In an effort to control wolf numbers in a remote section of north-central Idaho, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game has authorized four backcountry outfitters to kill up to 20 gray wolves in the Lolo wolf management zone in the coming weeks.
Fish and Game as well as local outfitters there say wolves occupying the sparsely populated area in the upper end of the Clearwater River drainage near the Idaho-Montana border are having a devastating impact on the region's elk herds. Others—including environmentalists—argue that other factors are at work, including fundamental changes to the landscape.
They say the area's forests are finally maturing after massive wildfires several decades back led to a temporary spike in the amount of foraging opportunities for elk. They contend that the decline of the elk herds can be attributed to regrowth of the area's forests and a subsequent drop in ground-level forage.
Fish and Game officials have acknowledged that habitat issues have played a role in the declining Lolo elk herds and that they'll never return to the all-time highs witnessed in the 1980s. In response to the declines, the agency has cut the number of elk tags issued to hunters in the Lolo zone in recent years.
Fish and Game's decision will allow outfitters and their licensed guides already in the backcountry on spring black bear hunts to work with the agency in a predator-control action to reduce wolf numbers.
The four unnamed outfitters are authorized to kill up to five wolves each in their respective operating areas in the Lolo wolf zone through June 30, the official end of the spring bear season. The agency control action is not open to hunters.
According to a Fish and Game news release, research has shown that wolves have kept the Lolo elk herds—long a popular draw for in-state and out-of-state big game hunters—in a downward trend. Fish and Game will evaluate the effectiveness of the control actions as part of an ongoing Lolo elk study.
The news release says the action is in accordance with Fish and Game's wolf management plan and the Lolo zone's predator management plan, which covers black bears, mountain lions and wolves.
Idaho's first managed wolf hunt wrapped up March 31. Across the state, hunters killed 188 wolves out of 220 the state had authorized.
In the Lolo wolf zone—which had a quota of 27 wolves that could be shot—hunters only killed 13. The state has long said it would like to reduce wolf numbers in the Lolo zone to allow elk numbers to climb.
According to Fish and Game, there were about 835 wolves in Idaho at the end of 2009. That compares to the state's 2008 year-end population estimate of 856 wolves. The birth of pups—which occurs in mid-April—means the number of Idaho wolves will increase this summer before the start of the autumn wolf hunt.
Whether Fish and Game's decision in the Lolo zone has an effect on an ongoing lawsuit filed by environmentalists that seeks to wrest wolf management from the states of Idaho and Montana and return it to the federal government could be known as soon as next month. On June 15, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy of Missoula will rule on the groups' challenge.
As he did back in 2008, Molloy could order wolves to be relisted under the federal Endangered Species Act. Environmentalists argue that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should never have authorized the delisting of wolves in Idaho and Montana while they remain protected under the ESA in Wyoming because officials in that state have not come up with an acceptable management plan.
Environmentalists also claim the two states intend to reduce wolf numbers below ecologically acceptable levels.
Jason Kauffman: firstname.lastname@example.org