It’s Time for the Forest Service to Curtail Idaho’s Wolf Slaughter in Wilderness Areas

Gray Wolf. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

It’s time for the U.S. Forest Service to put a stop to the state of Idaho’s relentless quest to kill as many wolves as it can on our public lands in Idaho, including in wildernesses.

Since being stripped of Endangered Species Act protections and having their “management” turned over to the states, thousands of gray wolves have been needlessly killed on public lands and wilderness areas across Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. But Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) is carrying out its war on wolves to a grotesque extreme.

Witness IDFG’s recent boasting — in a news release, no less — that using low-flying aerial gunships it chased down 17 wolves and executed them in the Lolo-Clearwater country adjacent to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

But that’s only the latest in a long string of such actions taken by the state. And here’s the thing: on national forests — federal lands that belong to all of us — IDFG can’t do this on its own, it needs “partners.” In this case, Idaho’s extermination efforts are being aided or abetted by the Forest Service (FS). Consider this.

In 2013, IDFG hired a professional trapper to wipe out as many wolves as possible in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness (RONRW). Incredibly, the FS regional forester in Ogden, Utah, went along with this plan, giving the trapper use of a Forest Service cabin for his base. Wilderness Watch and other conservation groups filed a lawsuit and, as a result, Idaho pulled the trapper from the wilderness before the courts could rule, but not before he killed nearly a dozen wolves.

But that isn’t the end of the story. IDFG has a plan to eliminate 60% of wolves in the heart of the RONRW, and it devised an unlawful helicopter-assisted elk-collaring project to initiate it. The plan was simple, though not straightforward. Use helicopters to capture and collar elk, document that wolves killed some elk, then use that info to justify killing wolves. The Forest Service should have said “no,” but instead the regional forester in Ogden again played lackey to IDFG and authorized their plan.

Thanks to another lawsuit by Wilderness Watch and our allies, a federal judge saw what the Forest Service apparently couldn’t — that the project violated the Wilderness Act. But before IDFG could be stopped in court, it had collared the elk plus four wolves it wasn’t authorized to target.

Then there’s the case of aerial gunning mentioned above. It’s the eighth time in the last nine years that IDFG’s helicopter-riding gunners have attempted to wipe out wolves in a large part of the Clearwater National Forest. The FS regional forester in Missoula could intervene, but like her predecessors she just turns a blind eye to the plight of the wolves and the wild ecosystems where they live.

Still not satisfied in its blood lust, Idaho in 2020 has lengthened all of its wolf hunting and trapping seasons in Wildernesses and other national forest lands, and it increased wolf-killing quotas to an obscene 30 wolves per hunter and trapper yearly. Again, Forest Service officials sit idly by, despite having the responsibility to protect the wilderness character of the region’s wildernesses and despite having the authority to intervene.

Why does Idaho have such a maniacal obsession with killing wolves? Because wolves have the audacity to eat elk that IDFG believes exist only for elk hunters. Never mind the ecological and moral bankruptcy of that mindset, it’s not likely to change without intervention.

Let’s be crystal clear: By not standing up to IDFG, the Forest Service is complicit in the ongoing slaughter of wolves within federal Wildernesses and national forests across the state.

The Forest Service has the authority to stop IDFG’s attempts to exterminate wolves on our national forests, and it’s long past time it did.

George Nickas is the executive director of Wilderness Watch, a national conservation organization based in Missoula.