Idaho Department of Fish and Game officials say they are "encouraged" by the state's wolf harvest so far, but further control actions may be needed to keep elk populations up in parts of the state.
Hunters and trappers have killed 266 wolves this season, far more than 187 killed during Idaho's first wolf hunt in 2009-10. Due to litigation, there was no hunt last year.
Twenty-two of the wolves killed this year were taken in the Southern Mountains zone, which encompasses Ketchum, Sun Valley and Hailey.
Department Deputy Director Jim Unsworth said the agency is still worried about wolves in the Lolo zone in northern Idaho.
"We are still having excess mortality on cow elk up there," Unsworth said. "We need to reduce wolf populations."
Cow and calf mortality rates in that region stand at roughly 20 percent, most of which has been from wolf predation, Unsworth said. He said he'd like to reduce that rate to 10 percent from all causes, including other predators such as mountain lions.
To reach that goal, Unsworth said Fish and Game would contract with U.S. Wildlife Services for control actions this spring—including gunning wolves from federal helicopters.
Garrick Dutcher, program manager for wolf advocacy group Living With Wolves, said the control actions might not have the desired effect. Dutcher argued that predator populations respond to prey populations, rather than the other way around. In other words, fewer wolves doesn't mean more elk.
In Yellowstone National Park, a reintroduced population of wolves grew rapidly as it fed on an "out-of-control" elk population.
"In the park, the wolf population peaked at 174," he said. "Now it's down to 90-something. Now that they have picked off all the easy elk, the wolf population has leveled out."
Unsworth said that while that may be true, Idaho's situation is more complicated. For one thing, national park regulations prohibit hunting, and finding a predator-prey balance in a hunted system is more difficult.
"This idea of let nature take its course, it's compelling to think it, but it's hard to find real examples," he said. "In an unhunted system, you could see some balance, but [Idaho is] not an unmanaged system like Yellowstone. We have goals, and it's quite different from a national park."
Other methods, such as controlled burns to improve elk habitat, have been used to boost elk populations in the Lolo zone, Unsworth said. But the problem of predator-caused mortality still remains, causing a problem for populations that the agency is trying to boost.
"Prey populations can respond to a variety of things, from habitat to predators," he said. "Any time you have excessive mortality for something you want to manage for more of, we manipulate mortality rates."
Dutcher said hunts and control actions could help reduce elk depredation, but only because of damage to pack structure. In a breeding pack where all but three adults are killed, at least one wolf will need to stay and watch the pack's pups while the other two hunt.
"It's going to be difficult for one or two wolves to hunt big game, like elk," Dutcher said. "These wolves are going to seek other sources of food, which could put them into conflict with livestock producers."
Dutcher said wolf populations could withstand "culling" of up to 40 percent of a total population, biologically speaking. But as wolves pass on knowledge through generations, pack culture may be damaged at much lower kill rates.
"Den sites and rendezvous sites and hunting strategies for game are all parts of the body of knowledge passed on generationally," he said. "When anything above 15 to 20 percent culling occurs, that culture of knowledge starts to be lost. And once it's gone, it's gone for good."
Katherine Wutz: firstname.lastname@example.org