Gunning for Wolves in Idaho

The Idaho Fish and Game (IDFG) recently released its draft wolf management plan. Unfortunately, like all wolf plans so far produced in the Rockies, the proposal panders to the interests of livestock operators and hunters, ignoring the interests of the greater public as well as the long term benefits of restoring wolves throughout the state.

There are 1.4 million people who reside in the state. There are 1700 ranchers who graze on Idaho’s public lands with 10% (170) controlling 80% of public land allotments. Only 11% of Idahoans even buy a hunting license! (And I’m a non-resident who also buys one as well.) Nevertheless, why should a handful of ranchers and the minority of Idahoans who hunt, dictate whether wolves live or die? IDFG is supposed to represent all Idaho citizens and a majority support viable wolf populations in the state-not token numbers of wolves as the IDFG has put forward.

There are three major defects in the draft plan. First, IDFG proposes to treat wolves like deer and elk when carnivores, particularly a social carnivore like wolves, require a different approach.

Secondly, the plan fails to recognize the important ecological benefits that wolves confer upon wildlife populations and vegetative communities. There is far more room for additional wolves in Idaho than the IDFG admits. Keep in mind that Minnesota, a considerably smaller state, with a much higher human population and development, supports more than 3,000 wolves.

Third, the plan fails to include and consider much of the recent scientific literature available on wolves, with many important references not even mentioned, and/or interprets the literature it does cite to support IDFG policies while ignoring other relevant implications.

First you cannot treat wolves like elk or deer. Social carnivores (including bears, mountain lion, etc.) interact differently than elk and deer among other members of their species, as well as with other wildlife. Because wolves maintain territories and have a social structure that depends on cooperative hunting, you can’t just say they have a reproductive replacement of X a year and so we can kill X number without the population suffering, as the IDFG suggests. That’s the crudest kind of management–and totally ignores animal social behavior research released in the past few decades. The IDFG is proposing to manage wolves as if nothing has been learned about predators in fifty years.

Here’s the problem. If you permit indiscriminate hunting of wolves as the current plan proposes, you potentially disrupt the social networks of the wolves. For instance, if a pack that currently is not causing any conflicts with humans (i.e. killing livestock) have the dominant pack members removed, less experienced members of the pack may resort to killing livestock to feed pack members. Unable to defend their territory with a reduced number of pack members, another outcome might be their replacement with another pack that might be more inclined to attack livestock. Thus the indiscriminate killing of wolves causes instability between packs, leading to greater stress and potentially greater conflicts with humans.

Indiscriminate hunting also skews the population towards younger animals. With a reduced population of the predators, wolves respond by producing more pups, with more pups likely to survive into adulthood. Since the younger animals are less skillful hunters, they also tend to prey on livestock more readily. More pups is more mouths to feed–again putting stress on the adult hunters and forcing them to chase the easiest prey–namely livestock and perhaps even a greater number of ungulates in order to feed the many growing pups.

All of this then creates a feedback mechanism whereby wolf control results in more wolf predation, which in turn feeds irrational calls for more wolf control. Yet it is a self-created situation that I suspect the IDFG hopes to reinforce by implementing its management plan, since it tends to create public support for limiting wolf populations.

Wolf predation is an important top-down ecological process which IDFG appears to ignore. The IDFG proposes to manage for “a self-sustaining, well-distributed, viable wolf population so that wolves fulfill their ecological role without affecting the viability and sustainable harvest of other big game populations.”

However, putting that kind of qualifier on wolf populations effectively means they will not fulfill their ecological role. To fulfill their ecological role, wolves will have to reduce big game numbers in some places and times. That’s their ecological role. The plan does not acknowledge or recognize this ecological function.

Wolves prey on different ages and classes of ungulates than hunters. (See Wright et al. 2006, Selection of Northern Yellowstone Elk by Gray Wolves and Hunters. Journal of Wildlife Management 1070-1078). Wolves tend to select more calves and bulls proportionally to cows (Smith et. al. 2004 Winter prey selection and estimation of wolf kill rates in Yellowstone NP 1995-2000 J. Wildl. Manage. 68.), while human hunters tend to take more prime-of-life reproductively-important animals. Where the plan even acknowledges these differences between human hunters and wolves, it treats them as a negative.

