What will come of the wolf hunts in Idaho, Montana?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 1:26 AM Bookmark and Share
Last week marked the beginning of the first wolf hunts in the lower 48 states in decades, following their recent removal from the endangered species list.  Montana and Idaho are both selling permits, which is good news to a lot of ranchers, deer and elk hunters, and other livestock owners - and bad news to a lot of wolf lovers.  One big question both sides are interested in is what will the impact be on the wolf populations?

According to this LA Times article, wolves are by no means as abundant as they used to be. 
Protected under the federal Endangered Species Act since 1973, when they were nearly extinct in the continental United States, wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park and parts of Idaho in the 1990s and have since formed a large number of hunting and breeding packs that are beginning to range as far as Oregon.

The federal government concluded that the wolves, which now number about 1,650, had recovered, and lifted the endangered-species protections this year.
In Idaho, licenses to hunt wolves have been on sale for just over a week now, with over 9,000 already sold.  And yes, that means there are literally thousands more wolf hunters in Idaho this fall than there are individual wolves in all of the western U.S!

So, like, no more wolves - right?  Wrong.

First, the number of licenses is only the number of folks who get the opportunity to try and hunt a wolf. Unlike rabbits or squirrels, wolves aren't so easy to find so the vast majority of hunters are going home empty handed.  Indeed, some of those buying wolf tags won't even try to hard to find wolves - instead having them just in case they come across wolves after their livestock or while hunting other species like deer or elk.

To clarify things, we really need consider the quota set by the state wildlife agencies...

In Montana, the Fish, Wildlife & Parks department set the quota at 75 wolves of their estimated 500 wolves.
Commissioners approved a harvest quota of 75 wolves across three wolf management units. For northwestern Montana, the commission approved a quota of 41, with a subquota of two in the North Fork of the Flathead River area; a quota of 22 was approved for western Montana; and a quota of 12 in southwestern Montana.
In Idaho, the quota was set at 220 wolves, based on the 2008 estimate of a minimum of 846 in the state. 
Idaho’s Fish and Game Commission voted 4-3 for the wolf-hunt plan, with the three dissenters holding out for an even more aggressive hunt to target 49 percent, or up to 430, of Idaho’s wolves. Chairman Wayne Wright, one of the dissenters, declared, “Now’s the time to do the right thing. … Neither our state’s economy, our ranchers, our sportsmen or our elk herds can wait any longer.”
For reference, that's over half of the the 1,600+ wolves in the northern Rockies south of Canada (which harbors over 60,000 wolves), especially if you take that 846 as a minimum. More on the Idaho Fish & Game Commission's August 2009 decisions regarding the wolf hunts can be found here.

Using the more optimistic estimate of 1,000 wolves in Idaho being claimed by others, this still seems like a high quota that at best looks like it would yield zero growth or a decline in the state's wolf population.  I'm suspicious as to how this level of harvest could be sustained for multiple seasons given that the growth of the wolf populations has been below 20% annually in these areas in recent years, but who knows.  Throw in unexpectedly low reproductive rates these next few years and some combination of illegal poaching and/or the hunts going over quota and it looks to look a little more risky - though still not catastrophic.

So what's going to happen to the wolf populations in Idaho and Montana?  Who knows, but optimistically (or pessimistically, depending on how you feel about wolves) the population seems like it'll be maintained at near their current levels, maybe with a small decline the next year or two.  On the other hand, while I doubt they'll hunt them down to near extinction, hunting pressure could reduce them down to near or maybe even below the population size necessary to maintain their delisted status, though I doubt it.

I guess like so many things - only time will tell.


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