Amongst the usual dustups over education funding, university micro-management and hot issues like gun control and abortion, it wouldn’t be an Idaho legislative session without at least one or two wolf bills.
This year, there there’s an appropriation request to add $400,000 to the Fish & Game budget from the general fund specifically for wolf pack counting. Fish & Game has relied on filled wolf tag numbers to gauge populations, but that’s only a rough estimate. The predator population was estimated at over 1,500 in the state as of last August, a record. About 460 wolves were taken by tags, traps and or following livestock depredation. (Idaho Press, Jan. 28.)
The second proposal would establish a broad “wolf free” zone, roughly south of the Snake River across Southern Idaho. (Idaho Press, Jan. 22.) The region doesn’t have any known wolf packs, but the animals are known to widely range. One was taken just north of Rupert in 2018; it was from a known Yellowstone pack, far to the east. Another was killed on Interstate Hwy. 84 near Glenns Ferry a few years ago, just on the north side of the Snake River. The measure would allow the taking of wolves year-round in the designated areas, with Fish & Game monitoring the kills and a “floor” set on allowable takings. (Senate Bill 1247)
The wolf count appropriation money may give some legislators heartburn. If the population estimate is right, (1500) that’s $266 per wolf “howl count;” but good management of the population means Fish & Game will need an accurate number.
Idaho has had a wolf depredation problem ever since the predators were reintroduced into the state by the federal government in the 1980s and 1990s over state objections. Ranchers complained, but they were essentially over-ridden by “back to nature” environmentalists who prevailed by heavy lobbying in Congress and expensive “ain’t-those pups-cute” popular television and slick marketing appeals.
Except that wolves are vicious predators too, hunting in packs, decimating elk and deer herds and preying on cattle, sheep and pets when they’re available. There were close to 200 known livestock depradations this past year alone, says Fish & Game, and probably more among unrecorded losses.
Southern Idaho’s wide ranching country from eastern Idaho to the Owyhees has seen increased deer, elk and even moose populations in recent years. Animal dispersion shows widely-studied patterns of predator-prey behavior and, given wolves’ wide-ranging habits, the predators aren’t likely far behind the increasing food supply. That would, of course, put them in the same allotments as cattle and sheep and give ranchers real losses.
There are plenty of wild-eyed eco groups out there which would love to see ranching ended on all public lands and the lands returned to a de-facto wilderness. In that regard, wild-roaming wolves serve the same political purpose to ecos as have Bruneau Snails, Slickspot Peppergrass and other seemingly “endangered” species of the region -- that is to impose restrictions on use and drive out ranching.
These groups don’t give a morel mushroom or a floppy hat and walking staff for the agricultural economics of Idaho; to them, backpacking and “light” recreation by 20-year-olds in the “wilderness” isn’t only the best use, it’s the only use.
They cut deals with energy companies to garner “contributions,” then use public money to file suit after suit against any form of “multiple use.” (Idaho Reporter, March 24, 2011.) If it’s not spotted owls, it’s salmon; if not salmon, it’s raptors; if not raptors, it’s tiny, obscure plants and flowers whose very destruction hangs on every human intrusion into “sacred” parklands.
To these groups, wolves are just the latest wildlife species to be used as a political cudgel with which to pummel multiple use of public lands. Groups like Western Watersheds Project, formerly led by firebrand activist Jon Marvel, make it clear they want a return to a West of mostly untouchable and unusable public lands. Ranching, as well as other multiple uses like mining and timber harvest, and even simple human recreation, stand in the way of that objective.
The “wolf zone” bill and the proposed monitoring appropriation are good steps for Idaho’s wolf management. They represent an opportunity for legislators to get ahead of a potential problem before it gets worse. Legislators should take it.