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Wolves in our Foothills, more elk in our forests, 23 years after predator’s return

The black canine emerged from the sagebrush on the ridge above Mike and Kristin Stilton’s house, as the sun set over the Boise Foothills.

“It wasn’t a person’s pet,” Mike Stilton said. “To me it looked like a wolf’s head.”

The animal’s sound also signaled it was a wolf, he said. They see and hear lots of coyotes around their home up Eyrie Canyon, east of Quail Hollow Golf Course. But this animal let out a loud, deep-throated bark, followed by a higher-pitched howl “like it was sending a signal.”

“This was not the sound of a coyote, this wasn’t a dog in distress. This wasn’t a dog barking for its owner. It wasn’t a dog playing,” Mike Stilton said.

Wolves trigger emotions like almost no other creature in nature. People have either loved them or hated them since they were first reintroduced to Idaho 23 years ago this week.

The animals’ numbers rose rapidly while under the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act, angering ranchers, who lost livestock, and hunters, who said they depleted elk and other prey.

Wolves were delisted here in 2011. Today, their numbers have stabilized and the elk population continues to rise, even in wild areas where state biologists thought wolves were limiting elk recovery. Livestock depredations are also up, in part due to better detection methods to confirm wolf kills and more willingness on the part of ranchers to report them.

The Idaho Legislature will decide this session whether to keep spending taxpayer dollars each year to pay a federal agency to kill wolves. If they don’t act, a sunset provision next year will end the Idaho Wolf Control Board, formed in 2014. The debate will bring back to the forefront the clashing values that still divide rural and urban Idaho over wildlife.

Two sides

On the one side are people like the Stiltons, who moved to Idaho six years ago from southern California.

After her encounter this month with the canine on the ridge, Kristen Stilton found a website with wolf sounds that matched what the couple heard. The experience was exactly what the retired detective and financial services telecommuter sought when they moved from California. They chose the place where raptors soar and deer bed down just beyond their yard, a place on the edge of the wild.

“We moved here because we like nature,” Kristin Stilton said. “We like knowing wolves are out there.”

Seeing single wolves in the Foothills is not rare, biologists say, especially in winter when younger wolves disperse from their packs to seek a mate. Even full packs travel through the area regularly, especially now when elk and deer come down from the mountains to winter.

Several observers have reported seeing a pack of wolves around Idaho City this winter, said retired wolf biologist and trapper Carter Niemeyer of Boise. Wolves, he said, can travel long distances in a remarkably short time.

On the other side of the debate is sheep rancher Frank Shirts of Wilder.

He knows there are wolves in the Boise Front, where he has three bands of sheep. His lambs graze across the Foothills in the spring, then up into public land in the Idaho City area in the summer.

“I’ve got wolves around all of my bands every night,” Shirts said.

Shirts has two herders and guard dogs with each band to keep the sheep safe. Last year he didn’t have a single depredation, but the wolves bring other ramifications.

“I figure it costs me $200,000 a year in lost weight on the lambs,” Shirts said.

Elk numbers rise, wolves stable

By 2009, the wolf population had grown to more than 1,500 across Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Today, their descendents have spread to Washington, Oregon, Utah, California, Colorado and Arizona.

How many wolves are now in Idaho? There’s no exact estimate, but Fish and Game believes the state has about 90 packs, based on modeling that relies on a network of trail cameras around the state. (The agency no longer places radio collars on wolves in an effort to be less invasive.) DNA tests of harvested wolves confirm about 50 packs in the state.

Ranchers like Shirts think Fish and Game’s new surveys miss many wolves. Wolf advocates believe the state actually overestimates the population.

Idahoans since 2011 have been able to hunt and trap the predators in seasons that are liberal and long. Hunters and trappers have killed 200 to 250 wolves annually over the last several years.

Hunters have also killed more than 20,000 elk a year since 2014. Last year may have been their best season yet.

