Last week, Idaho governor Brad Little signed a bill into law that allows hunters to kill about 90 percent of the state’s wolves.
The new law, SB1211, was supported by ranchers who say that wolves threaten their livestock and hunters who say that the wolves have reduced elk populations. Both of those claims are disputed by opponents of the new rules, who include scientists, conservation groups and other hunting groups, Douglas Main reports for National Geographic. The new law allows anyone with a wolf hunting tag to kill an unlimited number of wolves and lifts restrictions about how those animals can be killed. It also increases the state’s budget for hiring private contractors to kill wolves.
“Today marks a low point for gray wolf recovery in the U.S.,” says Zoe Hanley, a carnivore ecologist and representative of the Defenders of Wildlife, per the Associated Press’ Keith Ridler. “For years Idaho wolves have been intensely persecuted through the nation’s most permissive hunting and trapping seasons, and this bill all but pushes the species back to the brink of federal relisting.”
Gray wolves lost federal Endangered Species Act protections in January, though they had been delisted in the Northern Rockies since 2011. A recent count estimated that Idaho’s wolf population is 1,556 animals, and about 500 animals were killed in 2019 and 2020 through hunting, trapping and other population control efforts in the state, reports KTVB.
The new law creates a goal of 15 wolf packs in the state, or about 150 wolves total, per Outside magazine’s Wes Siler.
The law also changes the restrictions for wolf hunting methods. When the law goes into effect, hunters will be able to use the same as those for other canines like coyotes, Rico Moore reports for the Guardian. That will open up the use of night-vision equipment, baiting, snowmobiles and ATVs, and hunting from helicopters. Trapping and snaring of wolves, including newborn pups, on private property will be allowed year-round, reports the Associated Press.
Cameron Mulrony, executive vice-president of the Idaho Cattle Association, argues that wolves have had a negative impact on livestock and big game hunting industries.
“A cow taken by a wolf is similar to a thief stealing an item from a production line in a factory,” says Mulrony to the Guardian.
But opponents of the law argue that wolves have a relatively low impact on livestock losses. In the last fiscal year, the state’s livestock industry lost only 102 sheep and cattle to wolves, reports National Geographic. Idaho loses about 40,000 cattle to non-predator factors each year, per Outside.
The group Idaho for Wildlife wants wolf numbers reduced to 15 packs to boost the elk population for big game hunting. Steve Alder, a representative for the group, tells the Associated Press that “I think (the new law) will be very effective…I really do think that they’ll finally get wolves down to the 150.”
However, research in Yellowstone National Park has shown that a healthy wolf population can stabilize the ecosystem and improve the health of elk herds, per National Geographic. There are currently about 120,000 elk in Idaho; only a few thousand elk less than the state’s all-time-high elk population of 125,000, and 8,000 more elk than when wolves were first reintroduced to the state in 1995, reports Outside.
“Backed by an array of misinformation and fearmongering, the state legislature stepped over experts at the Idaho Fish and Game Department and rushed to pass this horrific wolf-killing bill,” says Center for Biological Diversity senior attorney Andrea Zaccardi in an emailed statement. “And Republican lawmakers have promised that this is just the beginning, even though the new measure would doom 90% of Idaho’s wolves. We’re disappointed that Gov. Little signed such a cruel and ill-conceived bill into law.”
If the wolf population drops even further than SB1211 outlines, it is possible that the federal government could again take over management of wolves in the state. There are three ways that could happen in Idaho, per Lindsey Botts at Sierra magazine: if the state’s wolf population drops below 10 packs or 100 animals, if the population is below 150 individuals for three years in a row, or if human pressures significantly threaten the wolf population.