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BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho's wolf population remained steady at about 1,500 last year, state wildlife managers said Thursday.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game made the population estimate public during an Idaho Fish and Game Commission meeting.
Wildlife officials said the estimate represents wolf numbers during August, and is based in part on information from a system of hundreds of trail cameras scattered around the state in wolf habitat.
Officials said the state's wolf population each year for the last three years has fluctuated from a high approaching roughly 1,800 in May when wolf pups are born and down to a low of about 900 in April as wolves die through natural mortality, hunting or trapping.
Officials said the population has been at about 1,500 in each of the last three years in August.
Idaho lawmakers last year approved a law, backed by ranchers, greatly expanding wolf killing in what some lawmakers stated could reduce the wolf population by 90%. Backers said it would reduce the wolf population and attacks on livestock while also boosting deer and elk herds.
That law took effect on July 1. Wildlife officials said Thursday that the August population estimate probably did not reflect any possible wolf killings that happened in the previous month when the new law was in effect.
“Very little, if any, manifested change as a result of a law that came into effect a month before this estimate would ever be recognized in this estimate,” said Idaho Department of Fish and Game Director Ed Schriever.
Shane Roberts, a wildlife research manager at Fish and Game, said that about the same number of wolves were killed by hunters and trappers during the last six months of 2021 as in 2020. That indicated there was not a sharp increase in wolves being killed following the new law taking effect.
Idaho Department of Fish and Game officials spent considerable time defending the methodology of coming up with a wolf population estimate for the state, which they said is a unique effort in the United States.
“There were multiple letters of folks who are choosing at this time, because they don't like the answer, to challenge the science and call the science wrong,” said Schriever. “In controversial topics, people just choose to take easy, unsubstantiated potshots at the science, and it's just not fair. It's not right.”
Western Watersheds Project, an environmental group, and others have been critical of Fish and Game and the wolf population estimate, saying the agency is overestimating the number of wolves in the state.
The state’s estimate of wolves is important because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in September, at the request of environmental groups concerned about the expanded wolf killing in Idaho and neighboring Montana, announced a yearlong review to see if wolves in the western U.S. should be relisted and again receive federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. Such a move would take away Idaho management of the species.
Roberts said Fish and Game department officials initiated in 2019 a new technique to estimate wolf abundance in the state using remote trail cameras.
“It's like having 500 sets of eyes in the field for two months straight,” he said.
Roberts said the 533 cameras are set to take pictures simultaneously during July and August. Some areas contain clusters of cameras in known wolf habitat. He said 9 million photos were then put through a process to identify wolves and then a mathematical formula was used to develop a population estimate.
He added that several scientific papers have been published that support the method.
Roberts said intensive field collection of wolf scat used DNA to also estimate the number of wolves, and then compared that number to the camera estimate. Average pack sizes and number of pups in the packs were also used to get develop an estimate.
A primary change in the Idaho law allows the state to hire private contractors to kill wolves and provides more money for state officials to hire the contractors.
Idaho wildlife officials announced in October the state would make available $200,000 to be divided into payments for hunters and trappers who kill wolves in the state through next summer.
Besides setting up the reimbursement program, the new law also expanded wolf killing methods to include trapping and snaring wolves on a single hunting tag, no restriction on hunting hours, using night-vision equipment with a permit, using bait and dogs and allowing hunting from motor vehicles. It also authorized year-round wolf trapping on private property.