Foundation for Wildlife Management Foundation for Wildlife Management Hunting Tactics
Have you ever heard someone say that we should leave nature alone and let it balance itself? Ask yourself – how are we supposed to leave nature alone when we humans are not separate from the ecosystem, but yet we are an important part of it? For 130 years, Americans have used the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation to maximize our game populations for both consumptive and recreational use. Through this process, we have championed the role predators play in a healthy ecosystem, yet we forget that humans have become the apex predator. The role we have played for generations is to create balance so that we have healthy populations of predator and prey. Predator management, or more specifically wolf management, has become a high priority for Idaho hunters. Wolf management is an important, controversial, and necessary part of wildlife management.
REINTRODUCTION OF WOLVES IN IDAHO
Wolves in Idaho were declared endangered in 1974 under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) put together a recovery plan for wolves in 1987, which included reintroduction of the species to central Idaho in 1995 and 1996. Wolves were trapped in Alberta, Canada, collared for study purposes and released in central Idaho. “The reintroduction of wolves was far more successful than most ever imagined it would be,” says Justin Webb, Executive Director of the Foundation for Wildlife Management. “They multiplied much faster than most expected and surpassed all goals that were set for the program in just a couple years.”
The original recovery goal for the reintroduction was 300 total animals for Montana, Idaho and Wyoming combined. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considered 150 wolves in Idaho to be “fully recovered.” This was the number determined that would allow wolves to remain sustainable in the state without creating conflict with ranchers and hunters. However, recent counts estimate Idaho’s wolf population to be 10 times the recovery target. Trail camera studies, DNA sampling, and collar data are compiled with harvest information to reach population estimates.
The Idaho Wolf Conservation and Management Plan was passed in 2002, which created a plan for Idaho Fish and Game (IDFG) department to take over management of wolves in the state upon delisting from the ESA, which happened in 2011 in the Northern Rockies.
WOLF POPULATIONS IN IDAHO
Wolf hunting in Idaho became legal in 2009. The wolf population at that time was estimated at 843 wolves in 94 packs. The first regulated wolf hunting season in the winter of 2009-2010 harvested 188 wolves with 31,400 wolf tags sold, according to Idaho Fish and Game.
In 2019, Idaho’s wolf population was numbered at 1,566 wolves. After a record harvest year in 2019 of 583 wolves, the 2020 wolf population was estimated to be 1,556. The most recent count for the population in 2021 is 1,543 wolves.
Upon delisting, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stated that more than 1,500 wolves across the Northern Rocky Mountain recovery area would reduce wild prey abundance and cause high rates of livestock depredation and recommended approximately 1,100 wolves within the region. Idaho’s wolf population alone of approximately 1,500 wolves over the past 3 years would meet the population objectives for the entire regions of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming combined.
Shortly after the 1995 reintroduction of wolves, their populations flourished beyond all expectations. Now overpopulated, wolf management is a priority for Idaho hunters.
One of the factors contributing to high populations in Idaho is the wolf’s reproductive success. In Idaho, the average size of a wolf pack is 6 individuals, and the average litter size is 7 pups. However, approximately 30% of alphas have been documented to breed with more than one wolf, which leads to two or more litters in some packs.
With 2021’s wolf population at 1,543 wolves, divided by an average pack size of 6 – that’s approximately 257 packs. If we conservatively estimate that only 20% of alphas are breeding more than once, that’s an additional 51 litters of 7 pups each, for a total of approximately 2,156 pups born in a year.
TERRITORY AND DISPERSAL
With packs of 6 individuals and 1-2 litters of 7 pups born each year, packs will naturally split up as the pups age around 9-18 months. With new packs forming every year, they must find their own territories. And with that comes dispersal.
Wolves travel much further and faster than many people realize – one of the many reasons that makes it difficult to manage them. The average pack in Idaho has a territory of approximately 250 square miles and will often travel 10-20 miles in a single night.
