Idaho’s Fish and Game Commission unanimously approved a new 6-year state wolf management plan (“the plan”), which is centered on reducing the state wolf population by approximately 60%—from the current state population estimate of around 1,300 wolves to around 500, with a low of 350 in the late winter. This arbitrary population goal is lacking in science-based justification, counter to managing for healthy ecosystems, and ignores the perspectives of the majority of public commenters who opposed the new plan.
Key themes of greatest tension expressed in the public comments include the population target of 500 wolves, the effects wolves have on elk, and how to support agricultural producers who lose livestock to wolves. Idaho’s wildlife decision-makers have emphasized a need for balance, but the new plan lacks a balanced assessment of these tensions and instead doubles down on biased justifications for reducing the wolf population.
Idaho’s wolf population goal of 500 is arbitrary and extremely low
Idaho is notable for having some of the largest and most contiguous wildlands of any state, with over 60% of the landmass being publicly owned. This shared resource provides rich habitat that supports unique wildlife and experiences in nature that many people value. Idaho is home to some 2,000-3,000 mountain lions, 20,000-30,000 black bears, ~107,000 elk, and 250,000-325,000 mule deer. Relative to other animal populations, it’s clear that wolves are already one of the scarcest large mammals living in the state, even compared to other top predators. The chart below helps put the wolf population into perspective. The tiny red bubble represents the current estimate of 1,300 wolves in Idaho, though there may be even fewer than this—concern is mounting that the state monitoring methods are over-estimating the number of wolves.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) points to federal recovery criteria to justify its wolf reduction goal. When wolves were delisted and lost federal protections in the Northern Rockies, Idaho committed to ensuring a minimum of 150 wolves in mid-winter (when populations are near lowest). These numeric goals were identified relative to targets set in a 1987 recovery plan, which was significantly outdated at the time of delisting in 2009 and widely criticized by experts for lacking scientific credibility. State efforts to reduce wolf populations towards these minimum criteria have been largely based on a fundamental misunderstanding or mischaracterization of the original recovery goals—framing them as population objectives or maximums, rather than bare minimum criteria that don’t reflect the latest understanding of wolf population viability or all that we have learned in the 25+ years since wolf reintroduction. Wolves have shown us that higher populations can be supported by Idaho’s rich habitat and their presence on a landscape can help rebalance ecosystems.
Idaho’s plan inflates and oversimplifies the impacts wolves have on elk
The plan makes multiple references to the “detrimental impact” wolves have on animals like elk, which can be of concern for elk hunters. However, these claims are unsupported by the trends on elk populations and hunter success rates in Idaho—which have both increased since wolf reintroduction. Idaho’s hunting forecast for 2022 reads, “Elk populations are stable-to-increasing…trending to more elk than we’ve ever seen in Idaho.” Idaho’s hunter success rates have not drastically changed over the last 10-20 years, but appear to be increasing even as the wolf population has grown.
The plan identifies specific elk populations that are under-performing in a limited number of zones in Idaho, but it makes little sense for IDFG to use trends in those localized areas to justify sweeping statewide wolf reduction policies amidst a strong statewide elk population and high hunter success rates. In fact, Idaho’s elk hunter success rates are trending better than many Western states, even those states with large elk populations and no resident wolves. This is because factors such as harsh winters, fire, habitat degradation, expanding development, and human hunting patterns can be far more influential on elk populations than wolf predation.
Importantly, wolf predation is not inherently negative. Wolves and the species they hunt have co-evolved over millions of years and their relationship is intricately bound up with the health and function of entire ecosystems. Because wolves’ best hunting strategy is to select elk that are sickly, elderly, or otherwise relatively close to death, wolves don’t necessarily have a significant impact on elk population size and can contribute positively to herd health and resilience. In fact, research has found human hunters have a stronger influence on elk herd reproduction because hunters typically target healthy breeding age elk and avoid unhealthy elk. Ultimately, the predator-prey relationship and ecosystem dynamics are far too complex to assume that reducing the statewide wolf population to 500 will result in greater elk hunter success rates, and this approach completely discounts the benefits wolves can bring to prey populations, human communities, and ecosystems.
Idaho's plan prioritizes lethal control, rather than targeted nonlethal conflict prevention efforts
The plan states that IDFG will “favor” lethal removal—including killing entire wolf packs—over nonlethal deterrents until the population reaches the goal of around 500 wolves. We are disappointed that the state is committing to a lethal-first approach to wildlife management, which is outdated and counterintuitive in an era of rapid biodiversity loss. Communities in the state of Idaho and many other geographies are demonstrating that proactive, collaborative nonlethal solutions provide a balanced approach that can effectively prevent conflicts and benefit all.
USDA-Wildlife Services reports indicate 84 cattle and 192 sheep were killed by wolves in Idaho in 2022, and 28 producers participated in Idaho’s livestock loss compensation program that year. Even if this number underestimates losses by 100% due to under-reporting, the impacts are extremely limited relative to the total number of livestock in Idaho. Given the localized nature of wolf-related livestock losses, proactive and targeted conflict prevention methods are better suited to supporting those negatively impacted by wolves than incentivizing recreational hunters and trappers to kill wolves, including across public lands. Wolf mortality data obtained from IDFG shows that in calendar year 2022, ~85% of wolf kills happened on public lands—which is where most of the wolves live. Aggressive and sweeping reductions to the wolf population on a statewide scale is mismatched with the limited and localized nature of wolf-livestock conflicts.
The new wolf plan is contradictory to the mission of Idaho’s Fish and Game agency, which emphasizes that all wildlife in the state should be preserved, protected, perpetuated, and managed to provide for the citizens of the state. According to IDFG’s summary of public comments, 76% of all commenters (including both Idaho residents and non-residents) opposed this plan. Among the Idaho residents who commented, 53% opposed the plan, 11% supported it but had concerns, and 36% supported the plan.
We urge IDFG and all state wolf management programs to take a more objective and balanced approach and to avoid sweeping wolf reduction policies that are out of synch with the latest scientific knowledge, the views of the public, and the complex reality of the environment. As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service works to conclude its overdue 12-month status review, it should hold states to a higher standard than intentionally working to reverse recovery progress and limiting wolves to arbitrary bare minimum population levels.
This blog was developed with support from NRDC’s 2023 winter conservation intern, Anna Baize, who helped with drafting, research, and data visualizations. Anna received her bachelor’s degree in Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology from Colorado State University in 2020. During school, she developed an interest in the complexities of human-wildlife coexistence. This eventually brought her to Missoula, Montana where she was immersed in wild landscapes through her involvement in wildlife research. You can typically find Anna biking through Ponderosa and Douglas-fir forests on summer days, or cross country skiing with her dog during the colder months.