With less than a week remaining in Idaho's wolf-hunting season, it appears unlikely that hunters will reach the limit set by the Idaho Fish and Game Commission last summer.
Since the hunt began on Sept. 1, 184 wolves have been killed, 36 shy of the quota of 220 set by state wildlife officials prior the state's first wolf hunt since the animal was removed from the endangered species list.
Of the 12 wolf-hunting zones established across the state, seven have already closed, with the remaining five set to close at the end of the month unless their limits are reached beforehand.
Ten wolves—the full quota—were killed in the Southern Mountains zone, which includes the Wood River Valley and extends east across the Pioneer, White Knob, Lost River, Lemhi and Beaverhead mountain ranges to the Montana border. Of these, two were likely members of the Phantom Hill pack, which has denned in the northern Wood River Valley.
Given the rate at which the wolves have been killed in the zones that remain open, there is little chance that the overall quota will be filled, officials say.
Despite falling short of its goal, the Department of Fish and Game is calling the hunt a success, at least for those who aren't on the opposing side of the polarizing issue.
"We didn't reduce wolf numbers, but they didn't grow exponentially either," Fish and Game spokesman Ed Mitchell said in an interview. "Were it any other big game animal, this would be a sign of success [of a properly planned hunt], but we're not discussing some other big game animal."
According to the 2009 Wolf Conservation and Management Progress Report issued by Fish and Game earlier this month, biologists documented 94 resident wolf packs at the end of 2009, with the minimum population estimated at 843 wolves. By comparison, in 2008 the minimum population estimate was 856 wolves.
The report states that 16 previously undocumented packs were discovered last year, but that the net increase was only six documented packs in the state. The biologists confirmed the deaths of 275 wolves during 2009, caused by hunters, U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services control actions, natural causes and unknown reasons.
"We set a certain goal and it looks like we're going to come very close," Mitchell said. "It wasn't a rampant slaughter, but rather a methodical, slow-going hunt. We're never going to make the hunt OK with certain people and likewise never make it OK with some people that we didn't kill all of the wolves. But for us it worked like it was supposed to work."
Mitchell said that one area of concern that became apparent during the hunt was the health of the elk herd in the Lolo zone, on the northeast edge of the state bordering Montana. According to a report from Fish and Game at the beginning of the month, the Lolo elk herd has an estimated population of 2,178, down from 16,000 during its peak in the 1980s.
Fish and Game notes that the causes for decreasing herd numbers include changes in the habitat, bear and mountain-lion predation and severe winters. However, wolves have been singled out as a culprit in recent years. As of Thursday, 13 wolves had been killed in the Lolo zone, less than half the 27 allowed.
That could lead to changes in regulations for the next wolf-hunt season. Mitchell said those could include allowing hunters more than one wolf tag in the zone or shifting quota limits. However, he said lengthening the hunting season is not being considered, in order to protect pups.
The fate of a second wolf-hunt season is not certain, however. A decision is still pending in a lawsuit brought by a coalition of conservation groups fighting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to remove wolves in the northern Rockies from the protections of the Endangered Species Act.
In mid-2009, the conservation groups failed in an attempt to convince U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy to keep the hunt from going forward. But while Molloy allowed the hunt, he stated that a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to not allow a wolf hunt in Wyoming might affect the entire hunt next season on the grounds that the Endangered Species Act does not allow decisions to be based on political boundaries.
Hearings for the lawsuit are expected to take place this spring.
Jon Duval: firstname.lastname@example.org