A controversial wolf bill that sailed through the Idaho Legislature has been signed by Gov. Brad Little.

The new law removes hunting and trapping bag limits for wolves, aligns wolf harvest rules with those for coyotes and other animals classified by the state as predators, and allows the Idaho Wolf Predation Control Board to hire private contractors.

It usurps the Idaho Fish and Game Commission’s authority to set wolf seasons, bag limits and methods of take and nearly triples the annual payment the Idaho Department of Fish and Game makes to the Wolf Predation Control Board.

The commission opposed the legislation and a group of about 30 former wildlife managers and biologists urged the governor to veto the bill. The legislation has been heavily criticized by conservation organizations who contend it could wipe out the state’s wolf population.

Legislators who pushed the bill backed by ranching interests said they hoped to see the state’s wolf population reduced from about 1,500 animals to as few as 150, a decline of 90 percent. Doing so would protect ranchers and the state’s deer and elk herds, they argued.

It’s unclear if the changes will lead to such a dramatic reduction. According to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, it’s been rare for hunters and trappers to reach the seasonal limits that have been expanded on a fairly regular basis in recent years. During the 2019 season, which had a maximum bag limit of 20 wolves, only one person reached the limit, six people killed 10 or more wolves and 16 people killed six or more. As of last month, one person had taken 13 wolves, three people killed 10 or more wolves and 11 people killed six or more during the season that began in 2020, is still open and has a bag limit of 30.

Hunters and trappers have killed about 500 wolves each of the past two years, but the state’s estimated wolf population, boosted by the annual addition of new pups, has remained steady at about 1,500.

One way the law could increase the number of wolves killed each year is its provision allowing the Wolf Depredation Control Board to hire private contractors. The board is already authorized to hire federal trappers from the Wildlife Services Agency. But doing so is expensive.

Since 2015, the board has spent more than $3 million to kill 425 wolves associated with attacks on livestock. That works out to an average of about $7,000 per wolf. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game has spent $557,835 to kill 81 wolves in the Lolo Zone near the Idaho-Montana state line north of the Lochsa River, for an average of $6,886.

Fish and Game already has authority to use private contractors to kill wolves in the unit where it hopes to give a boost to struggling elk herds. That work has involved the use of helicopters and sharpshooters.

But the agency also gives annual challenge grants to the Idaho Foundation for Wildlife Management. The group pays hunters and trappers between $500 and $1,000 for expenses they incur while targeting wolves in units chosen by the agency. Under the new law, it’s possible the same or similar organizations could be funded by the Wolf Depredation Control Board. Such contractors would need to get a permit from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

Idaho’s 2002 wolf management plan calls for a minimum population of 150 wolves. The plan was a precursor to the eventual removal of wolves from the protections of the Endangered Species Act. The federal government could consider returning protections to wolves if the state’s population dipped below 100.

The Fish and Game Department has been trying to reduce wolf numbers but doesn’t have a population target.

“Our goal has been to really manage conflict,” said Sharon Kiefer, chief of the agency’s communications bureau, last month. “Part of that has been to decrease the population.”

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.

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