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Science

Sustainable Idaho: The World Of Wolves

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Eva Blue
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Unsplash

This week on Sustainable Idaho, Eizaak and Ailie dive into the world of wolves. On May 5th, 2021, governor Brad Little signed Senate Bill 1211 into law. This bill has garnered national and international attention with headlines claiming that Idaho may kill up to 90% of its wolves. This episode is the first of a three part series exploring the science, political perspectives, and different management strategies behind this bill and wolves. In the first episode, the focus is on background information, wolf history, and the role of wolves in Idaho’s ecosystems.

Wolves were nearly eliminated from Idaho by the 1930’s, but in the 1980’s and 90’s, pressure from the public and scientific community eventually swayed the government into reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone and Idaho. To learn more about this topic, Sustainable Idaho asked Carter Niemeyer, Idaho’s former Wolf Recovery Coordinator and author of The Wolfer and Wolf Land, to talk about wolf history and interactions with livestock. Niemeyer began by describing his contribution to reintroducing wolves from Canada in 1995 and explained that 35 wolves were originally released into central Idaho.

In addition, Jeremy Brooks, a wildlife PhD student, came to talk about his research on direct and indirect effects of wolf reintroduction. Brooks described what Yellowstone National Park had looked like in the absence of wolves before their reintroduction in the 90’s. The park was overflowing with elk so to speak, at 20,000 individuals, so that willows and vegetation were being trampled and managers had to start culling the herd. People were worried that the first national park was being degraded.

But how has the reintroduction of wolves affected elk populations? Brooks explained that it’s very contextual. The effects of wolves on elk populations differ depending on region and other factors. Niemeyer elaborated on this matter by stating that elk have been thriving since the reintroduction of wolves and we’ve seen near record game harvests in Idaho. He explains that we have an abundance of wolves because there’s an abundance of elk, whose numbers haven’t taken a hit.

As the coordinator for Idaho’s Wolf Recovery Program, Niemeyer was in a unique position to hear biologists’, conservationists’, and ranchers’ different perspectives about wolves’ interactions with livestock and the natural world. This gave him the opportunity to better understand the role that wolves play in livestock deaths. In addition, Niemeyer used to also be a wolf management specialist, whose job was to examine dead livestock to determine how they died. He stated that about 5% or less of livestock die from predators, including a whole spectrum of species beyond wolves. He thought that the number of livestock killed by wolves was often exaggerated because predators like wolves and coyotes will scavenge on dead cattle or sheep, making the causal factor hard to determine.

To wrap up the episode, Brooks stated that his approach, and the approach of most state agencies, when managing apex predators requires a contextual and humble approach in which you recognize that you might not have all the information.

This episode explored the history of wolves in Idaho and their interactions with natural ecosystems as well as livestock. On each side of Bill 1211, passionate perspectives clash, but as Niemeyer and Brooks explained, managing wolves is more nuanced than some may realize. Next week on Sustainable Idaho, Eizaak and Ailie will be exploring the politics behind wolves in the second episode of their Wolf Series. Join us for Sustainable Idaho, every Tuesday morning at 7:35 am.