Time for USFS to Curtail Idaho’s Wolf Slaughter in Wilderness Areas

This is a guest column from George Nickas of Wilderness Watch. 

It’s time for the U.S. Forest Service to put a stop to the state of Idaho’s relentless quest to kill as many wolves as it can on our public lands in Idaho, including in wildernesses.

Since being stripped of Endangered Species Act protections and having their “management” turned over to the states, thousands of gray wolves have been needlessly killed on public lands and wilderness areas across Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. But Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) is carrying out its war on wolves to a grotesque extreme.

Witness IDFG’s recent boasting — in a news release, no less — that using low-flying aerial gunships it chased down 17 wolves and executed them in the Lolo-Clearwater country adjacent to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

But that’s only the latest in a long string of such actions taken by the state. And here’s the thing: on national forests — federal lands that belong to all of us — IDFG can’t do this on its own, it needs “partners.” In this case, Idaho’s extermination efforts are being aided or abetted by the Forest Service (FS). Consider this.

In 2013, IDFG hired a professional trapper to wipe out as many wolves as possible in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness (RONRW). Incredibly, the FS regional forester in Ogden, Utah, went along with this plan, giving the trapper use of a Forest Service cabin for his base. Wilderness Watch and other conservation groups filed a lawsuit and, as a result, Idaho pulled the trapper from the wilderness before the courts could rule, but not before he killed nearly a dozen wolves.

But that isn’t the end of the story. IDFG has a plan to eliminate 60% of wolves in the heart of the RONRW, and it devised an unlawful helicopter-assisted elk-collaring project to initiate it. The plan was simple, though not straightforward. Use helicopters to capture and collar elk, document that wolves killed some elk, then use that info to justify killing wolves. The Forest Service should have said “no,” but instead the regional forester in Ogden again played lackey to IDFG and authorized their plan.

Thanks to another lawsuit by Wilderness Watch and our allies, a federal judge saw what the Forest Service apparently couldn’t — that the project violated the Wilderness Act. But before IDFG could be stopped in court, it had collared the elk plus four wolves it wasn’t authorized to target.

Then there’s the case of aerial gunning mentioned above. It’s the eighth time in the last nine years that IDFG’s helicopter-riding gunners have attempted to wipe out wolves in a large part of the Clearwater National Forest. The FS regional forester in Missoula could intervene, but like her predecessors she just turns a blind eye to the plight of the wolves and the wild ecosystems where they live.

Still not satisfied in its blood lust, Idaho in 2020 has lengthened all of its wolf hunting and trapping seasons in Wildernesses and other national forest lands, and it increased wolf-killing quotas to an obscene 30 wolves per hunter and trapper yearly. Again, Forest Service officials sit idly by, despite having the responsibility to protect the wilderness character of the region’s wildernesses and despite having the authority to intervene.

Why does Idaho have such a maniacal obsession with killing wolves? Because wolves have the audacity to eat elk that IDFG believes exist only for elk hunters. Never mind the ecological and moral bankruptcy of that mindset, it’s not likely to change without intervention.

Let’s be crystal clear: By not standing up to IDFG, the Forest Service is complicit in the ongoing slaughter of wolves within federal Wildernesses and national forests across the state.

The Forest Service has the authority to stop IDFG’s attempts to exterminate wolves on our national forests, and it’s long past time it did.

George Nickas is the executive director of Wilderness Watch, a national conservation organization based in Missoula.

17 thoughts on “Time for USFS to Curtail Idaho’s Wolf Slaughter in Wilderness Areas”

  1. I wish there were some kind of law that when orgs call themselves conservationists, they actually have to do something. I looked up Wilderness Watch, lawyers lawyering, and as in this case propagandists, propagandying. (made it up, don’t like my words, oh well) From the first sentence to the last misstatements and untruths enough to make Farley Mowat blush.

    “It’s time for the U.S. Forest Service to put a stop to the state of Idaho’s relentless quest to kill as many wolves as it can on our public lands in Idaho, including in wildernesses” That’s the first sentence. Idaho is not trying to kill as many wolves as it can, it’s trying to manage the population it has back down to manageable levels. There are specific population requirements for wolves, Idaho has no intention of even coming close to those lower bounds.

    “The Forest Service has the authority to stop IDFG’s attempts to exterminate wolves on our national forests, and it’s long past time it did.” Like heck. Wolves in Idaho belong to the citizens of Idaho, do with them as they wish, send them taxidermied straight to Nickas for all I care. As long as wolf populations are maintained so as not to initiate relisting under the ESA extermination is not the correct word, it’s misleading, untrue. Management is the word, using the exact measures are prescribed by none other than Sir Aldo.

