In April of this year, the Idaho Legislature introduced and passed Senate Bill 1211. The bill, which was signed into law by the Governor in May, relates to wolf management within Idaho and will amend prior management regulations in a number of ways once it takes effect on July 1. These changes include expanding methods of take to encompass any method allowable for other wild canines, increasing the financial allocation from Idaho Fish and Game to the Wolf Depredation Control Board from $110,000 a year to $300,000, and mandating year-round wolf trapping seasons on private land, among other modifications.
Concern over growing wolf numbers in Idaho has been brewing for some time. The original recovery goal of at least 15 wolf packs, or approximately 150 wolves, has been materially exceeded and Idaho Fish and Game’s estimate of wolf numbers for 2020 placed it at 1,556. This is virtually unchanged from the 2019 estimate of 1,566 despite hunters and trappers taking 583 wolves between August 2019 and August 2020. Sportsmen across Idaho – including many BHA members – as well as livestock producers and others would prefer a more balanced ecosystem than such high wolf numbers allow for, and Idaho Fish and Game has responded by creating increasing seasons and tag allocations in recent years though wolves have proven persistently difficult to hunt and trap.
While concerns over wolf depredation of livestock and wildlife are legitimate and widespread, many sportsmen’s groups – as well as the Idaho Fish and Game Commission itself – opposed SB 1211. In the letter Idaho BHA submitted to the House Resources and Conservation Committee, we highlighted two primary issues:
1) Idaho BHA’s consistent stance is that wildlife management decisions should be made by the Fish and Game Commission.
2) The bill represents a potential management change, and the speed at which the bill moved through the legislature did not allow for sufficient time to assess whether this bill has the potential to result in Idaho’s wolves being re-listed under the Endangered Species Act.
It is unclear whether the provisions in SB 1211 will have a material impact on wolf populations, and the risks involved in taking wildlife management authority out of the hands of the Fish and Game Commission are high. In comments to the Idaho Statesman, Idaho resident and BHA North American Board Chair Ted Koch remarked:
“Idaho Backcountry Hunters & Anglers strongly supports the authority of the Idaho Fish and Game Commission to manage all wildlife populations, set harvest and population objectives and regulate method of take and the application of management tools, including hunting and trapping. BHA does not endorse advancing wildlife management policies and decisions by legislation or voter referendum, including Idaho Senate Bill 1211. Idahoans established the Fish and Game Commission by public initiative in 1938 in order to ensure that wildlife management is guided by science over politics and that the professionals entrusted with directing important decisions regarding Idaho’s remarkable fish and wildlife resources are empowered to do so. We encourage the legislature to keep the state’s promise to the people and defer important management decisions to the commission and Idaho Fish and Game biologists.”
Since the founding of the Fish and Game Commission, the Idaho legislature has not set hunting or trapping seasons for game animals within the state. SB 1211 is the first time since the Commission’s
creation that such a thing has been done. The precedent set by this action has the potential to be dangerous to the science-based system that we have enjoyed these last decades.
In public testimony against SB 1211, the Commission pointed out that trapping seasons are set the way they are for a reason. Foothold traps vs snares, and the potential implications for other protected species (such as grizzlies) are nuances that a body such as the Commission is uniquely equipped to address. While the legislature has stated that it intends to fix some of these issues in the next legislative session, it is but one example of how setting hunting and trapping seasons through legislation can go awry.
The risk of increased attention on wolf management, litigation, and potential federal oversight is also difficult to easily dismiss. The Idaho Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, which was created in 2002 and was a foundational document for returning wolf management to state control and de-listing from the Endangered Species Act, states that as long as there are at least 15 wolf packs in the state they will be managed “under IDFG Commission regulations, similar to black bears and mountain lions”. One reason Idaho BHA urged the legislature to defer consideration of SB 1211 was to allow experts time to ensure nothing in the bill violates such language in a way that would create the danger of re-listing under ESA protection. SB 1211 was introduced in the legislature on April 20, and by April 27 had passed both the House and Senate. At this speed, it was difficult for experts to properly weigh in.
Wildlife management is always complicated, and it is even more so with species such as wolves that arouse such strong emotions on all sides of the discussion. Idaho BHA believes that the Fish and Game Commission is the entity best equipped to make wildlife management decisions, and we will continue to support them in this regard.