It’s really gratifying to see the engagement on our 5-part wolf series, looking at how wolves have affected our people and our state almost 25 years after reintroduction in 1995.
Our videos have garnered more than 200,000 views and counting on YouTube so far. You’ll find our series at idrange.org/wildlife, the Life on the Range Facebook page, or on Life on the Range YouTube channel.
The Idaho Rangeland Resources Commission (IRRC) is responsible for sharing information/education about issues of the day as they relate to Idaho’s rangelands and their use. Generally, we’ve focused on positive projects that benefit fish and wildlife, water, and sage grouse on those private and public rangelands.
But the wolf story had not been told in the level of detail that’s needed for better public understanding of what has occurred over the last 25 years. To recap some of the key points:
Thirty-five wolves were introduced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in 1995 as an “non-essential experimental” population.
The feds didn’t ask the Idaho Legislature for permission, but if they had, they wouldn’t have gotten it, as former State Senator Laird Noh explains in Part 2 of our series.
Wolves reached the initial goal of 10 breeding pairs in Idaho in 1998. The USFWS tried multiple times to delist wolves but were blocked by lawsuits until 2011, when Congress got wolves delisted in Idaho and Montana.
By 2011, Idaho had well over 1,000 wolves – a far cry from the 30 called for in the reintroduction plan. We’ve never recovered from that situation. Many say Idaho Fish and Game needs to be more aggressive with hunting and trapping seasons. It turns out that it’s really hard to trap or hunt wolves. There are more new wolves born each year than harvested. This has been a daunting task for IDFG, which inherited this management challenge from the USFWS. The goal of the 2002 Wolf Management Plan is to maintain a minimum of 150 wolves in Idaho.
Over time, the wolf-recovery program abandoned any strategy for trying to keep the apex predators in the Central Idaho wilderness areas – as promised – instead, allowing wolves to spread statewide mostly north of Interstate 84. Now there are more wolves and elk in the Ag-Wildland Interface than ever before, and that’s why cattle and sheep ranchers are seeing record numbers of livestock predation.
Since 1995, wolves have killed more than 982 cattle, 3,150 sheep, and 53 guard dogs, causing $1.6 million in damages and impacting 435 ranchers statewide. Smaller numbers of llamas, border collies, horses, goats and other animals have been killed by wolves as well. Federal officials predicted that wolves would kill 10 cattle, 57 sheep and up to 1,650 big game animals per year in the Wolf EIS in 1995.
Part 4 of our series details the unforeseen impacts of wolves that few expected or anticipated – things like cattle tormented by wolves attacking herding dogs to the point where the dogs are useless to move the cattle; lighter calves and lambs coming off the range, affecting ranchers’ profits, stressed cattle contracting PTSD-like behavior, again affecting their ability to graze and put on crucial pounds, wolves killing mother cows and leaving no outward sign of trauma, elk hanging out in ranchers’ private land meadows as a safe zone from wolves, and higher percentages of calves and lambs getting killed on public and mostly private lands in wolf country.
The genie is out of the bottle and wolves are here to stay. But looking back at the history and intent of the wolf-recovery program, we are reminded how it has totally lost it bearings. It was an unfunded mandate forced on Idaho by the federal government, and all of the negative impacts are hitting rural people, ranchers, hunters and outfitters, with no end in sight. Eventually, wolves will cause problems near our urban communities, picking off a stray cat, a pet dog or worse -- similar to what has happened with coyotes and mountain lions.
We respect what pro-wolf ranchers have done with non-lethal livestock management in Blaine County and in the Pahsimeroi Valley. We all can learn from their experience.
But the broader answer, it seems to us, is that we should work toward a wolf population that mainly resides in the Central Idaho Wilderness areas. We have almost 4 million acres of designated wilderness in Central Idaho, plus another 9 million acres of de facto wilderness – or 13 million acres of backcountry – where wolves could live in a more sustainable way.
If they remain in large numbers, hovering near private ranch meadows in the Ag-Wildland Interface, they are bound to get in trouble over and over again, costing everyone money, and harming the rural people and rural Idaho economy.
Let’s work toward a wild wolf population that lives in the wilderness, where it should.
Royce Schwenkfelder and his family operate SS Cattle Company near Cambridge. He is chairman of the Idaho Rangeland Resource Commission.