SPOKANE – Idaho’s traditional elk-hunting breadbasket – those mountainous, backcountry units stretching from the Selway country down through the Salmon River country – continues to falter at producing elk.
Wolves are part of the problem.
Idaho Fish and Game officials say they are trying to help those herds in various ways, including sending a professional hunter into the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness last winter to kill wolves to improve survival of elk in one of the state’s worst-hit herds.
It was controversial, but “we’re not giving up on the backcountry,” said Jon Rachael, state wildlife manager.
Elk hunters have been among the wolves’ most vocal critics, and if there’s a grudge match, hunters are gaining ground.
Idaho’s generous hunting and trapping seasons have helped significantly reduce wolf populations in some elk zones.
Hunters killed 198 wolves in the 2013-14 season and trappers took another 104.
“We’ve been reducing the wolf population annually since our first wolf hunting season in 2009,” Rachael said.
Fewer wolves has meant more elk in some cases.
“There are areas we would be very comfortable saying that,” he said.
Though that may be good news for elk hunters, there are still hurdles facing elk.
Elk habitat has declined dramatically in some zones because of fires, noxious weeds and other factors, including those backcountry units once famed for their elk herds.
Killing all wolves probably wouldn’t bring Idaho’s elk herds back to the level they were in the mid-1990s.
But killing some of the wolves each year could bring a balance.
In their most recent required annual report to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Idaho wildlife officials estimated the state held a minimum of 659 wolves at the end of 2013. That’s the bottom line after the population grew during the year from pup production and then decreased by natural and human-caused mortality.
At least 473 wolf mortalities were documented in Idaho last year, with 466 caused by humans.
Hunters and trappers killed a total of 356 wolves in 2013, with 97 of them taken in the Idaho Panhandle. Official wolf control and livestock protection kills totaled 94. Other human causes such as vehicle collisions added up to 16 while causes of seven wolf deaths are unknown.
The Panhandle Region leads the state in wolf harvest by hunters and trappers.
Panhandle licensed hunters killed 44 wolves last season and licensed trappers killed 53 for a total of 97. The Dworshak-Elk City Zone was the next closest of the 13 state wolf zones with a total of 48 wolves killed.
Wayne Wakkinen, Idaho Fish and Game regional wildlife manager, estimated the current wolf population in the Panhandle at 125-150.
“But that’s only an estimate,” he said. “We can use all the help we can get. Trail cam photos and other reports from the public are a good starting point for us to focus our monitoring efforts.”
Other sources of wolf census data come from den site monitoring, GPS collars, trail cameras at rendezvous sites, DNA collected from scats, sightings during winter aerial big-game surveys and harvest reports from hunters and trappers.
Only about a third of the 125 or so packs in Idaho include a wolf wearing a radio collar to help with monitoring, he said.
Pups have a high natural mortality – half of them can die without any contact with humans – and adult wolves normally live only 7-8 years.
“Being a wild wolf is a tough life,” Wakkinen said. “A broken jaw or other injury while taking down an elk can lead to death.”
And wolves commonly kill other wolves when packs compete for territory.
Panhandle wolf hunting season is Aug. 30-March 31 on public lands and year-round on private lands. Wolf trapping seasons in the Panhandle run Oct. 10-Nov. 14 or Nov. 15-March 31, depending on the unit.
Idaho wildlife managers are seeking to decrease the wolf population while leaving a margin above federal endangered species thresholds to avoid lawsuits from wolf advocates, Wakkinen said.
Research indicates that a statewide wolf population won’t decline until human-caused mortality exceeds about 30 percent, he said.
Human-caused wolf kills have totaled 36 percent to 40 percent helping bring the overall wolf numbers down from the 846-wolf minimum population estimated in the state in 2008. Wolf numbers probably peaked around 1,000 after pups were born in 2009. The numbers have declined since Idaho opened wolf hunting seasons that year, but the state still has at least four or five times more than the 150-wolf minimum set in the federal wolf reintroduction agreements.
“The key is not to go below the required minimum 15 breeding pairs,” Wakkinen said.
The average pack size has decreased from 8.1 to 5.4 wolves since wolves were reintroduced, but a pack may not meet the “breeding pair” criteria.
Idaho generally defines a breeding pair as two adults – a male and a female – and at least two surviving pups in December.
“Under the strictest criteria, we’ve been able to document about 25 breeding pairs at this time,” Wakkinen said.
The number of documented packs in Idaho increased from 1995 through 2012, but declined in 2013, when 128 Idaho wolf packs were documented at some point during the year. Nine new packs were documented and 21 packs were removed for depredation control.
Accurately counting the number of wolves isn’t as important as assessing their impacts, Wakkinen said. “If they’re not bothering anybody, there’s no problem,” he said.
But wolves do raise issues, especially with ranchers and hunters.
St. Joe River drainage elk offer a glimpse at the complexity in managing a mix of wildlife.
Wolves definitely have had an impact on that area, once a mecca for the region’s elk hunters. But how much?
The St. Joe had healthy elk ratios of up to 38 calves per 100 cows during winter survey flights as recently as 2008, Wakkinen said.
“In 2009, they dropped to 9 calves per 100 cows largely as a result of some tough winter conditions.
“In the past we saw a fairly rapid rebound within a couple of years. However, this time calf ratios remained low.
“In 2012 for Unit 7 they were still at 9 calves to 100 cows. In 2013, they increased to 12 per 100. Early in 2014, they were at 13 per 100.
“So we are a long way from where they were in the recent past, but we are slowly heading in the right direction.”
Biologists won’t know if this upswing is a trend or “just noise in the data” for another year or two, Wakkinen said.
“I’m very interested in what the 2015 flights will show, given the pressure on predators combined with the mild winter.
After federal oversight of wolf recovery ends in 2016, little will change in Idaho, he said.
“We’ll be monitoring wolves as a native big-game animal just as we manage mountain lions and black bears,” he said.
“We hope we can continue to count on the participation of hunters and trappers in harvesting wolves. One thing we don’t want is to give someone an avenue to petition wolves again for endangered species status.
“Wolves are on the landscape to stay,” he said.