Guest Opinion: By rejecting nonlethal options, Idaho’s wolf plan loses

GUEST OPINION: WILDLIFE

March 9, 2014 

Ever since the wolf reintroduction in 1995, there have been severe conflicts over their management. The most common complaint from state officials is resentment toward the federal government’s wolf protection mandates, which prohibited Idaho from managing wolves as it does other resident species. So, in 2011, Congress handed wolf management over to Idaho. This transfer was based on Idaho’s pledge to manage wolves like other valued species and the state’s wolf population management plan that called for maintaining 518-732 wolves.

However, almost immediately after federal protection was lifted, the state abandoned its wolf management plan and then began adopting one lethal anti-wolf control proposal after another, again treating wolves more like vermin. After 19 years, the issue is becoming increasingly polarized as Idaho’s wolf management schemes become heavier-handed, undermining the recovery of species.

Since 2011, hunters, Idaho trappers and government officials have killed more than 1,000 wolves, reducing the population to just 600 in the last few years, and state officials are working hard to accelerate this decline. Recently, a bill to establish Governor Otter’s Wolf Control Board — which proposes to use $2 million taxpayer dollars to aggressively kill wolves in Idaho — was passed in the House and heads now to the Senate. House Bill 470 sponsors touted that this legislation would enable the state to kill all but 150 wolves, the bare minimum number required by the federal wolf delisting plan, in order to protect livestock. Yet officially, wolves killed an average of only one calf and seven sheep per county in Idaho last year, and many of these losses may have been avoidable.

Concurrently, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game announced a new proposal to kill 60 percent of the wolves in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, the largest forested wilderness in the lower 48 states. Fish and Game’s plan calls for an intensive program of wolf killing through state-paid hunters and trappers in hopes of boosting the elk population for sport hunters. However, elk numbers statewide today top 100,000 and hunter harvest rates remain high among western states. Irrationally, these cumulative efforts to control wolves by sole reliance on lethal management will result in higher management costs, continued livestock losses, and unnecessary, random killing of wolves.

Acknowledging that wolves are here to stay, a few stakeholders have worked collaboratively to develop better strategies to resolve conflicts by learning how to live with wolves. Nonlethal control methods — livestock carcass removal, range riders, electric fencing and guard dogs — are far more effective and cheaper options for keeping wolves away from livestock. And these nonlethal methods are already working in Idaho where they are being applied. The Wood River Wolf Project in Blaine County has successfully protected between 10,000 and 27,000 sheep annually on the Sawtooth National Forest, losing less than 25 sheep (0.04 percent) over the last six years — without having to kill a single wolf in the project area to protect livestock. Despite being one of the highest concentrations of wolves and livestock statewide, the project area has the lowest loss rate of livestock in wolf range statewide.

If we’re going to spend $2 million in taxpayer funds on wolves, let’s invest in genuine solutions like these that can provide long-term benefits for Idaho’s people, wildlife and livestock. Amend the House bill to allow the program to fund nonlethal measures and the training to use them. And respect the Frank Church wilderness area as a place where wildlife can truly be wild. That means letting nature, not just trophy hunters, manage its inhabitants.

Suzanne Asha Stone is the Western Representative for Defenders of Wildlife.

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