Nearly 25 years after Rocky Mountain gray wolves were reintroduced to Central Idaho, wolves have had a negative impact on ranching and rural communities that likely will never go away and could get worse, officials say.
In the last two years, wolves set new records for killing cattle and sheep in Idaho. They also killed farm animals such as horses, goats and llamas. These were just the confirmed kills.
The story of wolf recovery in Idaho is largely a story about broken promises, unfunded mandates, and challenging wildlife management, officials say.
Wolves were supposed to stay inside the Central Idaho Wilderness, but they didn’t. Wolves were supposed to be delisted from the Endangered Species Act after 10 breeding pairs recolonized the Central Idaho wilderness, but they weren’t. Wolf numbers exploded in Idaho to an estimated minimum of population of 800 to 1,000 wolves, occupying the mountains from Interstate 84 to Canada.
Big-game hunters say that wolves have changed elk hunting in Idaho forever in areas where wolves are now full-time residents. Wolves have a 30-40 percent reproductive rate. “The fact is, there’s more wolves born each year than have been harvested in any given season,” notes Justin Webb, executive director of the Foundation for Wildlife Management.
Ranchers who live in eight Idaho counties with chronic wolf depredation say that wolves are causing a multitude of impacts that threaten their future. The record number of wolf kills suggests that existing wolf-management could be more aggressive to reduce wolf numbers in problem areas, ranchers and landowners say. Hunting and trapping of wolves has occurred since 2011, but those methods are barely putting a dent in the wolf population.
“We’ve gotta have some solutions somewhere,” says Chase Whittaker, a Leadore rancher. “The wolf needs to be scared of something, but right now, they’re not really scared of anything.”
Whittaker’s family runs the Two Dot Ranch near Leadore in the Lemhi River Valley and the Lemhi Mountains. They had 10 confirmed livestock kills by wolves most recently, and three years ago, they lost 45 calves that just flat disappeared in the mountains and were never confirmed – a loss of about $45,000 or $1,000 each.
“That’s catastrophic to lose something like that,” Whittaker says. “If you’re going to run livestock, you’re going to be productive, you can’t have these predators preying all the time.”
Wolves were reintroduced to wilderness areas in Central Idaho by the federal government in 1995 to bring an apex predator back to the ecosystem. The idea was that wolves would weed out sick and weak big game animals and make wildlife populations and the ecosystem more healthy. Their main prey species are elk, deer and moose.
But the experiment didn’t go as planned or promised. Wolf numbers grew to levels at least 10 times what was promised, they didn’t stay inside the wolf-recovery zone as outlined in the Central Idaho wilderness, and the impacts caused by wolves have been much more severe on livestock and ranching than anticipated. Nowadays, wolves are mainly living in Ag-Wildland interface areas in Idaho, where large numbers of elk are living, and they are causing unprecedented damage to livestock, private property and rural economies, officials say.
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.
Wolves are a pursuit predator, meaning they chase and run down prey. They are nocturnal, killing prey in the middle of the night. Few people, if anyone, can hear the screams of livestock or farm animals getting killed by wolves.
To Whitebird rancher Ray Stowers, who lost 4 calves to wolves last winter, it’s quite a shock. The wolves killed 2 steers and 2 heifers on his private winter calving ground, high above the Salmon River.
Stowers felt like the wolves had the same impact as a L.A. gang throwing a brick through his family’s living room window.
“It’s a pretty gut-wrenching feeling that you have to live with,” Stowers says. “I honestly look at our cows as part of our family. I mean I treat ‘em well. And I try to tend to their every need. But there is a situation that happens mostly at night, and you feel totally helpless because you can not protect them in country like this. It’s just impossible.
“It’s just one of them deals where you just get this knot in your stomach, and every morning when you go around the corner, where you can first see where your cows are, you have this knot in your stomach, like, wonder what happened last night? I wonder who got killed?”
Wolf populations have spread throughout the state of Idaho, north of Interstate 84, and they continue to grow beyond the state’s borders into Oregon, Washington and California. Idaho Fish and Game estimates there are a minimum of 80-100 wolf packs in Idaho. That roughly translates to at least 800 to 1,000 wolves living in Idaho, north of Interstate 84.
