This week, Idaho governor Brad Little is expected to sign into law a bill that calls for the extermination of 90 percent of the state’s 1,500-strong wolf population. Proponents say wolves are ruining the livelihoods of ranchers and hunters. Opponents say the wolves are necessary to a healthy ecosystem.
“They’re destroying ranchers,” said Republican senator Mark Harris, one of the bill’s sponsors, during a debate in the Idaho statehouse. “They’re destroying wildlife. This is a needed bill.”
“The politicians behind this bill lack science, ethics, and fact,” Amaroq Weiss, senior West Coast wolf advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, told Outside.
After being eradicated earlier in the 20th century, wolves were reintroduced to Idaho in 1995. Initially protected by the federal government under the Endangered Species Act, the state legislature worked to establish political control over management of the species. The Idaho Wolf Conservation and Management Plan was passed in 2002, creating a blueprint for the state’s Fish and Game department to take over management of the species upon delisting from the ESA, which took place across the northern Rocky Mountains in 2011.
That original plan, written by the legislature, not Fish and Game, called for a minimum population level of 15 packs. Given that wolf packs in this part of the world average about ten members, that roughs out to a population of about 150 wolves. That number was determined by the legislature to be the population size that would allow the species to remain sustainable in the state—without creating conflict with ranchers and hunters. Wildlife biologists, in contrast, argue that wolves must return to the entire portion of their historic range that’s currently able to support the species before their population can be considered sustainable.
This new bill, SB 1211, calls for Idaho’s wolf population to be reduced from its current estimated size of 1,556 back to that politically determined level of 150 wolves. To achieve that, it devotes $590,000 to hire contractors to exterminate the animals and removes any limits on the number of wolves hunters may harvest, while freeing them to use any method currently legal in the state, including trapping, the use of night vision equipment, shooting from vehicles, and baiting.
The Idaho Fish and Game Commission opposes the legislation, arguing the bill would remove decisions about how to manage wildlife from the department’s professionals and place that decision making in the hands of politicians. Idaho’s approach is also in conflict with that of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Here are the reasons the bill’s proponents argue such extraordinary action is necessary—and how they compare to science.
The Claim: Wolves Kill Livestock
“A cow taken by a wolf is similar to a thief stealing an item from a production line in a factory,” Cameron Mulrony, executive vice president of the Idaho Cattle Association, told The Guardian.
And in the debate at the statehouse, Idaho’s Senator Harris called wolf livestock depredation a “disaster.”
The Reality: The Number of Kills by Wolves Is Exceptionally Small
In 2018 there were 113 confirmed wolf kills of cows and sheep. In 2019 that number was 156, and in 2020 it was 84. That gives us a three-year average of 113 wolf kills per year in the state. There are currently 2.73 million head of cows and sheep in Idaho. That means confirmed wolf-caused losses amount to 0.00428 percent of the state’s livestock.
According to a study published in 2003 and widely cited by the agriculture industry, variables like terrain can sometimes make it hard to find dead livestock, so the true number of wolf-related losses may be up to eight times greater than the official tally. Assuming that worst-case scenario applies universally, wolf kills may account for as much as 0.02 percent of the state’s livestock.
Nationwide, four percent of cattle are lost each year to other factors like disease, birthing complications, and inclement weather.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife provides the state of Idaho with funding to compensate ranchers for confirmed cases of livestock lost to wolf depredation. Currently that amount covers 50 percent of the rancher’s total cost.
The Claim: Killing Wolves Reduces Depredation
“We need proper management to keep Idaho ranchers in business,” wrote Cameron Mulroney, vice president of the Idaho Cattle Association, in an opinion piece published by the Idaho Statesman. He goes on to call for taxpayer-funded wolf culling and increased wolf hunting opportunities for members of the public.
The Reality: Healthy Packs Prefer Natural Prey
“Multiple state-sponsored studies have concluded that large-scale wolf removal through public hunting or significant lethal control does not substantially reduce livestock losses to wolves in areas of recurring conflict,” Zoë Hanley, a representative of Defenders of Wildlife, wrote in a letter to Idaho lawmakers.
