From just several dozen gray wolves released into the remote Central Idaho backcountry between 1995 and 1996, the state's population of the secretive wild canines has surged to the point where they now number more than 700.
In those early years just after the reintroduction, the wolves primarily kept to the rugged and largely roadless central core of the state near their release sites in and around the 2.4-million acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. But as their ranks began to swell, dispersing wolves started showing up in more populated areas where they inevitably ran into conflict with the state's politically powerful ranching industry and hunting interests.
The rural Idaho communities of Salmon, Challis, Stanley, McCall and Mackay are just a few of the places where the wolves have run into trouble. Earlier this summer, the Wood River Valley became the latest region in the state to welcome its first confirmed resident wolf pack when biologists discovered that a pair of wolves had given birth to a litter of pups.
Because their den site was located near the upper end of the Big Wood River drainage near a place called Phantom Hill, the small pack became known as the Phantom Hill pack. Throughout the summer of 2007, wildlife officials linked the pack to a series of sheep killings in the eastern Smoky Mountains, and this led state and federal officials to consider using lethal control methods to reduce or eliminate the small group of wolves.
But as of late November, the Phantom Hill pack remained in existence, with sightings and radio telemetry observations continually reported in the mountains around and to the south of Galena Summit. And although the pack's survival seems assured at least for now, how long that remains so will come down to how they interact with the valley's sheep bands next summer—should they choose to remain in the same area.
Today, with the support of Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, the state of Idaho is preparing to enter into what may end up being the most controversial period since the wolf reintroduction process began more than a decade ago.
On Monday, Nov. 19, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game released its draft plan for controlling Idaho wolves once federal protections are lifted, which is anticipated sometime in early 2008. The plan lays the groundwork for hunting wolves in areas where the predators clash frequently with livestock and have made significant dents in big game populations.
The draft plan was developed with the help of a working group that included representatives from hunting, livestock and conservation groups. Fish and Game also sent out a survey to 1,000 hunters, 1,000 members of the general public and 1,000 members of the state's livestock industry.
Perhaps most significantly, the proposed management plan requires Idaho to maintain a minimum of 15 breeding pairs and recommends allowing wolves to persist where they do not cause excessive conflict with human activities. But it also recommends using a regulated seasonal hunt as the tool of choice for managing, and in some cases, thinning the number of wolves roaming the state.
"Our intention is to manage above the minimum of 15 breeding pairs ... and wolves will persist where they are not causing conflicts," said Steve Nadeau, large carnivore manager for Fish and Game. "They will be managed in some areas similar to the way we do big game now. And we will be reducing populations in some of these areas of high conflict."
In recent years, Idaho's wolf population has been growing at an annual rate of 20 percent, according to Fish and Game figures. In 2006, biologists estimated the state's wolf population at 673, with 41 breeding pairs and 72 packs, although Nadeau said he expects the 2007 census to exceed 800 animals.
Barring a successful appeal by local and national conservation groups bent on derailing the federal delisting process, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is on track to remove wolves from Endangered Species Act protections in Idaho and Montana early next year and hand management duties over to the two states. The federal agency approved separate conservation and management plans submitted by Idaho and Montana in 2002. The state of Wyoming has yet to submit a similar plan that meets with the approval of the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is why the state is not yet included in the federal agency's planned 2008 delisting.
The draft population management plan released this week by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game provides greater detail on how the agency proposes to manage, conserve and regulate wolves and wolf hunting across the state.
Goals include maintaining a healthy population capable of sustaining itself over the long term and protecting the natural corridors that allow Idaho wolves to intermingle with populations in neighboring states.
In a letter attached to the document, Gov. Otter emphasizes that wolves are in Idaho to stay and it's up to the state to ensure their long-term presence.
"The wolf population in our state is part of Idaho's landscape, and it is time they are managed like other resident wildlife," writes Otter, who drew national attention last year by saying he intended to be first in line to bid for an Idaho wolf hunting permit.
The plan also makes clear that the state has a role in controlling wolf numbers in the same fashion it does black bears and mountain lions, and recommends criteria for controlling and, in some areas, reducing populations, predominantly through hunting.
Specific wolf hunting rules, including dates, bag limits and methods, will be established by the state at a later date.
Borrowing from agency approaches to managing elk and deer, the draft suggests dividing the state into 14 separate wolf management zones. The zone system gives local Fish and Game managers the flexibility to treat wolves in each zone separately, Nadeau said, depending on livestock conflicts and effects on big game herds.
It also recommends suspending all wolf hunting activity when there are 20 or fewer breeding pairs left in the state.
"We're focusing on managing conflicts with this plan," Nadeau said. "And clearly, that means population reductions in some areas. Other areas, we'll be looking to stabilize."
But to wolf supporters, the plan gives the state too much muscle to roll back wolf numbers, risking the species' long-term viability.
Suzanne Stone, of Defenders of Wildlife in Boise, said Idaho should re-examine the initial wolf conservation and management plan approved by the 2002 Idaho Legislature, then later approved by the federal government.
Stone argues that Idaho is opting to manage wolves too close to the bare minimum required by the federal government, a threshold that threatens wolf progress over the last decade.
She cited other states—like Montana and Great Lakes states that have seen their wolf numbers increase—that agreed to higher population thresholds than those established by Idaho policy makers.
"This is a case of the state saying we're going to manage wolves at the very edge, and from a biological standpoint that doesn't make any sense," Stone said. "Idaho's plan is all about controlling wolves, maintaining a strict control. Allowing them to thrive is the proper way to manage the species."
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game is seeking public comment on its recently released draft Idaho Wolf Population Management Plan, which establishes guidelines for a state wolf hunt.
- Written comments should be submitted by Dec. 31 online at http://fishandgame.idaho.gov/apps/surveys/draftwolf/ or by regular mail to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Wolf Plan Comments, P.O. Box 25, Boise ID 83707, attention Wolf Plan Comments.
- Through the end of December, Fish and Game will also be hosting a series of hearings on the plan in each of the agency's seven administrative regions, including one this week held at the agency's headquarters at 600 S. Walnut Street in Boise. The meeting will be held in the building's trophy room from 5-8 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 29.
- So far, no meeting date or location has been announced for the Fish and Game's Magic Valley Region.