Rocky Barker: How low can Idaho go on wolf numbers?

rbarker@idahostatesman.comMarch 24, 2014 

Idaho's wolf population is on the decline. If you take Gov. Butch Otter and the Legislature seriously, the population is heading toward 10 breeding pairs, or 150 wolves.

That's the goal set in the 2002 wolf management plan that will remain the state's official policy unless it is changed by the Idaho Legislature.

After actions this week to establish an Idaho Wolf Control Board and to expand and increase wolf hunting and trapping, national groups are taking the old state wolf management plan seriously again. They are preparing to go back to court to demand that the federal government put the wolf back under the protection of the Endangered Species Act.

If you think they will be laughed out of court, consider how the state's rhetoric and actions line up.

That 2002 plan actually goes a step further than setting a goal of 10 breeding pairs. It says: "The position reflected in House Joint Memorial No. 5 continues to be the official position of the State of Idaho." That position is "that wolf recovery efforts in Idaho be discontinued immediately, and wolves be removed by whatever means necessary."

From the moment the plan passed until Congress ordered the wolf removed from the endangered species list in 2011, Idaho officials told the federal government and the public to ignore the preamble calling for wolf removal.

"Look at the plan," they said. The plan called for wolves to spread out and expand in the state.

Sen. Bert Brackett, a Rogerson rancher, and Rep. Marc Gibbs, a farmer from Grace, pushed the wolf-control measure that passed the Legislature last week. They made the point repeatedly that they were not trying to exterminate wolves. Both say the goal is 10 breeding pairs of wolves.

The state plan was the basis for delisting the wolf, which happened in 2009, was reversed in court and then mooted by Congress in 2011.

To get to delisting in 2009, state officials said they would manage for a population of about 500 and would protect wolves in areas of "refugia" — wild areas like national parks and wilderness areas.

Fish and Game isn't saying how many wolves it believes are alive in Idaho right now. Biologist Ken Cole says, based on the agency's testimony to the Legislature this year, the number could have been "less than 600" at the end of 2013.

Subtract the 120 or so wolves that have been killed since, and Cole's estimate for the end of March — the beginning of the breeding season — is 480.

That number in and of itself won't alarm a federal judge. But add Fish and Game's predator policy to reduce by 60 percent the wolf population in the Middle Fork of the Salmon River — perhaps the wildest refugia in Idaho — and a judicial eyebrow might be raised.

Consider the trend line. In 2008, a minimum of 846 wolves were reported in Idaho. At the end of this month, the minimum will certainly not be more than 550. That's a 42 percent decline.

A decline is by design, said Idaho Fish and Game Big Game Manager Jon Rachael. He and others in the department are hesitant to talk specifics, even though they are spending considerable time in the air, on the ground and in the office calculating wolf numbers.

When pushed, he acknowledges the agency's policy is to get to 150 wolves — a decline "that is quite a number of years away," he said.

He's skeptical of Cole's numbers and my calculations: "Despite aggressive management I do not see indications of a precipitous decline," Rachael said.

Will Naillon, a Fish and Game commissioner from Challis, said he has no particular number in mind for wolves in Idaho: "My goal is to stabilize ungulate herds." That means elk, deer and moose.

The Center for Biological Diversity is joining the always-vocal Defenders of Wildlife in decrying the state's wolf actions this month. Cole's group, Western Watersheds Project, may also pipe up and prepare to get a judge involved.

"Political leaders in Idaho would love nothing more than to eradicate Idaho's wolves and return to a century-old mindset where big predators are viewed as evil and expendable," said Amaroq Weiss, West Coast wolf organizer at the Center for Biological Diversity.

The center is still stinging from Congress' intervention to delist the wolf and end the lawsuits. They see a clear opening while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is still nominally involved with monitoring the delisted wolves under the Endangered Species Act.

Weiss believes Otter's rhetoric. The question now is whether a federal judge will, too.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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