idaho wolves

A pair of Idaho gray wolves beds down in the snow.

    A bill to put a third annual installment of $400,000 into the state’s wolf control fund was reported out of the Senate Finance Committee on Monday with a do-pass recommendation. The amount would be in accordance with Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed fiscal 2017 budget.

    The fund, created by the Legislature in 2014, is used to kill wolves through actions authorized by the Department of Fish and Game.

    The bill was introduced in the Senate on March 17 by the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee, which consists of both House and Senate members, following a 15-5 vote on March 8. Rep. Steve Miller, R-Fairfield, the only District 26 representative on the committee, voted in favor.

    Ray Houston, a budget and policy analyst with the Legislative Services Office, said the proposed authorization was made at the request of the five-member Wolf Depredation Control Board. The board consists of the directors of the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Fish and Game, as well as one representative each of hunters, the livestock industry and the public at large. The current public representative is Leadership Idaho Agriculture member Carl Rey.

    Houston said there will be about $110,200 left in the fund by the end of fiscal 2016 if all the $924,600 authorized by the board to be spent this year is used. However, he said that’s unlikely and there will probably be about $360,000 left.

    For fiscal 2017, that amount would be added to the potential $400,000 as well as to $110,000 in annual funding from assessments made on the livestock industry and $110,000 from hunting licenses. That would total $980,000.

   “You don’t really know for sure how many calls [for control actions] you’re going to get,” Miller said. “It’s a lot easier for a board to have flexibility.”

     According to a Feb. 16 memorandum from the Department of Fish and Game delivered to JFAC, during calendar year 2015, U.S. Wildlife Services responded to 84 livestock depredations, confirmed that 59 were a result of attacks by wolves and reported that 72 wolves were killed using money from the wolf control fund.

    “There needs to be control. We’ve got way more wolves than the original agreement,” Miller said, referring to the statewide minimum of 150 wolves set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to avoid relisting on the endangered species list.

    The wolf control fund has been controversial, with criticism focused initially on the fact that the legislation requires the fund to be used for lethal control. Critics have pointed to the Wood River Wolf Project as proof that nonlethal deterrence can reduce the perceived need to kill predators.

    Critics also question the rationale for lethal control when incidents of depredation on livestock are declining. According to Wildlife Services, depredations on sheep dropped from 407 to 135, a reduction of 67 percent, from fiscal 2012 to fiscal 2015, and depredations on cattle dropped 47 percent, from 100 to 53.

    Miller contended that the fund is still needed to help rebuild elk populations.

    In February 2016, Wildlife Services was paid from the fund to kill 20 wolves in the Lolo Elk Zone in northern Idaho. The Department of Fish and Game authorized the killing of 23 wolves there in 2014 and 19 in 2015. According to the department, the Lolo elk population has declined drastically over the past 25 years, from 16,000 to fewer than 1,000. The department told JFAC that its goal is to maintain a smaller but sustainable wolf population in the Lolo zone.

    Despite the deaths of more than 2,200 wolves in Idaho since they were removed from the endangered species list in 2009, their numbers have remained fairly static. The Department of Fish and Game estimated in April 2015 that there were 770 wolves in the state at the end of 2014, almost as many as the 846 that existed at the population peak in 2008.

    But critics dispute the accuracy of the department’s numbers, which are based on both its biologists’ counts and reports from hunters.

    “Because hunters likely report dispersing wolves or even coyotes, and pack size varies considerably, the exact number is unknown,” the conservation organization Center for Biological Diversity stated last spring. “This is why both Montana and Wyoming present a minimum count of just the wolves that they themselves count.”

    Partly due to that concern, two weeks ago the Center for Biological Diversity and four other conservation groups submitted a notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to extend the federal monitoring period for wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains. The existing monitoring program, required by the Endangered Species Act after protections are removed for a species, is set to expire in May. Federal law requires a 60-day notice of intent before a lawsuit can be filed.

Email the writer: gmoore@mtexpress.com

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