only 684 tags.
The state's official wolf population estimate was 746 at the start of 2012 but the population ranges upward to more than 1,000, depending on the time of year, according to the Idaho Fish and Game Department website.
Tags for the season concluding this summer sold for $11.50 to residents and $31.75 for out-of-staters. It appears the top zone will be the Panhandle, where 74 wolves were killed. Niels Nokkentved, of the department, said hunters had their best luck in October. Trappers, who had a shorter season that covered just five zones, fared best in February.
Nokkentved suspects increased tag sales, a change allowing hunters to hold two wolf tags and mild winter weather contributed to improved hunting results.
Montana sold 18,689 tags, including 158 to nonresidents, and 166 wolves were harvested during a hunt that began in early September 2011 and ended on Feb. 15. That compares with a 2009-10 hunt in which 15,500 tags were sold and 72 animals were harvested.
Wolf hunting was suspended for a season based on a federal court ruling finding fault with Wyoming's wolf management plan. It was restored in Montana and Idaho by an amendment to a federal budget bill by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. In mid-March, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Congress had the right to intervene.
Idaho will release new wolf hunt rules in mid-April, and Montana will set its season in July.
"We're optimistic hunting is going to help as a management tool," said Ron Aasheim, spokesman with the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department. Other options will be discussed to "get closer to a balance."
Idaho rancher Phil Davis would like to see trapping expanded to the Cascade area to protect his operation.
Davis, who lost five yearlings to suspected wolf kills last season, suspects the state's wolf population estimate is low and doubts depredations will decrease when he brings his livestock back for grazing in May.
Tag sale numbers demonstrate to Davis that "a lot of people have figured out that wolves are an obstruction to game animals. Out-of-staters used to come here and hunt elk. They don't any more," he said.
Wyatt Prescott, executive vice president of the Idaho Cattle Association, has no doubt the hunt helps the industry but considers it just one tool among many to control wolves. He noted depredations decreased following the 2009-10 hunt.
"Hunts definitely are going to have a positive impact, but there's still so many challenges, and the depredation is way out of control," Prescott said. "We need to keep reducing the number of wolves."