Wolf population dips, but remains healthy

By April 6, 2014 February 15th, 2016 No Comments

April 05–Idaho’s wolf population is declining but remains robust, according to wildlife managers from Idaho and the Nez Perce Tribe.

At the end of 2013, there were an estimated 659 wolves in the state, according to the 2013 Idaho Wolf Monitoring Report released Friday. The population includes 107 packs and 20 breeding pairs. At the end of 2012, Idaho had an estimated 683 wolves, 117 packs and 34 breeding pairs. The population has been declining since hitting its peak of 859 in 2009.

“I think the take-home message is Idaho’s wolf population is dropping steadily,” said Jim Hayden, a wildlife biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Coeur d’Alene.

The state and tribe collaborate on monitoring wolves, which were removed from federal protection in 2011. The numbers they compiled reflect the estimated number of wolves living in documented packs but does not include an estimate of those living in suspected packs that could not be verified.

Since federal protections were lifted, hunting and trapping has been authorized and harvest rules have become increasingly liberal. In 2013, hunters and trappers killed 356 wolves and another 94 were killed in population control actions authorized by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Since the end of 2013, another 128 wolves were killed by hunters, trappers and in control actions.

“We’ve been harvesting quite a few wolves, between 35 and 40 percent of the population. The population is trending downward, according to our estimate but it’s still fairly robust,” said Curt Mack, a wildlife biologist with the Nez Perce Tribe at McCall. “I think as a result of that, we are also seeing less incidents with livestock depredation and I think that is probably a positive thing.”

According to the report, wolves killed 39 cattle, 404 sheep, four dogs and one horse last year.

The wolf population in the Northern Rockies Region that includes Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and parts of Oregon, Washington and Utah held roughly steady at an estimated 1,659 with 320 packs and 78 breeding pairs, according to a companion report released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“By every biological measure the (Northern Rockies wolf population) is fully recovered and remains secure under state management. Resident packs have saturated suitable habitat in the core recovery areas and the population has exceeded recovery goals for 12 consecutive years,” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report.

Despite that statement, wolf advocates who have experienced angst over the decline in Idaho said they are concerned about the state’s zeal to reduce the population.

“Idaho’s numbers are down since 2009, about 30 percent, and Idaho went from having the most breeding pairs documented in the region to the fewest,” said Suzanne Stone of the Defenders of Wildlife at Idaho.

Hayden said the decline in breeding pairs is a concern and the state plans to increase its efforts to document wolf reproduction during 20014. The drop is significant because the state’s official wolf management plan calls for a minimum of 15 breeding pairs. Any fewer than that could trigger the federal government to consider once again stepping in and taking over management of the species.

A breeding pair is two adult wolves that successfully breed and raise at least two pups that are still alive at the end of the year. It is the most difficult population dynamic to monitor. Mack said biologists are not able to intensively monitor every known pack to determine if pups were produced and if they and their parents survived. In some of the state’s prime wolf habitat like the remote Selway and Middle Fork zones, biologist were not able to document any breeding pairs. Both Mack and Hayden said there are likely more breeding pairs than biologists have been able to verify.

“It certainly does not represent the total number of breeding pairs in the state,” Mack said. “That is just hard to determine at this point.”

He said the high level of harvest is making packs less stable and more difficult to monitor. Hunters and trappers killed many of the wolves that where previously fitted with radio tracking collars that biologists use to keep tabs on the population. Harvest and control have also led to decreasing pack sizes. According to the report, the average number of wolves per pack last year was 5.4 compared to an average of 8.1 before hunting and trapping were allowed.

The number of wolves will soon be on the rise. Wolf pups are born in late April and early May. The 2013 estimate could also climb. As biologists take the field each summer, they often find packs with yearling wolves for which they had not previously documented reproduction. The numbers are corrected in the following year’s report. For example, the 2012 population was reported at 683 last year, but was increased to 722 in the 2013 report.

“Every single year we go back and correct the prior year’s numbers,” Hayden said.

The Idaho Fish and Game Commission has directed the department to reduce the state’s wolf population so that elk and deer populations can be stabilized. According to the 2002 wolf management plan, Idaho is striving for a population of 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs.

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.

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