Idaho may kill wolves to help elk
BOISE, Idaho -- As
explorers Lewis and Clark tramped across
northcentral Idaho in mid-September 1805, game was
so scarce they named one waterway "Hungery Creek"
and another "Colt Killed Creek" for a foal they
shot and devoured.
This paucity of wildlife such as elk in the steep,
forested Clearwater Basin persists today, and some
are pinning their hopes on an Idaho Fish and Game
proposal that could change things. The agency has
proposed killing some wolves that hunters believe
are devouring the herds at an unsustainable pace.
Thirty-five wolves were reintroduced to central
Idaho in 1995, and now there are about 600 in the
state. An estimated 30 are believed to roam the
Last week, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne took the
wolf-management baton from U.S. Interior Secretary
Gale Norton, giving the state more control over
its growing population of predators that have
federal protections under the 1973 Endangered
On Wednesday, the
state Fish and Game Commission, meeting in Boise,
will get its first look at a plan that would
remove some wolves to help restore elk populations
southeast of Lewiston.
"That's one of the areas of the state where we've
had our biggest struggle with elk numbers," said
Fish and Game Director Steve Huffaker last week.
"Can we say wolves are decimating this elk
population? Not specifically. But we can say there
are a lot of wolves in that area."
The plan isn't public yet. The number of wolves
that may be killed has not been released.
Idaho has already slashed the price of tags to
shoot black bear and mountain lion in hunting
areas near the Lochsa and Clearwater rivers. Those
predators also kill elk.
And state officials have cut back on the number of
elk that can be shot by hunters.
When Lewis and Clark passed through here 200 years
ago, they encountered steep trails, thick forests
-- and little to eat.
They acquired dogs from American Indian tribes and
killed horses so they wouldn't starve.
"Proceeded on up the Hungery Creek, passing
through a small glade at 6 miles, at which place
we found a horse," Meriwether Lewis wrote on Sept.
19, 1805. "I directed him killed and hung up for
the party after taking a breakfast off for
ourselves, which we thought fine."
In 1910, however, a massive wildfire wiped out
trees in the area.
What followed was good hunting for much of the
remaining century, because the blaze opened up
large swaths of open ground -- good habitat for
elk that hunters prize.
By the early 1990s, however, the thick forests of
Lewis and Clark's day had gradually returned,
crowding out large game, Huffaker said. Many elk
also starved in recent years in deep snow.
Now, Huffaker is working with the U.S. Forest
Service to improve elk habitat in the Clearwater
National Forest, he said.
Wildfires, managed properly, could again remove
More must be done, he said.
"While the Forest Service is working on
disturbances" to clear trees for elk, "we need to
manage our predator-prey relationship," Huffaker
But Idaho can't just start shooting wolves.
Even after the state assumed management authority,
it still must petition the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service before it can kill the predators to boost
wildlife herds, said Carter Niemeyer, the federal
agency's Idaho wolf recovery coordinator, in
The state must provide scientific data backing up
its concerns about wolf predation.
To this end, Idaho biologists have been studying
Clearwater Basin elk populations with radio
The public, including wolf advocacy groups such as
Defenders of Wildlife, will also get a chance to
weigh in on any kill plans.
"It becomes a management issue for the state,"
said David Allen, Fish and Wildlife's regional
director in Portland, Ore. "They're going to seek
Allen doesn't think control efforts will lead to
significant reductions in wolf packs that now
number 61, according to the Idaho Office of
Species Conservation's 2005 estimates.
Huffaker eventually plans to have a limited wolf
hunting season -- after central Idaho's animals
are removed from the list of federally protected
species, a step Idaho, Montana and Wyoming are
Still, he acknowledges there will be fierce
Wolves have successfully recovered in central
Idaho, Huffaker said. "You could take a
significant number out, and next year they would
return. Politically, it's more difficult."