Wolves are generally not deterred by physical boundaries and have been known to swim vast waterways, cross freeways and even swim ocean crossings to inhabit and hunt islands in Alaska. Furthermore, wolves do not recognize imaginary borders created by man and regularly cross state lines. With Idaho’s wolf population exceeding 10 times the recovery goal, wolves continue to spill over into surrounding states such as Washington, Oregon, California, and Colorado. With the average reproductive rates and pack sizes, it is expected that they will continue to disperse further.
ARE WOLVES OVERPOPULATED?
The question of “are wolves overpopulated in Idaho?” can be succinctly answered – “Yes and no.” Some people will say that wolves will never overpopulate, and they are right. As their numbers continue to expand, they will deplete their prey base, die from starvation and disease, and will be forced to disperse to other areas.
Others will say that wolves are already overpopulated in Idaho – and they are also correct. The wolf population in Idaho is such that they are throwing off the balance that man has spent the past 130 years using the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation to create.
Wolves have a significant impact on big game populations in Idaho in numerous ways. “Wolves have a profound effect on whatever ecosystem they happen to be living in. And it’s a lot more dynamic than most people realize,” says Webb.
BIG GAME CONSUMPTION
A wolf consumes on average 16 to 28 big game animals per year. Using 20 big game animals as a conservative average, a wolf consumes approximately 140 big game animals over the course of its 7-year life span to survive.
The complication in this is that wolves maim and kill far more than they eat. When a wolf encounters an animal and it takes off running, the wolf’s instinct is to chase it. When it catches up, its next instinct is to bite and immobilize the animal. If the wolf was not hungry when it gave chase, it will not eat the animal it just took down, lose interest, and wander off. “We started seeing moose in the winter months with their hamstrings chewed off, left suffering in the ditches of snow mobile trails,” says Webb.
To illustrate with mental imagery that many people can relate to – Webb says that if you take a house dog that has never been around livestock before and place it in a pen of chickens or sheep, it will chase the first animal that runs away from it. It’s not a bad dog, doesn’t intend to kill the animal, and it’s not hungry – but to “chase what runs” is a canine’s natural instinctive reaction. A wolf is no different.
Each wolf consumes an average of 20 big game animals each year for survival, but they kill and maim far more than what they consume. This predation of ungulates and livestock makes wolf management an important component to wildlife management.
BIG GAME BREEDING DISRUPTION
As wolves chase and pressure big game during breeding season, it breaks up the natural structure of the herds. This often allows for non-dominate traits to be passed on due to lesser males breeding a larger portion of the herd than normal, rather than a dominant male who once bred the majority of the herd. With the onslaught on wolf pressure, a dominant male may only be able to maintain half of the herd, allowing non-dominant males more opportunities to breed.
Additionally, pregnant cows and does are less likely to carry their fetuses to term as they winter on less desirable ranges and are still pressured by wolves through the pregnancy.
Wolves have a profound effect on ungulate populations of elk and deer. Wolf management is an important part of wildlife management in areas where wolves thrive.
Wolves are pushing game herds off of the prime winter habitat that conservationists have worked diligently to create through plantings, controlled burns, and selective logging projects. When herds are forced to winter in less desirable ranges, they have lower survival rates through the winter.
Herds that used to come out of the backcountry and winter in the lowlands typically return to their home ranges in early spring with the receding snow. They have now learned that wolves rarely venture into the lowlands and are safe from wolf pressure there. Cows that used to lead their herds to the backcountry in the spring are now staying and birthing in the lowlands to avoid wolf pressure.
For this reason, numerous elk herds that used to grace the steep rugged terrain in the backcountry of Idaho are now living in river bottoms, croplands, and around rural housing developments. The next generation of elk is unlikely to learn that they are supposed to return to their home ranges and do not ever leave the lowlands, making them more susceptible to hunting pressure. The displacement of big game herds causes millions of dollars in damages to the agriculture industry in some areas. This also presents a challenge to the Game Management departments by skewing harvest comparison numbers year over year.