For instance, it cites a study that found that elk respond to the presence of wolves by using steeper terrain and remaining in hiding cover longer ( see Creel, S., and J. A. Winnie. 2005. Responses of elk herd size to fine-scale spatial and temporal variation in the risk of predation by wolves. Animal Behavior 69:1181-1189.) The IDFG draft document suggests that this “reduces hunting success for some hunters” and suggests this might be a legitimate reason to kill wolves. In essence the IDFG is saying that the desires of lazy “shooters” (real hunters do not mind wolf presence) who can’t hunt as more important than the ecological benefits of elk behavior changes as a consequence of wolf presence.

Wolves may also influence predation influences of other predators. One study in Montana found that compared to mountain lions, wolves preyed more on male elk than cow elk.(See Atwood et al. 2006 Comparative Patterns of Predation by Cougars and Recolonizing Wolves in Montana’s Madison Range, Journal of Wildlife Management 71(4)) Thus different ungulate selection by wolves could affect population dynamics–i.e. removal of bull elk by wolves may increase survival of cow elk due to reduced competition for resources. In addition, the presence of wolves may affect the dynamics and populations of other carnivores–for instance, more wolves could lead to fewer mountain lion and coyotes-which in turn has other ecological consequences.

In Yellowstone it was found that wolves reduced coyote numbers (See Crabtree RL, Sheldon JW, 1999. Coyotes and canid coexistence in Yellowstone. In: Clark TW, Curlee AP, Minta SC, Kareiva PM, editors. Carnivores in ecosystems: The Yellowstone experience. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp. 429.) And since coyotes were more effective predators on pronghorn antelope fawns, the presence of wolves has lead to greater pronghorn fawn survival. Also, more red foxes are being seen in Yellowstone than in the past, and are presumed to be a consequence of less coyote predation on fox as a result of wolf effects on coyote numbers.

I also suspect we would find that wolves might positively influence sage grouse populations as well, since coyotes are a major predator on these birds.

These subtle ecological relationships between wolves and other carnivores are not even recognized, much less discussed, in the IDFG draft wolf plan.

Because wolves hunt throughout the year, they have two major effects on other wildlife. They create carrion year round. (Again see, Wilmers and Getz 2005. Gray Wolves as Climate Change Buffers in Yellowstone ). The extra carrion is like winning the lottery for some scavengers. Finding a wolf-killed elk in the early spring when other foods are scarce is a gift for female bear with cubs just out of hibernation. It can make the difference between whether the cubs survive or die, and thus the presence of wolves could enhance grizzly bear recovery and act as a buffer against losses of other foods like whitebark pine. Carrion is also very important to many other animals including wolverine, ravens, eagles, and so on.

Wolf-produced carrion might play a positive role in maintaining other species in the face of climate changes towards warmer winters and less winter kill,. (See Wilmers and Getz, 2005. Gray Wolves as Climate Change Buffers in Yellowstone PLoS Biology)

Wolves also disperse ungulates. ( For more on how wolves affect ungulate behavior, etc. see Mao, J. S., M. S. Boyce, D. W. Smith, F. J. Singer, D. J. Vales, J. M. Vore, and E. H. Merrill. 2005. Habitat selection by elk before and after wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone National Park. Journal of Wildlife Management 69:1691-1707.)

This has several biological consequences. Some of the ungulates will die of starvation or be killed by a predator (could be a mountain lion or bear). These animals will die more randomly scattered over the landscape providing scattered sources of carrion for scavengers. Dominant male bears tend to defend carrion. The presence of wolves might create more scattered sources of carrion for female grizzly bears in multiple places, reducing conflicts between individual bears.

