EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final installment of a five-part series on wolves and their effect on Western life.
Nearly 25 years after Rocky Mountain gray wolves were reintroduced to Central Idaho, wolves have had a negative impact on ranching and rural communities that likely will never go away and could get worse, officials say.
In the past two years, wolves set new records for killing cattle and sheep in Idaho. They also killed farm animals such as horses, goats and llamas. These were just the confirmed kills.
The story of wolf recovery in Idaho is largely a story about broken promises, unfunded mandates and challenging wildlife management, officials say.
Wolves were intended to stay inside the Central Idaho Wilderness, but they didn’t. Wolves were supposed to be delisted from the Endangered Species Act after 10 breeding pairs recolonized the Central Idaho wilderness, but they weren’t. Wolf numbers exploded in Idaho to an estimated minimum population of 800 to 1,000 wolves, occupying the mountains from Interstate 84 to Canada.
Big-game hunters say that wolves have changed elk hunting in Idaho forever in areas where wolves are now full-time residents. Wolves have a 30-40 percent reproductive rate.
“The fact is, there’s more wolves born each year than have been harvested in any given season,” notes Justin Webb, executive director of the Foundation for Wildlife Management.
The record number of wolf kills suggests that existing wolf-management could be more aggressive to reduce wolf numbers in problem areas, ranchers, hunters and landowners say. Hunting and trapping of wolves have occurred since 2011, but those methods are barely putting a dent in the wolf population.
“We’ve gotta have some solutions somewhere,” adds Chase Whittaker, a Leadore rancher. “The wolf needs to be scared of something, but right now, they’re not really scared of anything.”
Whittaker’s family runs the Two Dot Ranch near Leadore in the Lemhi River Valley and the Lemhi Mountains. They had 10 confirmed livestock kills by wolves most recently, and three years ago, they lost 45 calves that just flat disappeared in the mountains and were never confirmed — a combined loss of about $45,000.
“That’s catastrophic to lose something like that,” Whittaker says. “If you’re going to run livestock, you’re going to be productive, you can’t have these predators preying all the time.”
Since 1995, wolves have killed more than 982 cattle, 3,150 sheep, and 53 guard dogs, causing $1.6 million in damages and impacting 435 ranchers statewide. Smaller numbers of llamas, border collies, horses, goats and other animals have been killed by wolves, as well. Federal officials predicted that wolves would kill 10 cattle, 57 sheep and up to 1,650 big game animals per year.
Wolves were reintroduced to wilderness areas in Central Idaho by the federal government in 1995 to bring an apex predator back to the ecosystem. The idea was that wolves would weed out sick and weak big game animals and make the wildlife populations and the ecosystem healthier.
But that’s not really how things have played out, says Virgil Moore, who retired in January as the director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Idaho would realize an $8.5 million positive net benefit from bringing wolves back to Idaho in 1995.
“Certainly the existence value of a particular species on the landscape has a calculated benefit, but I will tell you that the amount of taxpayer dollars and sportsmen’s resources has been expended to manage wolves has far exceeded that amount,” Moore says. “We waited so long to implement management actions. And this predator dominated the landscape in a growth scale that they over-ate the forage base in many areas.”
Wolves need to eat about 9 pounds of red meat per day. Their main prey species are elk, deer and moose.
“The challenges with hunting alone have been drastic,” says Benn Brocksome, executive director of the Idaho Sportsmen’s Alliance. “Wolves have really diminished the populations in different areas.”
“We were already managing to ensure that elk herds don’t obtain unhealthy levels,” Moore says. “We’ve had cougars and black bears living on elk for a lot of years. We threw another predator on there that did not have habitat-specific needs. It simply had a forage need. And they exploded on the landscape and upset that balance.”
Nowadays, wolves are mainly living in agriculture-wildland interface areas in Idaho, where large numbers of elk are living, and they are causing unprecedented damage to livestock, private property and rural economies, officials say.
Wolves are a pursuit predator, meaning they chase and run down prey. They are nocturnal, killing prey in the middle of the night. Few people, if anyone, can hear the screams of livestock or farm animals getting killed by wolves.
To Whitebird rancher Ray Stowers, who lost 4 calves to wolves last winter, it’s quite a shock. Stowers felt like the wolves had the same impact as an L.A. gang throwing a brick through his family’s living room window. “It’s a pretty gut-wrenching feeling that you have to live with,” Stowers says.
“I honestly look at our cows as part of our family. I mean I treat ‘em well. It’s just one of them deals where you just get this knot in your stomach, and every morning when you go around the corner, where you can first see where your cows are, and think, ‘I wonder what happened last night? I wonder who got killed?’”
After wolves were delisted from the Endangered Species Act in 2011, Idaho’s primary method of controlling wolf numbers — hunting and trapping by sportsmen — has reduced the level of concern by big-game hunters, Moore says.
“We saw this what I would call, hate, disgust, angst, you name the descriptor, it went way down,” Moore says.
A third method of management in Idaho is USDA APHIS Wildlife Services responds to instances of direct wolf predation. The Idaho Wolf Depredation Control Board contributes $400,000 a year to Wildlife Services to assist with control efforts. Sportsmen, ranchers and the general public contribute to the fund through the Idaho Legislature.
Several ranchers engage in non-lethal management techniques to prevent wolves from killing livestock, including the sheep ranchers working together with the Wood River Wolf Project and Pahsimeroi cattle rancher Glenn Elzinga. Those efforts cost more money, but so far, they are working well, officials said.
“I think they’re beautiful animals,” Linnea Elzinga says of wolves. “I think we can co-exist with them. A lot of people hate them because the damage they do to cattle, and things like that, but I think there’s a way to co-exist with them.”
The Foundation for Wildlife Management, with $25,000 from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and $30,000 from IDFG, has created a cash-reimbursement system to incentivize hunters and trappers to harvest more wolves in hunting units that have been most adversely affected.
“We have a problem. Our elk and moose are suffering horribly, we need to do something now, to make a difference,” says Justin Webb.
IDFG may use more aggressive controls and liberalize seasons, Moore says.
“We don’t know everything yet,” he says. “This is a grand experiment. If you look at what the original ’95 plan called for, those best scientists on the ground, projected that we would have only a couple of hundred wolves, and they would only exist in Yellowstone and the Frank and backcountry wilderness areas. Since that time, everything we had on paper in ’95 kind of went out the window, and we’ve been chasing this ever since.”
Go to lifeontherange.org to see a full-length story and video on Part 5 – Wolf Management in Idaho and the rest of the Idaho Rangeland Resource Commission’s 5-part educational series about wolves.