Many biologists believe that, because wolves function in packs, destabilizing and weakening those packs by killing members of them forces the wolfs to seek easier prey. “The odds of livestock depredations increased four percent for sheep and five to six percent for cattle with increased wolf control,” said a study that tracked livestock depredations across Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming between 1987 and 2012.
The study does confirm that culling wolves to the point of removing them from an ecosystem can be demonstrated to reduce depredation.
The Claim: Wolves Decrease Hunting Opportunities
Wolves are “destroying wildlife,” said Senator Harris in the debate. Hunters complain that they must compete with wolves for their natural prey, elk and deer, and that wolves push those animals out of traditional hunting areas, while reducing their outright numbers.
“The old place where you took your Dad or your dad takes your son, you can’t go there anymore because the elk are gone,” wrote Benn Brocksome, executive director of the Idaho Sportsman’s Alliance, in an opinion piece. “There’s one or two deer where there used to be hundreds, they’ve really pushed the elk and deer populations around, and really diminished the populations in different areas.”
The Reality: Wolves Create Healthy Ecosystems
Despite all those pesky wolves, elk populations in Idaho are actually at or above management objectives. The outright number of elk in the state currently stands at 120,000, just 5,000 fewer than the all-time high of 125,000. That’s also 8,000 more elk than were counted in 1995, the year wolves were reintroduced to Idaho.
As of 2019, the population of bulls (male elk) was above management objectives in 41 of Idaho’s 78 elk-hunting zones. According to Idaho Fish and Game, 2019 saw the 14th-highest elk harvest of all time in the state. In fact, the biggest problem elk populations in Idaho face is a lack of hunters prepared to hunt tough terrain. “One of the challenges we face in managing elk populations is getting enough hunters to hunt hard for and harvest antlerless elk in areas where we are working to bring elk herds back to the population objectives in the statewide elk plan,” Rick Ward, the department’s deer and elk program coordinator, said in a statement.
Mule deer aren’t fairing quite as well. “The three-year stretch of winters spanning from 2016 to 2019 was tough on many of Idaho’s mule deer herds, largely due to poor-to-average fawn survival,” according to Idaho Fish and Game. Still, 24,809 mule deer were harvested during the 2020 hunting season, with 28 percent of hunters finding success. Below average, but far from the lowest.
It doesn’t appear that wolves decreased populations of ungulates, and the predators may even play an important role in protecting them: chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a contagious neurological disease that degrades brain tissue in deer and elk over time, leading to emaciation and eventually death. CWD has not yet reached Idaho, but it has been found just over the border in southwest Montana and in Wyoming. There is currently no known cure and no effective tool for preventing its spread.
At least that’s what researchers thought until they began a research project into CWD’s spread in Yellowstone National Park. There, preliminary results suggested that wolves may be effective at slowing its spread by killing infected animals. Wolves cannot be infected by the disease.
“Wolves wouldn’t be a magic cure everywhere,” Ellen Brandell, the Penn State University researcher leading the project, told The New York Times. “But in places where it was just starting and you have an active predator guild, they could keep it at bay and it might never get a foothold.”
Gary J. Wolfe, a wildlife biologist and the former president and CEO of hunting advocacy group the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, agrees. “While I don’t think any of us large carnivore proponents are saying that wolf predation will prevent CWD, or totally eliminate it from infected herds, it is ecologically irresponsible to not consider the very real possibility that wolves can slow the spread of CWD and reduce its prevalence in infected herds,” he said in a statement released by the Sierra Club. “We should consider wolves to be ‘CWD border guards,’ adjust wolf hunting seasons accordingly, and let wolves do their job of helping to cull infirm animals from the herds.”
SB 1211 isn’t going to save livestock and won’t help hunters, but ultimately it may pose one major problem for anti-wolf Idahoans: if it causes the state’s wolf population to fall below ten packs, the bill could eventually lead to the state losing the ability to manage wolves within its borders. The 2002 Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, written by Idaho’s own legislature, calls for wolf management to revert to U.S. Fish and Wildlife control if the state’s population falls below ten packs.
“In the unlikely event the population falls below ten packs … wolf management will revert to the same provisions that were in effect to recover the wolf population prior to delisting,” according to Idaho’s management plan. That’s the Endangered Species Act.