After wolves were delisted from the Endangered Species Act, Idaho’s primary method of controlling wolf numbers – hunting and trapping by sportsmen – has reduced the level of concern by big-game hunters, says Idaho Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore, who recently retired.
“We saw this what I would call, hate, disgust, angst, you name the descriptor, it went way down,” Moore says. “Once sportsmen were able to buy a permit to go out and take a wolf, they were empowered to do their part as managers on the landscape, and it made a large difference in how we were able to move forward.”
But keeping wolf numbers in check has been difficult because they reproduce so rapidly. “We’ll never decrease the fact that wolves have a 30-40 percent productivity,” Moore says. “They’re going to be throwing pups and young that are highly migratory and territorial and they’ll be moving out into new territories.”
Wolf populations have spread throughout the state of Idaho, north of Interstate 84, and they continue to grow beyond the state’s borders into Oregon, Washington and California. Each purple dot on the Idaho pack map, or black dot the regional wolf pack map indicates an active wolf pack. Idaho Fish and Game estimates there are a minimum of 80-100 wolf packs in Idaho. Each wolf pack averages about 7 animals, but some can number much higher than that. That roughly translates to at least 800 to 1,000 wolves living in Idaho, north of Interstate 84.
Ranching is big business in Idaho. There are about 6,000 cow-calf ranching operations – large and small – statewide. Livestock production is the 2nd largest ag industry in Idaho. Cash receipts from the beef cattle industry in Idaho average about $1.7 billion a year.
A key issue is figuring out how to manage wolves without causing undue harm to ranchers and the rural Idaho economy, experts say.
“The public said we want these apex predators back with the promise that they’d stay in certain areas,” says Chris Black, Bruneau rancher. “But they don’t know any boundaries, and economics and apex predators don’t mix.”
The genie is out of the bottle and wolves continue to expand in Idaho. The main challenge now is how to manage wolves in Ag-Wildland areas, where the majority of wolves and their prey live today. Wolves are killing livestock and other animals in 8 counties that have chronic wolf depredation year after year – Lemhi, Custer, Valley, Adams, Boise, Idaho, Elmore and Washington counties.
Wolves also have had an impact on elk populations and elk hunting in Idaho. Studies show that wolves generally prefer to eat elk, deer and moose in Idaho as their primary diet. Adult wolves need to eat about 9 pounds of meat per day.
Idaho hunters – like Idaho ranchers – want the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to keep wolf numbers down to a manageable level.
“It’s been fascinating to see wolves reintroduced and really dominate wildlife in the state. It’s been a struggle and a challenge,” says Benn Brocksome, executive director of the Idaho Sportsmen’s Alliance. “The challenges with hunting alone have been drastic. The old place where you took your Dad or your Dad takes your son, you can’t go there anymore because the elk are gone, there’s one or two deer where there used to be hundreds, they’ve really pushed the elk and deer populations around, and really diminished the populations in different areas.
“Wolves continue to spread geographically, and grow in numbers, despite all of the plans that have been put in place to manage them. Still a lot of work to do.”
After wolves were delisted from the Endangered Species Act in 2011, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game launched hunting and trapping seasons to manage wolves as a game species.
Idaho has a three-pronged management system:
- USDA APHIS Wildlife Services responds to reports of wolves killing livestock at Idaho ranches or on public lands, and takes control action to remove problem wolves.
- During the big game hunting season, sportsmen can harvest wolves when they’re out hunting deer, elk and other species. About 30,000 hunters buy wolf tags each year. Harvest averages about 145 wolves per year.
- Wolf-trapping seasons are in effect for 7 months, from Aug. 30 – March 31. Trapping harvest has been averaging about 100-150 wolves per year.
To help soften the blow from direct wolf kills, ranchers can apply to receive compensation for the market value of confirmed livestock losses from the Governor’s Office of Species Conservation or the Farm Service Agency.
