Since they were reintroduced 21 years ago, wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains have spread out, their populations are stable and they are here to stay, a former wolf recovery coordinator told a crowd of about 100 people at the Community Library in Ketchum on Thursday.
Carter Niemeyer, who retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2006, is a former trapper who has become an advocate for the presence of wolves in the ecosystem.
He said that from the original 66 wolves reintroduced to central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park, the species has spread into eastern Oregon and Washington, and are beginning to trickle into northern California. Niemeyer said the ancestry of wolves in California can be traced to one female wolf that had been collared near Idaho City.
“The reason wolves are successful is their ability to disperse,” he said.
Niemeyer said that there are now 1,904 wolves in the northwestern U.S., living in 316 packs that include 114 breeding pairs.
“Those wolves took off and never looked back,” he said.
In its “2015 Idaho Wolf Monitoring Progress Report,” released in April of this year, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game estimated that 786 wolves were living in the state by the end of 2015—one more than the 2014 estimate.
Niemeyer said more than 700 wolves died in Idaho and Montana in 2015. According to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s report, 358 wolves were known to have died in the state last year—75 by state control actions, 256 by hunters and trappers, 21 from other human causes (including 14 by illegal killings), two from natural causes and four from unknown causes.
Niemeyer said the most recent counts show 110 wolves living in eastern Oregon and 90 in eastern Washington, where they have been delisted under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is undergoing a five-year review of its Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, and conservation groups have filed a lawsuit challenging removal of state protection of the species in eastern Oregon.
Niemeyer said he has been working in Washington to train 300 agency and tribal employees to conduct investigations of reported wolf depredations of livestock. He said 14 head of cattle have been killed by wolves in northeastern Washington, where terrain and forest cover combine to create “indefensible grazing allotments” on which cattle and sheep can’t be protected. He said government agencies are trying to shoot wolves from the air and are killing pups in their dens to prevent them from starving after their parents are killed. He said $77,000 has been spent to kill six wolves and $58,000 to kill one more.
“When you get into these kinds of costs, isn’t there a better way to spend our money?” he asked.
Niemeyer said Washington State University biologists are conducting a program using “proximity collars” that alert researchers when wolves are within 125 meters of a cow to help them resolve allegations that the predators’ presence raises the animals’ stress levels, causing them to lose weight and breed less.
“There’s really no science or research yet that I’m aware of that can answer that honestly,” he said.
Niemeyer said wolves were detected in northern California near Mount Shasta last year. He said the two adults and five pups there have since disappeared, but he expressed confidence that they are still there, hidden in the dense forest.
“All the ranchers there are wolf-friendly,” he said. “They want to see wolves in that country—they just don’t want their cattle eaten, so they’re willing to try some things.”
Niemeyer said that since wolves were reintroduced, they have killed no people, have caused a 0.2 percent mortality among livestock herds and have killed 169 dogs, mostly hounds that were on bear or cougar scents and encountered wolves accidently. He said elk populations are thriving in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, noting that 2015 was the best elk-hunting season ever in Montana, and the fourth best in Idaho.
During a question-and-answer session following Niemeyer’s presentation, sheep rancher Brian Bean, co-owner of Lava Lake Lamb, said this summer has been very quiet around the Wood River Valley in terms of wolf-sheep conflicts. That’s largely due to the fact that the resident Phantom Hill wolf pack was wiped out, partly through state-sponsored kills, by 2011. However, Bean said, wolves have been detected this year on both sides of the valley, but have recently shown no interest in killing sheep.
Bean said he thinks it is hunting pressure that has kept local wolves well hidden.
“They’re hard to see, and the days of the Phantom Hill pack and being able to see them and have a Yellowstone experience are over unless policies change,” he said.