    In between that first and last statement is hogwash. Loss of tax free status would help, where’s the SCOTUS when you need them?

    • Some might say a group that has 5 staff members, and one of them is a lawyer, isn’t actually “lawyers lawyering.” Some might say it is “citizens citizening” (made it up, don’t like my words, oh well, right som sai?)

      Some might say that a group founded by Bill Worf, who grew up on a homestead in Rosebud County, Montana during the Great Depression and then at 17 years old joined the Marines and fought in the battle of Iwo Jima, isn’t isn’t actually “lawyers lawyering.” After the war, Worf got a Bachelor of Science degree in Forestry from the University of Montana, and started a storied 32-year-career with the U.S. Forest Service. Worf’s advocacy for wilderness led the Chief of the Forest Service to select Bill as one of a small group to write the regulations and policies for implementing the Wilderness Act of 1964 shortly after it passed. Bill was then asked to lead the agency’s wilderness program in the Washington Office, which he did for many years before getting his feet back on the ground in the regional office in Missoula, Montana. Is that a “lawyers lawyering,” som sai? Or is that a proud American answering the call of duty throughout their entire life on earth?

      Regarding som sai’s “like heck” in response to “The Forest Service has the authority to stop IDFG’s attempts to exterminate wolves on our national forests, and it’s long past time it did.”

      Turns out the co-founder of this blog (Dr. Martin Nie of the College of Forestry and Conservation, University of Montana) wrote a very long, deeply researched paper debunking that myth, som sai.

      It’s titled “Fish and Wildlife Management on Federal Lands: Debunking State Supremacy” and can downloaded here: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2980807

      P.S. Another contributor to the blog, former USFS planner Jon Haber, was a co-author of the Nie paper as well.

      • Matthew, the relationship of state and feds vis a vis wildlife has a long, complex history. The paper has a point of view – that they titled “debunking the myth” . But it’s not actually a myth… the States may not be “supreme” (however that might be defined), relative to what issue, but they do have responsibilities and authority.

        I’m actually a bit surprised that this (state/feds) is an issue, as you don’t hear much about it around where I live. It appears to me that the state vs. feds controversy tends to occur over specific disagreements, such as wolves, and not in some general sense (hunting licenses for elk, etc.).

  2. Wilderness Watch blocked me from their Facebook page for questioning their use of hyperbole, misrepresentation, and outright bigotry (particularly against rural residents and communities)…apparently nothing has changed.

  3. Here’s the rationale from the link:

    “The Lolo elk population declined drastically from its peak of about 16,000 elk 25 years ago to fewer than 1,000 elk in recent years. Fish and Game biologists estimated 2,000 elk in the zone when it was last surveyed in 2017. Short-term goals for the Lolo elk population outlined in the 2014 Elk Management Plan include stabilizing the population and helping it grow.

    Fish and Game has worked with the U.S. Forest Service for over 40 years to improve habitat for elk in the Lolo zone and will continue to do so. Hunting in the zone has been extremely restricted since the late 1990s. Rifle hunting for bull elk was reduced by half and all cow hunts have been eliminated.

    Fish and Game has also incrementally increased opportunities for hunters to harvest black bears and mountain lions. Restoring the Lolo elk population will require continued harvest of black bears, mountain lions, and wolves along with wolf control actions. The overall objective is not to eliminate wolves, but to maintain a smaller, but self-sustaining, wolf population in the Lolo zone to allow the elk population to recover.”

    Now it seems to me, reading the guest column by George Niklas, that he believe efforts to reduce numbers of wolves is really bad idea, and the feds should stop it. I think this is very interesting as I wonder if wolves have a special status in his mind, and what that would be. Is it because they are relatively rare and are on the verge of disappearing (I don’t think that’s the case), or for other reasons? I wonder what he thinks about shooting mountain goats to protect bighorn sheep, or allowing hunting for mountain lions, bears and elk? I’m just curious, at the risk of offending our northwestern friends, why wolves have this kind of (apparently) unique status?

    • I can’t answer for him, but I’ll point out that most of the issue in this area is that the state goal for elk conflicts with the Wilderness Act’s requirements to preserve wilderness qualities. Another difference is that mountain goats are exterminated where they are not native, and I haven’t heard a lot of people saying we need more mountain lions or black bears. It would help to know what the NRV is for elk and wolves here, and whether the state goals have any basis in ecological integrity. (Could be that the absence of wolves allowed there to be too many elk, and it’s time to fix that.)