Josh Uriarte in the Idaho Governor’s Office of Species Conservation responds to contacts from landowners who have confirmed livestock kills. “I get a phone call from a landowner, they say, what do I do? I tell them, you have a few forms to fill out. You have an application front page, you have a match, and you have a W-9 so the state can send you a check,” Uriarte says. Federal funds require a match, based on the hours of time and expenses that ranchers log in working to confirm wolf kills with the aid of USDA APHIS Wildlife Services trappers in the field.
Non-lethal wolf control efforts
The Wood River Wolf Project works with several sheep ranchers in the Blaine County area to reduce wolf predation with a variety of non-lethal techniques, and Pahsimeroi cattle rancher Glen Elzinga also uses non-lethal management.
These ranchers like wolves and prefer to try to co-exist them, using various non-lethal tools to protect their livestock.
For example, Elzinga was losing $25,000 to $30,000 to wolves and other issues while his cattle were grazing on public lands during the summer months. He and his wife decided to pay their daughters and others to stay with the cattle 24/7 while they’re out on public range for 3-plus months. The range riders herd up the cattle every night, and put them in a solar-fence enclosure to protect them from predators.
“Since we started this new paradigm, we haven’t lost anything ever to wolves, larkspur, lightning or whatever, and it’s because if we’re going to be with them all the time, we looked at all those things in the eye, and we’re not going to have this death loss anymore,” Elzinga says.
The Wood River Wolf Project herds up sheep flocks every night, surrounds the animals with fladry, and uses a variety of noise-makers, strobe lights and other accessories to ward off wolves at night.
“You want to make sure you have a working knowledge of these tools, when to use them, and then rotate them so the wolves don’t become habituated and lose their fear of any particular tool,” says Suzanne Stone, with the Defenders of Wildlife.
It takes extra time, labor and materials to use non-lethal control methods … i.e., more money than a typical family ranch operation has in their budget.
“The ranch family spends all summer irrigating, cutting and putting up hay to feed the animals all winter, and they don’t have room in their budget to hire 2-3 herders to ride all day and all night herding the cattle, moving fences, building corrals,” says Carey rancher John Peavey.
Nearly all Idaho sheep ranchers are now buying extra guard dogs to protect sheep from coyotes and wolves, but sometimes, wolves kill guard dogs. Three guard dogs were confirmed kills in the last year.
Some cattle ranchers also use extra range riders to try to protect their livestock. The non-lethal methods are experimental ways to ward off predators and wolves. In general, more human presence around livestock helps keep the wolves at bay.
How does IDFG monitor wolf populations?
Wolf population objectives were set in the 2002 Idaho Wolf Management Plan, written by IDFG, and approved by the Idaho Legislature. The plan calls for exceeding a population of at least 150 wolves to ensure that they don’t fall back on the Endangered Species list. In January 2020, IDFG updated their minimum estimates to 1,500 wolves statewide through the remote camera estimating method.
To save money, Idaho Fish and Game has been transitioning to a system of estimating wolf populations via remote cameras in documented wolf territories. Previously, they used radio collars to track wolf populations to provide more detailed estimates.
“What we’re looking at is how much area is occupied by wolves, and how that changes over time. So what we have is a grid system set up across the state. Each grid is roughly the size of a wolf territory … ”
About 220 remote cameras gather photo data through the summer months, and then IDFG staff analyzes the photo data, plus DNA data collected from wolf harvest, to determine wolf populations.
“This stuff is all put together, run through the models and it gives us a real good handle on the area occupied by wolves in the state of Idaho,” says Jim Hayden, IDFG lead wolf biologist.
Wolves are killing pet goats, border collies and llamas near communities
It’s scary to some rural residents that wolves are killing animals so close to their homes and communities.
Vila and Jack Thomason lost 2 pet goats to wolves in October 2018. One was confirmed, “Sweet Pea.” The Thomason Ranch is right next to U.S. Highway 95, north of Cambridge.
Sweet Pea was killed in the dark of night, sleeping with the sheep.
