Gov. Brad Little
's (R) office first prepared a statement on a controversial bill to increase efforts to kill and trap wolves
earlier this year, his staff included the assurance: "Idaho has no interest in decimating our wolf population in the state." It also acknowledged that "wolf management is a polarizing and emotional topic for many."
According to documents obtained by Stardia through public records requests, the governor
's office ultimately removed those lines from the statement, instead praising the bill for attempting to "address conflicts that negatively impact
populations and severely harm Idaho's agricultural industry." Little signed the bill on May 6.
Critics have labeled the Idaho bill a plan for "wolf decimation," accusing its Republican
supporters in the legislature and the state's ranching industry of orchestrating a slaughter large enough to re-list the animals
as endangered. That the governor's office considered downplaying those concerns, but ultimately did not, is certainly not a good sign for those seeking to protect the animals.
“It’s disappointing,” Andrea Zaccardi, a Center for Biological Diversity
lawyer, told Stardia. “It just shows the governor is committed to appeasing special interests, such as the livestock industry, at the expense of those who value the state’s native wolves and their role in creating and maintaining healthy ecosystems.”
Requests for comment were not returned by the Idaho Governor's Office.
The messaging adds a new layer of complexity to the debate over what the new law means for Idaho's most divisive predator.
The bill drew widespread criticism, with opponents claiming that it would result in the deaths of up to 90% of the state's 1,500 gray wolves, a figure frequently cited in news
reports. The bill removes restrictions on the state's already very liberal hunting
and trapping regulations, and allows people
to hire third parties to kill wolves. It also allows hunting wolves at night and by motor vehicle.
The bill was championed by the state's farm lobby, who claimed that rising wolf populations have hampered ranchers. It reflects long-standing tensions over wolf management in the West, pitting ranchers against environmental groups
who want wolves reestablished across their former range. Montana
passed similar legislation this year.
Opponents argue that the changes will result in a cull, reducing wolf populations to the bare minimum specified in the state's management plan, which is around 150 wolves.
However, the Idaho bill makes no mention of how many wolves should be killed, and state officials, including those who supported the bill, have a strong disincentive to do so.
After the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service reintroduced wolves in 1995, Western states fought lengthy legal battles to take over management of the animals. A 90% cull would almost certainly return Idaho's wolves to federal protection under the Endangered Species Act
Even if Idaho officials wanted to kill that many wolves, it is unclear whether they could. Ranchers can already kill wolves that threaten livestock without a hunting tag or a trapping license. Before the bill passed, anyone could buy up to 15 hunting tags for wolves for $13.50 each, as well as another 15 trapping tags.
Wolves, on the other hand, are intelligent predators that routinely travel
more than 20 miles per day, often at night, and the vast majority of people who attempt to hunt or trap one fail.
As a result, the wolf population has steadily increased. According to Idaho Fish and Game Department spokesman Roger Phillips, hunters and trappers killed a record-breaking 583 wolves last year, but that number fell short of the roughly 40% mortality needed to keep the population in check.
“It was a stretch at best to say that the state of Idaho’s goal is to remove 90% of the wolves,” Phillips said. “We manage them the same way we manage mountain lions and black bears
. We don’t have a specific number we’re aiming for with any of our predators.”
While the new law's practical effects are unknown, legislators have been chastised for taking wolf management away from the state's wildlife officials. Thirty former wildlife managers wrote a letter to Little in April
asking him to veto the bill. Idaho Fish and Game Director Ed Schriever opposed the bill in an April 22 letter, saying state law "expressly reflects that it is inconvenient and impr
Priority for Ranchers
Wildlife is considered a public trust in the United States
, and it is mostly managed by state agencies. However, it is common for legislators in conservative states with strong ranching lobbies to push for laws that target predators, boost private hunting operations, or blur the lines between wildlife and livestock. States with strong liberal constituencies routinely manage wildlife through plebiscites that are held on a regular basis.
Before European colonization, there were up to 2 million gray wolves across most of the United States, but their numbers plummeted in the late nineteenth century as commercial hunters decimated the wild deer
, and buffalo
populations, which the wolves prey on.
To protect livestock, the federal government launched poisoning campaigns against wolves and other predators in the early twentieth century, as ranching spread across the West.
That legacy of conflict between wolves and ranchers can still be found in states like Idaho, where cattle outnumber the state's 1.7 million people, and ranchers raise an additional 200,000 sheep. Idaho's governor, Brad Little, comes from a ranching family
Opponents of the wolf bill argue that ranchers exaggerate the impact of predators on livestock, citing depredation statistics. According to Idaho Wildlife Services Director Jared Hedelius, the USDA
's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service investigated 205 suspected wolf depredations in the last year, confirming about half of them.
“Those aren’t just opinions,” Hedelius pointed out, “but actual numbers.”
However, ranchers claim that the biggest hit to their bottom line comes not from dead livestock, but from wolves pushing herds around, causing them to exercise
more, gain weight more slowly, and lowering fertility
as stressed out animals miscarry more frequently.
“We have members who tell me that their Forest Service lands used to be their most productive lots, and now they’re the least productive,” said Chyla Wilson, a spokesperson for the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation. “It’s not just kills; it’s these other factors. There are simply too many wolves.”
While Hedelius was unable to quantify the issue, he stated that ranchers share his concerns. “A lot of livestock producers would rather see 10 lambs dead than 1,000 lambs come in underweight,” he said.
Some methods, such as electric fencing, are effective for animals that cluster together, such as bands of sheep, but less so for cattle spread across large landscapes. The best deterrent is increased human presence on the landscape, because North America
's predators universally fear humans.
A New Round of Legal Repercussions
A coalition of more than 50 environmental and animal rights organizations petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife Service last month to reclassify gray wolves in the Northern Rockies as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The 2009 rule delisting gray wolves in the area that includes Idaho requires the agency to review wolves' status if a chasm is discovered.
Some of the same organizations have petitioned the US Forest Service to prohibit wolf hunting in its Idaho wilderness areas, citing the legalization of contract wolf killing. Federal law restricts commercial activities in designated wilderness areas.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service has not yet taken a position on the Idaho wolf law, but it has three months to respond to the petition.
Wolf advocates, like Idaho wildlife officials, do not have a set population target in mind.
“You can’t put a number on what a healthy population is,” Zaccardi said, adding that “a healthy population means that wolves are connected across much of their historic range.”