Idaho seeks middle ground on wolf control

Managers say numbers are sustainable now, but cutting more population could be very expensive.

rbarker@idahostatesman.comMarch 1, 2014 

Former Boise biology teacher and professional photographer Larry Thorngren and Salmon rancher Carl Lufkin testify on a bill to establish a wolf control board before Idaho House Resources Committee Feb. 17, 2014.

ROCKY BARKER

Hunters and trappers have reduced Idaho’s wolf population by more than 20 percent, to a level that wildlife officials say they can handle.

But as the federal government backs out of paying to monitor and control wolves, the state will have to step in, helping livestock owners reduce losses, keeping tabs on the prolific predators and balancing their numbers with other wildlife.

That’s the impetus behind a bill that would create an Idaho Wolf Control Board; it has passed the House and is before the Senate.

Lawmakers are debating whether to allocate $2 million of one-time state funds along with $200,000 that would be raised annually by livestock growers and hunters. Wolf advocates want the bill to pay not just for the killing of wolves, but also for nonlethal measures to keep them from livestock. Advocates argue that nonlethal methods are more effective and less costly.

At its heart, the bill is a recognition that 19 years after the federal government reintroduced wolves into Idaho, the predator is now the state’s responsibility.

“This is preferable to the situation we are in, to have limited funds to control our wolves,” said Republican Sen. Bert Brackett, a Rogerson rancher and one of the authors of the bill that passed the House.

Opponents are skeptical. They hear lawmakers and other state leaders call for cutting the wolf population— now estimated at a minimum of 650 — to about 300.

They have noted the testimony of new Fish and Game Commissioner Brad Corkill. At his Jan. 15 confirmation hearing, he said: “If every wolf in Idaho disappeared, I wouldn’t have a problem with it.”

COST VS. BENEFIT

Two men who have spent their careers controlling wolves and other wildlife say Idaho’s current population is about right for cost-effective management.

U.S. Agriculture Wildlife Services Idaho Director Todd Grimm said that when the wolf population peaked at 843 in 2009, “it was chaos,” with his agency unable to keep up with complaints about livestock being killed.

Today, hunters and trappers have made the depredations manageable. Since August, Idaho hunters and trappers have killed 251 wolves. In 2013, Idaho had 78 confirmed or probable cases of wolves killing cattle and 565 sheep, down about 25 percent from 2011.

If the state seeks to reduce the population to 300, Grimm said, “I don’t think we can do it with $2 million.”

ENOUGH MONEY?

Carter Niemeyer, who retired as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Idaho wolf manager in 2006, agrees.

“I don’t think it’s achievable,” he said. “They’re going to go broke.”

Neither expert offered an estimate for how much it would cost the state to get to 300. Generally, as the population gets smaller, the cost of killing each wolf rises. The tools of choice would be aerial gunning and trapping. Poison, which effectively drove wolves into extinction, is not under consideration, Grimm said.

Congress has cut about $750,000 in funding for wildlife services in Idaho since 2010, reducing its budget to $2.1 million. Congress ordered the wolf off the Endangered Species List in 2011; in 2016, all federal monitoring money is scheduled to end.

Niemeyer doesn’t oppose Idaho putting away $2 million for wolves. “That money could serve them for 20 years if they used this for handling real problems,” he said.

If it is simply to be used to kill wolves, he doesn’t think it will be effective.

“We have poured millions of dollars into eradicating coyotes,” Niemeyer said, yet coyotes are widespread.

PAINFUL PAYMENTS

That Idahoans have to even spend a dime to manage wolves irks many of the leaders who fought wolf reintroduction.

“We never wanted our sportsmen or livestock growers to pay for shoving them down our throats,” said Republican Rep. JoAn Wood of Rigby.

Niemeyer spent 25 years controlling wolves and other predators for the federal government and soon will go to work in Washington state to help them manage their growing wolf population. He argues that “saber-rattling” and calls to kill more wolves serve mainly to agitate national wildlife groups. Those groups then support more campaigns protesting Idaho and its policies and overwhelm agencies with Freedom of Information Act requests and lawsuits.

Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen unsuccessfully urged the Idaho House to allow the funding to be used for nonlethal wolf measures, such as guard dogs, noisemakers and other techniques that ranchers have used in Blaine County. But the bill the House passed allows the funds to be used only for wildlife officers to kill wolves.

“I think it’s a 19th century solution to the 21st century problem,” Schoen said.

NONLETHAL SUPPORT

Grimm said he supports nonlethal measures. But with just 20 employees statewide, he’s limited in how much he can work with ranchers. Since he arrived in Idaho a decade ago, 316 different ranchers have reported livestock killings by wolves.

Other funds for wolf prevention are available through the University of Idaho Extension, federal grants and Defenders of Wildlife.

Defenders is a staunch opponent of the Idaho Control Board and state efforts to cut the wolf population. Suzanne Asha Stone, head of its Idaho office, was at Corn Creek when the first wolves were released in Idaho in 1995. She has watched the ebb and flow of Idaho opinion about wolves and has reached out to ranchers to find common ground.

Adding nonlethal measures to the control board’s funding “would be a step in the right direction,” she said. But she won’t support the bill or the board if it targets killing more wolves for doing what they do naturally: eating elk.

The hunter dollars devoted to the control board would go to reduce wolf populations where they are keeping game populations from recovering. That’s a proposal that is controversial not just among Stone’s supporters, but other Idahoans as well.

Fish and Game’s Corkill heard many people, including some hunters, criticize the agency in January for hiring a hunter/trapper to kill wolves in the Middle Fork of the Salmon River area. The commission’s predator policy calls for reducing the population there by half — to 35 to 40 wolves.

Many hunters also testified in favor of the reductions to boost the elk population.

In February, Wildlife Services killed 23 wolves in north-central Idaho using shooting from a helicopter.

As Brackett said, these are now “our wolves.”

Idahoans will decide how to balance the costs, the numbers and the locations, said Idaho Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore.

And pick up the bill for all of that.

“It really comes down to what the people of Idaho want for their elk and deer, wolves, bears and lions,” he said.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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