Fish and Game biologists in recent years have supported additional efforts to kill wolves by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services agency. That’s especially true in wild places like the Lolo country of North Idaho and the Frank Church River of No Return that are so remote, few wolf hunters or trappers travel there. The biologists believed that high wolf numbers, along with mountain lions and bears, kept the elk population from bouncing back from habitat losses and fires.

Elk numbers have largely grown along the agricultural edge of their range. But even in remote areas, the survival rate for cows and calves has risen. Wildlife Services hasn’t been used to kill wolves in the Lolo for the last two years, but Fish and Game biologist Jim Hayden said his agency still believes killing wolves has helped the elk.

“There’s a possibility that there’s a cause and effect relationship there,” Hayden said. “We can’t confirm that. We can say that hunting and trapping have reduced and stabilized wolf numbers.”

Wolves aren’t actually the top predator for cow elk and calves, he said — that’s mountain lions and bears, respectively. Statewide, 93 percent of cow elk are surviving now absent hunting.

What has Idaho’s money gotten us?

Since 2014, Wildlife Services has killed 136 wolves after livestock deaths, and another 41 wolves from helicopters in the Lolo country to aid elk. During that time, 207 cattle and sheep were confirmed killed by wolves.

The money spent for that work included $1.2 million provided by Idaho taxpayers through the Wolf Control Board.

“That’s money that could have been used for more important things, like education,” said Andrea Santarsiere, of Victor, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

Another $255,300 for wolf killing came from hunting licenses, while livestock producers paid $294,400, according to the board’s records. It still has $1,064,724 unspent.

The board is expected Jan. 26 to ask the Legislature’s joint budget panel for another $400,000 from Idaho’s general fund for the coming year. It also will ask to continue its program past June 2019 — repealing the sunset provision — and settle into a permanent yearly funding structure of $220,000 from taxpayers and $220,000 from hunting license sales, sportmens’ groups and the livestock industry.

Without that money, Wildlife Services’ response to depredations would be severely stretched, said Todd Grimm, the federal agency’s Idaho director.

“Everything about wolves costs money,” he said.

The number of confirmed wolf kills of livestock has risen in part because Grimm’s agents have learned more about the different ways wolves kill them. They’ve found bite marks and bruises on the faces and tails of larger cattle, over 700 pounds, that were not eaten.

“They are so stressed out, they have a heart attack,” Grimm said.

Looking ahead

Some ranchers are moving away from depending on killing wolves, said Suzanne Stone, regional director of Defenders of Wildlife. Over the past eight years, the Wood River Wolf Project in central Idaho has used non-lethal methods to protect livestock with great success.

Ranchers surrounding the protected area lost three and a half times more livestock than those who changed their operations within the protected area, Stone said.

“We are spending less money on non-lethal methods to protect more livestock,” she said.

Even if the Idaho Legislature decides to continue the Wolf Control Board funding, Stone said, it should allow the funds to be used for non-lethal control methods. Lawmakers rejected that idea in 2014.

Grimm said his agency uses non-lethal methods now, funded from other sources. This week, for instance, his agents placed fladry — a fence of bright shiny flags that temporarily keeps wolves away — around a pasture near Salmon where cattle were calving.

Eventually, wolves overcome their fear of the fladry. But it will work in this case, Grimm said, because the cattle will be done and gone by March.

Grimm said 397 ranchers have had livestock confirmed killed by wolves since 2014.

“We don’t have enough fladry to put around each of them, and if we did it wouldn’t be effective,” Grimm said.

A generation after wolves were returned to the West, ranchers like Shirts have been forced to learn to live with them at great cost. At the same time, the Stiltons and others have been helped make Idaho the fastest-growing state in the nation — attracted in part by the chance to live near the wild, where they can hear the wolves’ haunting sound.

And there are now more people whose opinions fall between the dug-in wolf lovers and wolf haters. The debate is more polarized on the expanding edge of wolf range, in places like Washington and states like Wisconsin where they remain protected by the federal Endangered Species Act. Here in Idaho?

“Enough time has gone by here that I think people know the sky is not falling,” said Fish and Game’s Hayden.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker