POCATELLO — The Idaho Fish and Game commissioner for the Southeast Region said Idaho’s burgeoning wolf population has adversely affected elk numbers and impacted revenue received from out-of-state hunters.
Pocatellan Randy Budge, speaking at the Rotary club Thursday, walked the crowd through the history of wolf reintroduction in the Northern Rockies and related data regarding predation, some of which brought gasps from the audience.
Budge noted the initial goals of reintroduction were 10 breeding pairs and 100 wolves in Idaho. Wolf populations have grown at 20-25 percent a year and now number approximately 85 packs, with 1,000 wolves, which he indicated to be a conservative estimate.
“Wolves have been very productive,” Budge said.
The 2009 delisting of wolves in Montana and Idaho under the Endangered Species Act allowed the states to open hunting, but Budge said the current numbers culled by hunters and federal controls are unlikely to keep wolf numbers in check. And Budge said the numbers are creating a problem for other animals the state is obliged to protect, preserve and manage.
“From a wildlife perspective, there’s no question that this growing wolf population has had a devastating impact on our elk populations and our moose populations,” he said. “Our scientists’ and biologists’ studies on all these collared packs indicate that each wolf eats an average of 16 elk per year, so if you do the math and are being conservative, our 1,000 wolves are eating 16,000 elk per year.”
He said 295 sheep, 76 cattle and 14 dogs were also confirmed to have been killed by wolves in 2009.
Budge said the state’s biggest and historically most stable elk herd in the Lolo Pass area has gone from 11,000-13,000 elk to under 2,000 since wolves began to inhabit the area.
“Put wolves into the equation, it tipped the balance,” he said.
This impact resonates beyond Idaho’s borders, according to Budge.
“Our out-of-state hunting numbers were down 25 percent in 2008, 31 percent in 2009,” he said.
Fish and Game polled previous visitors to the state to find out if the economy was the culprit or if it was some other reason.
“The No. 1 reason listed for not coming to Idaho was, ‘You haven’t taken care of your wolves and your wild animal populations are down,’” Budge recounted, “and the No. 2 reason was, ‘Your license fees are unfair.”
The second problem stemmed from a license fee increase by the 2009 Legislature that affected only out-of-state licenses. The plan to increase revenue actually resulted in a decrease in revenue, he said.
Looking to the future, Budge said current litigation regarding wolves may ultimately be disheartening for those hoping to retain state management rights.
“I think there’s a pretty good chance we’re going to see a ruling in the next few months that may find further flaws with the delisting, and we may be turning it back over to the federal government,” he said. “My fear is if the plaintiffs succeed in getting the wolves back on the Endangered Species list, we’re going to see a relatively high level of intolerance from Idaho sportsmen who will then begin to ignore the law and have a ‘hunting season’ anyway, just an illegal one rather than a legal one.”
In closing, Budge said the recovery of wolves “should have been hailed as one of the greatest success stories that ever existed under the Endangered Species Act, but instead we’re mired with controversy and conflict and a lot of stress and strife over who has responsibility and control, the state or the federal government.”