“She was out with the sheep, like always, and the wolves got her that night, ate her up through the collar. Had the trapper come in, and he confirmed the kill,” Vila Thomason says.
“It feels horrible. Feels really horrible., especially because these wolves are pushed on us, we didn’t ask for them.”
Two llamas were killed at Marilyn Johnson’s ranch near Kamiah. She could hear the animals being killed by the barn in the middle of the night.
“It made me shiver,” Johnson said. “Wolves are not afraid. They’re bad and they’re getting worse.”
Robin Brown is a professional dog-trainer, owner of Broken Circle Border Collies in Indian Valley. She raises border collies to sell to ranchers for herding sheep and cattle.
On a beautiful summer day, Brown was out riding horseback with her border collies in the national forest. Wolves are very territorial, and Great Pyrenees guard dogs, border collies and hounds are particularly vulnerable in the forest. One day, one of her border collies disappeared right under her nose.
“She was the last maternal gene line to the best dogs I ever had,” Brown says. “I went up there on my horse, for a whole week trying to find that dog. On the 5th or 6th day, I was alone, I come into an open meadow, I see a lot of grass laid down, and I found my dog. I got off my horse, I saw a lot of wolf hair, a lot of wolf sign, I could see where they urinated on the dog, they licked her, she had no pads on her feet, her pads were down to meat.”
“I put her on my horse, and got just the most horrible feeling, carrying her on my horse back to the trailer. It was horrible.”
Brown called the local trapper from USDA Wildlife Services to see if he could confirm the kill. He skinned the dog and confirmed it was a wolf.
“He showed me the dog, what it looked like to me, someone skinned my dog, chopped it all up, crushed it into parts and pieces, crushed bones, muscle, tissue and meat, and then sewed the dog up in its normal body,” she says. “In that way, I was glad that I saw what the wolves could do. They killed my dog by crushing her hips, her back legs, her ribs, the crushing was so severe, that it tore up the meat inside her without puncturing the skin. At all.”
Brown was emotional, but mostly, she was mad.
“We had to change our whole life because of the wolves,” she says. “To me, they’re that scary creature in the nursery rhymes, they’re a horrible creature. People have to know the ugly stories about them, the ugly truth about them. They have done so much damage.”
Wolves are living closer to the Ag-Wildland Interface than before
One of the challenges with managing wolves in Idaho today is that it’s a dynamic situation – wolf populations follow their main food source – primarily elk and deer populations, and the locations can shift over time.
After wolves were reintroduced in the Central Idaho Wilderness areas, wolves consumed large quantities of elk during the first 10-15 years of living in Idaho. Once that food source was diminished, wolf numbers increased in the forests and ranching country outside of the wilderness, where they are finding plenty of elk and – sometimes livestock — to eat.
“It does look like we drove the elk out of the backcountry, but that’s not the case,” says Virgil Moore. “Those populations that are back there, haven’t expanded, whereas the front country elk populations have expanded.”
IDFG elk population maps help explain the dynamic. The areas shown in yellow indicate areas in Central Idaho where bull and cow elk population objectives are not being met.
The reduction of elk numbers in the Frank Church Wilderness and in the Lochsa River country has had a tough impact on hunting outfitters. Those areas used to be one of the most prized areas to hunt elk in North America.
“At one time, prior to reintroduction, outfitters were taking 4,900 clients, hunting clients, and by 2009, that had reduced to about 1,200,” says Grant Simonds, government liaison for the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association. “So for the small Idaho hunting businesses connected to the rural economy … this has been a detrimental factor.”
“They have affected some areas more severely than others across Idaho, the Frank Church and the Lolo zone, people are really feeling a difference,” says Brian Brooks with IWF. “In some areas, we’re seeing record numbers of elk being harvested. I hunt near the Stanley area, I can tell you it’s popular for a reason, there are elk everywhere, and there are elk in the presence of wolves.”
Targeting wolves with incentives for hunters and trappers
In North Idaho, the Foundation for Wildlife Management based in Sandpoint has been trying to reduce wolf numbers to improve elk and moose hunting. The group is concerned that existing levels of hunting and trapping are not working well enough to keep wolf numbers down.