  4. “The Forest Service has the authority to stop IDFG’s attempts to exterminate wolves on our national forests”

    That’s a legally correct statement. And if it were true that a state intended to “exterminate” them, NFMA would obligate the Forest Service to stop them. States have no authority to “manage” anything on national forest lands that the Forest Service does not authorize them to do.

  5. Speaking of wolves and the state of Idaho’s ‘management’….see below. It’s reasonable to assume that some of this trapping activity is taking place on public lands – including Wilderness areas – under the administration of the U.S. Forest Service. Also, if Idaho wolf trappers are self-reporting that 47% of the animals caught in their traps are “non-target” species one has to assume (based simply on human nature) that the actual number is much greater. What would the Idaho Department of Fish and Game do if 47% of the species shot by hunters were “non-target” species?

    47% of Animals Caught by Idaho Wolf Trappers Are Non-Target Species

    A new public records request to Idaho Department of Fish and Game reveals that Idaho wolf trappers are capturing nearly as many non-target species as they are capturing wolves. 47% of the species captured between the 2012/2013 to 2018/2019 trapping seasons, including rare fishers, wolverine, eagle, and lynx were non-target species. Of the non-target species captured, 57% of those were killed. During the period covered by the public records response, wolf trappers killed 813 wolves, caught 620 non-target species of which 269 were released alive and 351 were killed. It is likely that a percentage of those animals that were released alive eventually died from injuries sustained from the traps that either killed them outright or made it difficult for them to find food.

    The request was for “data showing capture or mortality of non-target species such as deer, elk, mountain lions, fishers, wolverines, eagles, pets, bobcat, etc. caught by wolf trappers in Idaho between the dates January 1, 2013 and December 31, 2019.”

    A previous public records request in 2013 revealed similar problems with wolf and fur trappers in Idaho. That request revealed that 58% of the species captured by trappers who also had a wolf trapping permit, were non-target species.

    Some of the species caught by trappers indicates that not all of the species were captured while trying to trap wolves. For example, the data reveals that two fish were killed which is probably more indicative of beaver or muskrat trapping as the cause. The public records response did not explain much about the records received.

    The non-target species included bobcat (29), deer (206), dog (15), duck (21), eagle (1), elk (9), fish (2), fisher (56), goose (3), house cat (14), lion (89), lynx (1), magpie (32), marten (2), moose (10), otter (5), porcupine (8), rabbit (42), raccoon (6), raven (5), red fox (8), snowshoe hare (9), squirrel (39), Stellars jay (2), wolf (4), and wolverine (2).

    • Well, it was more just a sharing of official facts, obtained via a public records request from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

      But since you asked, I personally don’t support trapping. I especially don’t support trapping on public lands. I also don’t support trapping of rare, native species.

      What’s your view(s) about trapping animals, Sharon?

      • I’m pretty agnostic… I guess it would depend on 1) live or dead trapping (as in relocation or giving shots or putting on tracking devices.
        2) the purpose, 3) the utility of trapping for that purpose (how well it works, potential negative impacts) and other factors that I probably can’t think of since I don’t know much about it.

        But I don’t have a clear view of what I think should be OK on federal or state or county lands (public). My question was mostly about “why should wolves be treated differently than other animals?” If they are “rare” why does it seem they are expanding their range?
        How does anyone decide (other than state wildlife officials) how much of any species is “enough”?

          • So there won’t be enough species x, until we have what we used to have, but we don’t actually know what we used to have. It seems to me that that would present a problem.

            • I think the wolf experts would be willing to provide some best available science on that. If wolves are food-limited, then their NRV could likely be based on elk NRV, and there is probably best available science on that.

          • Isn’t this what NFMA says?

            “provide for diversity of plant and animal communities based on the suitability and capability of the specific land area in order to meet overall multiple-use objectives, and within the multiple-use objectives of a
            land management plan adopted pursuant to this section, provide, where appropriate, to the degree practicable, for steps to be taken to preserve the diversity of tree species similar to that existing in the region
            controlled by the plan”

            I can’t get NRV from that. At best, if we switch from “communities” to “species” , and leaving out the clause “based on the suitability and capability of the specific land area in order to meet overall multiple-use objectives,” I still get that “the FS should provide for retention of species” not that “they should try to make sure that species are everywhere they used to be, based on some point in the past and some kind of judgment about where they used to be.”. I think that that’s a really important difference.

            • NRV was a science-based recommendation for how to determine diversity (which is not necessarily “everywhere they used to be, based on some point in the past”, but arguably should be for wilderness), and you could read how the scientists got from diversity to NRV in the record for the Planning Rule, which is now the law just as much as NFMA is (unless/until someone gets a court to not give deference to the Forest Service accepting the scientific recommendation to use NRV).


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