Idaho Fish and Game proposed a plan to kill majority of wolves. Officials just OK’d it

The Idaho Fish and Game Commission unanimously approved a wolf management plan that will slash the state’s wolf population by nearly two-thirds over the next several years.

The plan has been the subject of controversy since it was first made public in January. Fish and Game Wildlife Bureau Chief Jon Rachael presented a draft of the plan to the commission, outlining the agency’s goal of whittling the estimated population of 1,337 wolves to 500 animals — a 62% cut.

Scientists and conservation groups have said the trail camera wolf-counting method that the Idaho Department of Fish and Game uses to get its population estimates is deeply flawed and likely overestimates wolf numbers. They argued the agency’s target population of 500 is not enough to sustain genetic diversity and, if it’s the result of overestimation, could bring Idaho closer to a threshold triggering federal wolf management.

What new wolf management plan does

The new wolf management plan dictates the population goals for the species and gives Fish and Game a blueprint on how to get there. It lays out goals of reducing wolf predation on other wildlife, like elk and deer, where those wildlife populations aren’t meeting Fish and Game goals; reducing wolf depredation on livestock; improving wolf monitoring techniques and stabilizing the wolf population around 500 individuals.

The management plan does not affect wolf hunting or trapping seasons — those are set separately by the Fish and Game Commission.

Wolf advocates say the plan is unnecessarily aggressive. Suzanne Asha Stone, director of International Wildlife Coexistence Network, told the Idaho Statesman when the plan was unveiled that she was disappointed in the agency’s proposal.

“It’s not management when you’re pressuring a wildlife population at such a low level,” Stone said. “That’s just persecution.”

Wolf population already on the decline

Wolves were eradicated from Idaho in the early 1900s and reintroduced in 1995 and 1996 in a partnership between the federal government and the Nez Perce Tribe. The tribe led management efforts until 2009, when the population was deemed recovered enough to remove wolves from Endangered Species Act protections and turn management over to Fish and Game.

Fish and Game opened up hunting and trapping seasons, but wolves were briefly relisted under the Endangered Species Act. Those protections were removed again in 2011, and Fish and Game has managed the population — and hunting and trapping of wolves — since then.

In 2019, Idaho Fish and Game began using a new method to count wolves. It’s modeled after a system in which hundreds of randomly placed trail cameras snap photos at the same time.

However, Fish and Game has placed its cameras — which take photos both at timed intervals and when motion is detected — near trails and roads where it says wolves are most likely to travel. That deviation from the model is what critics say makes the population estimates inaccurate, though Fish and Game officials told the Idaho Statesman they stand by the estimates.

In 2019, the agency’s wolf population estimate was 1,545. Since then, wolf hunting and trapping laws in Idaho have shifted significantly. In 2020, the Fish and Game Commission extended wolf hunting and trapping seasons to be year-round in much of the state. The next year, the Legislature removed tag limits for how many wolves a hunter or trapper can kill.

Fish and Game’s wolf population estimates held steady around 1,500 animals until 2022, when that number fell by 13% to 1,337. In January, Fish and Game officials said it wasn’t exactly clear what had contributed to the population decline. The agency saw a similar decline in the number of wolves killed in 2022 compared with previous years.

Rachael said Fish and Game can expect to bring numbers down to 500 if hunting and trapping continues around its current pace.

From 2019 to 2021, humans killed 515 wolves every year, on average — or about one-third of the population. Rachael told commissioners in January that Idaho would need to kill 37% of the wolf population annually to reach the goal population of 500 wolves by 2028.