The plan fails to consider the benefits that wolf predation have in regulating big game populations. While it’s true that wolves can temporarily cause a reduction in ungulate populations, the plan views this as a negative, instead of recognizing that reduction in ungulate herbivory pressure on plant communities can have a long term benefit for both plants and ultimately, ungulates. (See Ripple, W. J., and P. L. Beschta. 2004. Wolves, elk, willows and trophic cascade in the upper Gallatin Range of southwestern Montana, USA. Forest Ecology and Management 200:161-181.)

Native ungulate populations naturally experience ups and downs in population, yet the IDFG tries to manage them as if they are some kind of steady supply stream of products. This totally fails to recognize or mimic natural ecological processes. Temporary reductions in ungulate populations are usually followed by a reduction in predator populations and ultimately will allow ungulates to increase once more. IDFG fails to consider such issues.

However, it’s important to note that sometimes wolf presence can provide this benefit without reducing ungulates numbers, simply by changing habitat use by moving animals around the landscape more.

It must be noted even with the presence of wolves, all of IDFG units are currently meeting or exceeding objectives, except for two units where habitat quality, not wolf predation, is the cause.


You can’t manage wolves like other big game. Any indiscriminate killing of wolves (as opposed to surgical removal of a few individuals) is going to create problems. IDFG should only advocate for “surgical” removal of individual wolves known to kill livestock only if the rancher has already tried to minimize conflicts. Currently the livestock industry externalizes many of its costs of operations on to the citizens as a whole, and one cost is the need for reducing predator opportunity.

Research has shown that there are successful husbandry practices that can substantially reduce wolf depredation on livestock such as the use of calving and lambing sheds, herders, and rapid removal of carcasses etc. (See Chavez and Gese 2006 Landscape Use and Movements of Wolves in Relation to Livestock in a Wildland­Agriculture Matrix, Journal of Wildlife Management 70(4):1079­1086).

In France, it was found that corralling sheep at night reduced losses to wolf predation by 95% (See Espuno et al. 2004 Heterogeneous response to preventive sheep husbandry during wolf recolonization of the French Alps. Wildlife Society Bulletin 1195-1208). One of the reasons that ranching is inappropriate in the arid West is that livestock producers tend to let their animals roam over huge areas. This is only possible if there are few predators, and so for decades ranchers have externalized one of their costs-reduction in predator opportunity through proper animal husbandry-on to the rest of us by killing predators so they can avoid these costs.

It was found that wolves tended to prey upon livestock most during the period when they are raising pups and were most likely to take livestock closest to denning sites. (See Bradley and Pletcher 2005. Assessing factors related to wolf depredation of cattle in fenced pastures in Montana and Idaho. Wildlife Society Bulletin 33(4):1256­1265). Encouraging or even mandating that livestock not be placed on pastures where there are active wolf dens could reduce conflicts significantly. This could be a viable strategy at least on public lands where federals agencies are supposed to be managing these lands for everyone-not just ranchers.

The presence of wolves also causes other changes in native predators. In Yellowstone it has been shown that the presence of wolves reduced coyote numbers by 50%. Since coyotes are still the number one predator of livestock, the presence of wolves could actually reduce livestock losses, and pressure to do predator control on all species. This is not even acknowledged in the draft plan.

Yes, such husbandry practices will increase costs for individual ranchers, but this is actually a real cost of operation that should be reflected in the livestock industry’s balance sheets, not externalized on to the public. Such husbandry practices could reduce conflicts significantly–and should be a prerequisite before any wolves are killed. These practices are mandatory in other countries. Such measures dramatically reduce conflicts and costs to taxpayers.

The current draft Idaho Fish and Game plan is a plan designed to maintain conflict. It is a plan that ignores biology. It is a plan that needs serious revision. To read IDFG plan, go to To comment on the plan go to Comments are due by December 31, 2007.

GEORGE WUERTHNER is an ecologist, writer and photographer with 34 published books, including Wild Fire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy and Montana, Magnificent Wilderness. Among other things, Wuerthner studied wildlife biology and botany at the U of Montana, worked on wolf recovery in Montana, is a former biologist with the BLM in Idaho, and a former hunting guide in Montana.

This essay originally appeared in New West.



George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy