« Return to this article

Know the West

Mass wolf kill rests on shaky science


Idaho’s Fish and Game Department wants to boost the Lolo management zone’s dwindling elk herd by killing up to three-quarters of the area’s estimated 58 wolves and maintaining low wolf numbers for the next five years. But some biologists and conservation groups question the science behind the plan — the department’s first attempt to manage Idaho’s wolves since the federal government granted it the authority in January (HCN, 1/24/05: Feds to hand wolves to states).

The elk herd, 27,000 strong in the early 1980s, has collapsed to 5,000 animals. But habitat loss, not wolves, is to blame, says Suzanne Asha Stone of Defenders of Wildlife: Decades of wildfire suppression have allowed dense forest to reclaim many of the open meadows the elk need for forage and calving grounds.

State biologists agree that habitat is the key concern. But Jim Unsworth, the department’s wildlife chief, says the Forest Service can’t restore it fast enough. "When you have great habitat," he says, "predators aren’t an issue."

Department computer models indicate that wolves are keeping elk numbers down. But John Kie, a University of Idaho biologist who reviewed the proposal for the state, points out that a bigger herd could outgrow the existing habitat and crash.

"These guys aren’t wolf haters," says retired University of Idaho wildlife professor Jim Peek, but Idaho’s anti-predator politics are fierce and "they have to manage the elk." The herd’s numbers remain low despite the fact that the state already manages the area’s bears and cougars through hunting. Reducing wolf predation through aerial gunning and trapping, says Unsworth, is "the last tool in our toolbox."

The department sent the proposal to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service April 4 for review.