Recent media coverage about Idaho Fish and Game sending an employee to try to remove two of the wolf packs in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness has raised questions and concerns. Many Idahoans have strong feelings about wolves – and wilderness. I’ve heard from those who believe we should take a hands-off approach and “let nature take its course” in wilderness, while others feel Fish and Game’s actions are not aggressive enough to recover elk herds in the area.
Since their introduction into Idaho, we have come to understand that wolves are very prolific at reproducing and colonizing new territory and they can withstand relatively high mortality levels. In 2002, the Idaho State legislature adopted a state wolf management plan to ensure that Idaho’s wolf population would remain on the Idaho landscape and off the federal endangered species list.
Part of keeping wolves in Idaho is managing them to reduce conflicts. Idaho law says that wildlife throughout our state belongs to the citizens and that Fish and Game will manage to preserve, protect, perpetuate such wildlife, and provide for the citizens continued supplies for hunting, fishing and trapping.
Wildlife management often involves action: reducing crop damage from deer and elk herds through special hunts, reducing traffic collisions with big game animals, removing mountain lions from cities, preventing nuisance bear behavior by improving public awareness about sanitation, addressing overpopulation by increasing harvest, and recovering populations in decline by improving habitat, and in this case, reducing predation.
Fish and Game seeks to manage large predators (black bears, mountain lions, and gray wolves) in balance with their prey. The pack behavior of wolves is different than more solitary predators. The rapid growth of the wolf population disrupted the predator-prey balance in some areas and is a major factor in preventing some elk populations from rebounding.
The wilderness is a special place but it is different from a national park. Backcountry hunting, fishing, and wildlife viewing are treasured opportunities, and Fish and Game has actively managed wildlife in central Idaho since before the area was designated wilderness. Aerial surveys tell us that in the Frank Church wilderness, elk populations have dropped 43 percent since 2002 and wolf populations are too high in relation to elk numbers. Our research in other backcountry areas indicates that wolf predation is a major factor preventing elk populations from recovering. We know there are at least six documented packs in the Middle Fork Salmon zone, and several more packs throughout the wilderness area. Recent backcountry wildfires have increased elk forage but it may take a few years for habitat to fully recover.
Wolf hunting and trapping by sportsmen in the Middle Fork zones have not been sufficiently effective in reducing elk predation. Even if successful, this action will in no way come near to eliminating wolves. That is not, and never will be our goal.
More information about the Middle Fork zone elk population trends is included on page 97 of Fish and Game’s Draft Elk Management Plan posted on the Fish and Game website.