With the undeniable success of the wolf reintroduction to Idaho and the profound impacts they have on big game animals, managing the wolf population is of utmost importance to the recovery of ungulate populations in Idaho.
Studies in Alaska and Canada have shown that roughly 40% of a wolf population must be removed annually to ensure stagnant numbers without growth. To actively reduce the population, 50-60% removal may be required. More studies need to be conducted to determine the number of wolves Idaho’s habitat can sustainably support without negative impacts to ungulate populations.
Despite legal wolf hunting seasons for over a decade, hunting wolves is extremely difficult with very low success rates. Idaho sold more than 45,000 wolf hunting tags in 2019 and only 188 wolves were harvested by hunting – a success rate of 0.4%. Trapping yields higher success rates with 200 wolves harvested.
Senate Bill 1211 was signed into law in 2021 by Idaho Governor Brad Little. This bill would allow the state to implement new regulations to reduce wolf numbers due to the declining ungulate population and increased livestock predation by wolves. While 150 wolves was the original 1995 recovery goal, no agency or any person with knowledge of wolves believed that this was possible with the vast areas of Idaho, some of which is inaccessible wilderness.
Wolf management is very difficult in Idaho with vast areas of wilderness.
Wolf numbers are very closely monitored by Idaho Fish & Game on a year basis. While IDFG and sportsman want to see a reduction in wolf numbers, no one wants to see them eradicated, despite what you might read in headlines.
IDFG sold over 47,000 wolf tags to 45,000 license holders in 2021, and 280 people harvested wolves. Of the 280 people, only 30 harvested more than one wolf. A 90% reduction in wolves by hunting and trapping is just not possible with the vast areas that wolves live in. The number of wolves and the number of hunters and trappers show this in the population and harvest reports that must be completed.
FOUNDATION FOR WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT
To address the increasing wolf population in Idaho and surrounding states, the Foundation for Wildlife Management (F4WM) was created in 2011. F4WM is a 501c3 non-profit whose mission is to promote ungulate population recovery in areas negatively impacted by wolves, assist state game agencies in meeting their wolf management objectives, and to educate the general public on the negative impact the successful reintroduction of wolves has had on the ungulate population.
The Foundation for Wildlife Management helps to bridge the gap between people who want to manage wolves and the people who possess the means and knowledge to reduce wolf populations. The Foundation’s Wolf Harvest Reimbursement Program reduces the financial burden that it takes to actually harvest a wolf.
WOLF HARVEST REIMBURSEMENT PROGRAM
IDFG Commission voted to route $200,000 through the Idaho Wolf Control Board to the Foundation for Wildlife Management in 2021-2022. This money is used to reimburse hunters and trappers for expenses incurred during a wolf harvest. F4WM members are eligible for a $500 reimbursement statewide, and up to $2,500 reimbursement depending on the zone the wolf was harvested from and the remaining grant funds.
Justin Webb, Executive Director of the Foundation for Wildlife Management with his wolf harvest. F4WM believes that proper wolf management is critical to ensuring ungulate populations for future hunting.
F4WM has reimbursed hunters and trappers for over 1,400 wolf harvests using $1,178,000 from memberships, donations, grants, and fundraising. This computes to approximately $840 per wolf harvest. In comparison, the Idaho Wolf Control Board averages approximately $9,000 per wolf removed, 65% of which has historically been funded by state tax dollars. “The F4WM Wolf Harvest Reimbursement program is cost efficient and utilizes sportsmen’s efforts to do the work that the state would otherwise have to fund through tax dollars,” says Webb.
While Idaho has the most liberal wolf harvest seasons in North America, it’s important to educate yourself about predator management practices in your area. Reach out to your state game management agencies, attend your local game management commission meetings, and get out in the field.
“It is amazing what a person can learn and come to understand from first-hand experience, as opposed to listening to folk who have never left the blacktop,” says Webb.
If you’re interested in learning more or joining the Foundation for Wildlife Management, please visit F4WM and check out a chapter near you.