Idaho seems set on killing wolves


Last week, I was thrilled to find four sets of wolf tracks carved in the snow in our back pasture. Two nights previously, wolves killed a neighbor's black Lab within 200 yards of the owner's house. I feel bad about that dog. We have Labrador retrievers, too. When I let them out in the morning, I go with them into the cold 5 a.m. dark to make sure the coast is clear. It's a deal I make to enjoy the wolves' presence.

The wolves kill deer and elk, too. That's the way it should be — except apparently, in Idaho. On Jan. 12, exactly seven days after Interior Secretary Gale Norton handed over wolf management to the state, the Department of Fish and Game announced a plan to kill 43 wolves in the "Lolo Zone," two game management units in northern Idaho. Dozens more wolves in that zone are slated to be killed over the next five years.

Idaho officials claim the timing of the proposal and the handover is entirely coincidental. "These two actions are absolutely not connected," said Jim Caswell, director of the state's Office of Species Conservation. "We talked about this publicly in {Fish and Game} commission meetings for the past year."

In fact, every Idaho official I spoke to swore up and down that such was exactly the case: In January 2005, the Bush administration altered a provision of the Endangered Species Act called the 10(j) rule, which allowed Idaho to propose lethal management options; within days, state game officials started combing the data, looking to justify the kind of wolf kill their client base — Idaho's hunters and outfitters — has been clamoring for since the reintroduction of wolves in 1995.

They chose carefully. The Lolo Zone, at first blush, seems just the place to rescue game populations. Elk numbers have dwindled far below the highs of the mid-1980s, when the area ranked among Idaho's most productive elk units. Idaho officials announced that an ambitious new study blamed wolves for preventing the herd's recovery.

According to figures from the study posted on the state's elk ecology Web site, eight radio-collared elk cows were killed by wolves in the Lolo zone in 2005 — which, game officials stated, proves that wolves cause 32 percent of adult cow elk mortality in the zone. But such absurdly small data samples are statistically meaningless. For instance, using numbers generated by the same study, I could just as accurately "prove" that each year over 500 cow elk die in the Lolo zone by "accident."

Most scientists would cringe at justifying management decisions on such an immature study, but in Idaho, game management data spurts from the computer already smudged with political fingerprints.

Indeed, one Idaho biologist told me that the Lolo zone can no longer support the massive elk herd it once did. That temporary phenomena was a side effect of the 1910 fires, which cleared vast areas of the region's forest. For a historically brief period, the burned areas supported a great deal of elk browse. But by the late 1980s the steep slopes were already returning to the densely forested conditions in which Lewis and Clark nearly starved for lack of game.

The fact is, a decline in the Lolo zone's elk population declines was well under way — steeply, rapidly under way — years before wolves ever appeared in the area.

Eventually, research into Idaho's elk cow mortality will reveal interesting things about predator-prey dynamics, the kinds of data on which we can base realistic game management decisions. But right now, what the study reveals is that Idaho's game bureaucrats' thinking is as limited and immature as their data.

My perspective is this: I like wolves on the landscape. I also believe that some sort of management is necessary to keep them here.

Back in the early 1990s, I, like many people, felt it would be stupid and sad to recover wolf populations if local managers were simply going to shoot wolves the moment federal agents signaled a green light. Now comes Idaho, brandishing plans for aerial gunning and the medieval cruelty of leghold traps in the name of rescuing an elk herd that no longer exists. This makes all of us look, well, stupid and sad.

Meanwhile, anyone who would like to has until Feb. 17 to contact: IDFG Wolf Comments, P.O. Box 25, Boise ID 83707 or via email at

Jeff Hull is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He lives in the Ninemile Valley of Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at