Idaho’s wolf-hunting season came to a close Wednesday with hunters having bagged 185 of the predators, 35 short of the statewide quota of 220.
Wildlife officials hailed the hunt, the first since wolves were removed from the endangered species list, as a success that proved the state can manage the animals. But a federal judge may still put wolves back on the list, and it’s not clear how he’ll view the state’s handling of its first season or potential changes to its hunting regulations.
“This is a historic moment,” Cal Groen, director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, told reporters Wednesday. “We can take a deep breath now.”
Idaho was home to at least 843 wolves at the end of 2009, down just slightly from the year before, while the number of breeding pairs increased to 49.
The inaugural hunt has stabilized the population, said Groen and Jon Rachael, Fish and Game’s state wildlife manager. Now, hunters will see their role expand as the agency works toward the Fish and Game Commission’s state goal of 518 total wolves.
Agency staff has yet to compile a report and recommendations for the commission — the next season won’t be set until August. But Groen and Rachael said they’re looking at a wide range of changes, including increasing bag limits in remote areas, adjusting tag numbers and allowing electronic predator calls. The agency is also looking at different management strategies in the backcountry where hunting is not as effective, Groen said, including trapping wolves or using outfitters and guides as agents for Fish and Game “in extreme situations.”
The season brought with it a learning curve for both the hunters and their prey. Many hunters set out thinking their odds of getting a wolf were higher, Rachael said.
“Some of them have learned from this and really have seen it as a challenge,” Rachael said.
Those people include Jeff Frost of Twin Falls, who hunted wolves north of Ketchum on opening day. Like most wolf hunters he knows of, he came away empty-handed after spotting six wolves his first day.
“I think that’s what you’re going to see,” he told the Times-News later Wednesday. “They’ve adapted to some pressure, so they’re going to be harder to find.”
Along with tweaking the seasons, the agency wants to bring back out-of-state hunters, who according to surveys stayed away last year in part because of fee increases passed by the 2009 Legislature. Of the nearly 31,400 wolf tags sold this season, only 684 were to hunters from outside the state, and Idaho residents ended up with about 86 percent of the wolves killed.
Groen said Idaho outfitters are now starting to market wolf hunts to the rest of the country. Legislators approved a bill this year allowing nonresident elk or deer tags to be used for big-game predators such as wolves and bears, he said, and the agency will look at lowering some of its nonresident fees in problem wolf areas.
Given that Fish and Game relies on fee revenue rather than general funds, officials will also look in the next year or two at raising resident fees, Groen said. Legislators in 2009 pared out the in-state fee increases the agency had proposed.
Whether the agency can hold a second hunt this fall is up to U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy, who is currently receiving arguments in his Montana courtroom regarding if the wolves should be listed again. The biggest issue now appears to be whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was allowed to leave out Wyoming when it delisted Rocky Mountain wolves in Idaho and Montana.
Groen said he’s sure any reversal will be based more on technicalities and procedures than on his state’s management program.
“We played by the rules, we had a good season and I’m trusting we’ll have another hunting season,” he said.
Andrew Weeks contributed to this report.