“We have a problem. Our elk and moose are suffering horribly, we need to do something now, to make a difference,” says Justin Webb, executive director of the Foundation for Wildlife Managment. “Fact is, there’s more wolves born each year than have been harvested in any given season.”
Active wolf hunters and trappers also say that wolves are getting smarter every year, and they are getting harder and harder to hunt and trap.
“They are very, very intelligent, and extraordinarily wary, and if you don’t do everything right, you can just forget it. You’re not going to catch them.”
Wolf pelts also don’t offer much incentive for trappers because they often have flaws and aren’t worth much money, Williams says.
“For a really top-quality pelt, you could get $500,” Williams says. “But some are absolutely worthless – the ones that have lost a lot of hair because of mange and lice. The majority of the wolves we catch now have problems like that.”
Given the challenge, the Foundation for Wildlife Management offers a cash-reimbursement program to incentivize hunters and trappers to pursue wolves.
The Foundation offers cash reimbursements ranging from $250 to $1,000 for a successful harvest of wolves via hunting or trapping during regulated seasons. They are targeting specific hunting units where elk numbers are below management objective. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has contributed $25,000 a year to the program, and the Idaho Fish and Game Commission contributed more than $30,000.
“The driving factor for me is I have a 15 year old son, who’s starting to show interest in hunting, and he deserves to hear an elk bugle the way I have in my life.”
Webb says he would like to work together with livestock groups to perhaps target Fish and Game units where wolf predation is high, such as in eight counties with chronic wolf predation. Existing hunting and trapping efforts are not having success in those areas.
The Idaho Legislature augments funding for USDA Wildlife Services by $400,000 a year to help the agency’s professional trappers work on instances of direct wolf predation on private and public lands. Those funds come through Idaho Wolf Depredation Control Board.
Ranchers and Idaho sportsmen contribute $110,000 each to the fund each year, and the Legislature makes up the balance with general funds.
“I think it was a very beautiful thing that came together,” Moore says of the Wolf Depredation Control Board. “And I know Governor Otter felt the same. This was the proper use of government to find that sharing of responsibility with the livestock industry, sportsmen and general fund that held some of the responsibility for wildlife that’s now Idaho’s responsibility.”
Idaho Fish and Game hopes to prevent wolves from colonizing south of I-84, Moore says. The agency may use more liberalized hunting and trapping seasons in response to the record number of wolf kills.
“We don’t know everything yet,” Moore says. “This is a grand experiment. If you look at what the original ’95 plan called for, those best scientists on the ground, projected that we would have only a couple of hundred wolves, and they would only exist in Yellowstone and the Frank and backcountry wilderness areas. (skip to) Since that time, everything we had on paper in ’95 kind of went out the window, and we’ve been chasing this ever since.”
Idaho Fish and Game needs to get more aggressive with control efforts, says former Idaho Fish and Game Commissioner Tony McDermott.
“We just have too many wolves,” McDermott says. “Sportsmen, cattlemen, livestock producers, farmers, they’re all on the same page that Idaho needs to reduce its wolf population. We’re kind of at a critical stage.”
Linnea Elzinga rides and sleeps with her family’s cattle all summer long to protect them from wolves.
“I think they’re beautiful animals,” Elzinga says. “I think we can co-exist with them. A lot of people hate them because the damage they do to cattle, and things like that, but I think there’s a way to co-exist with them.”
Robin Brown moved the base of her operations for Broken Circle Border Collies away from the mountains next to U.S. 95 near Council to avoid wolves. And then her neighbors, the Thomasons lost their pet goats nearby.
“I don’t want them anywhere around me,” Brown says. “They’ve changed my business. They’ve changed my life. They’re all over the place. Something has to be done.”
The Rangeland Commission’s investigation into wolves in Idaho raised many questions …. We’d like to ask Idahoans, What questions do you have?
How is your family affected by wolves? If you were in charge, what would you do to improve wolf management?
Please respond in the comment field for this story, Wolves Part 5, Wolf Management in Idaho, on YouTube.