Guest opinion: New, extreme hunting laws show why states like Idaho can’t manage wolves

Politics have too often interfered with the recovery of wolves. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Idaho and Montana, where a decade after the iconic species was stripped of federal protections, recently enacted laws will greenlight the slaughter of more than 2,000 wolves under the false pretense of predator “management.”

Andrea Zaccardi
Andrea Zaccardi

In 2011, Western lawmakers used a legislative sleight of hand to delist wolves in Idaho and Montana, slipping a rider into a “must-pass” fiscal appropriation bill. From 2011 to 2019 (the latest year of data available), at least 4,700 wolves have been killed by hunting and trapping, though wolf populations did manage to grow.

The new laws passed in Idaho and Montana, however, will all but ensure a fast population decline. Hunters, trappers and private contractors in Idaho can kill up to 90% of the state’s estimated 1,500 wolves. In Montana, new rulemaking may pave the way for killing approximately 85% of the population, currently estimated at 1,200 wolves.

It’s time for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to retake the reins of wolf recovery in the United States and reinstate full protections nationwide under the Endangered Species Act. States like Idaho and Montana have shown that they simply can’t be trusted to preserve their wolf populations.

Gray wolves only occupy roughly 15% of their historic range in the U.S., and the entire western seaboard is home to just over 300 wolves, including fewer than a dozen in California. The species needs to be recovered and conserved, yet states like Idaho and Montana always speak instead of “managing” wolves — a thin euphemism for killing the animals to whatever extent is allowed by law.

The upcoming slaughter could have disastrous effects for wolves beyond the northern Rockies. Reducing the combined wolf population in Idaho and Montana to potentially as few as 300 individuals could significantly hamper the slow wolf recovery in Washington and Oregon, which depends on dispersal from the northern Rockies.

The latest laws in Idaho and Montana, which include payments to wolf trappers to cover their expenses, hearken back to government-funded bounty systems that were largely responsible for pushing gray wolves to the edge of extinction nationwide a century ago. In 2021, why are we allowing state legislatures to trample known science in favor of executing wolves?

Anyone listening to remarks made by Republican lawmakers during the scant discussions on S.B. 1211 would think that hordes of uncontrollable wolves are prowling Idaho’s farmland, emptying forests of elk, slaughtering cattle and sheep in droves and crippling the livestock industry.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. In the past three years, wolves have killed an average of 0.004% of Idaho’s 2.75 million cattle and sheep and 0.003% of livestock in Montana. Lightning strikes kill far more livestock, as does disease, dehydration and birthing complications. Roughly 40,000 Idaho cattle die each year from causes having nothing to do with any predator of any kind. As for elk, 2020 was the seventh consecutive year when the harvest in Idaho was more than 20,000 elk, prompting Idaho Fish and Game to declare a “second Golden Age of Idaho elk hunting.”

We need the federal government to step in to protect wolves. Otherwise, the reckless spate of new laws in the northern Rockies may serve as dangerous templates for other wolf-hating legislatures like those in Wisconsin and Michigan to copy. And by the time these politicians are finished, we’ll find ourselves right back where we started 50 years ago — with an iconic species of the American wild teetering on the edge of oblivion.

Andrea Zaccardi is a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. She is based in Victor.