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What does SB 1211 mean for Idaho's grey wolf population?

The bill, which would allow 90% of Idaho's grey wolves to be killed, could be detrimental to the balance of their ecosystem, according to Idaho wolf experts.

KETCHUM, Idaho — Residents in Central Idaho are shocked after the passing of Senate Bill 1211, a bill that will allow up to 90% of Idaho's grey wolf population to be killed. Grey wolves were just recently taken off the National Endangered Species List.

Since reintroduction in 1995, Idaho's wolf population has grown to 1,500, making up 25% of the United States grey wolf population.

The species is often misunderstood and underrepresented, according to Jim and Jamie Dutcher, the founders of Living with Wolves.

"Wolves are curious," Jim Dutcher said. "They’re social animals, they’re even playful."

The Dutchers are two of the nation's leading experts on wolf behavior. They are most known for spending six years in the 1990s with an Idaho wolfpack in the Sawtooth Mountains.

"This was a way of getting inside a pack of wolves and understanding their vocalizations and how they got along as a family," Jim Dutcher said.

The couple dedicated over 30 years of their lives studying the grey wolf species, producing four books and three prime-time television documentaries.

Today, the Dutchers run a non-profit called Living with Wolves from their home in Ketchum. It is aimed at educating and removing the stigma surrounding wolves.

The experts believe SB 1211 threatens the well-being of the grey wolf species, as the bill allows the hunt of up to 90% of Idaho wolves.

"The purpose of this legislation is to control the population, not to wipe them out," said Idaho Sen. Van Burtenshaw (R-Terreton), the bill's sponsor.

SB 1211's working group included representatives from the Idaho Farm Bureau, Idaho Cattle Association, Idaho Woolgrowers and the Idaho Trappers Association.

The Dutchers were not contacted.

RELATED: Scientists urge restoration of federal gray wolf protections

"This bill has been put together without any science at all," Jamie Dutcher said. "It’s just really a shame and an embarrassment to Idaho."

Rusty Kramer, a representative for the Idaho Trappers Association, consulted the senators who wrote the bill. He said ITA has never harvested the number of wolves that were replaced by the pups born the next year.

Idaho Fish and Game counted 1,566 grey wolves in Idaho in 2019. That same year, 584 wolves were hunted.

By 2020, the grey wolf population in Idaho was back to 1,556, according to Burtenshaw.

"This is why this committee has come forward and presented this legislation," he said.

SB 1211 also allows the state to hire private contractors to hunt grey wolves and allows citizen hunters to purchase an unlimited number of tags. It also legalizes the use of snares in citizen's hunts.

"It’s grim, and it’s very sad that people that don’t know very much about wolves and want to do this because it’s just going to make it worse for ranchers," Jim Dutcher said.

Wolves prey on elk and deer in forested areas in North and Central Idaho, according to the Dutchers. Nine out of 10 of their hunts are unsuccessful, even when wolf numbers are healthy. 

However, if wolf numbers are depleted, they will have to prey on easier targets, like sheep and cattle. This is referred to as wolf depredation.

This will affect ranchers like Brian Bean, co-owner of Lava Lake Ranch in Hailey. While Bean has seen his share of wolf depredation he still opposes the legislation.

"I don’t think wildlife in the state of Idaho should be managed by the state legislature," he said. "I don’t think they’re competent to do that."

Traditionally, ranchers combat wolf depredation by killing the wolves after the attack, with approval from Fish and Game and Wildlife Services.

Bean, however, adopted a different method that he feels works better.

"We didn’t want to react to our sheep being killed, we wanted to prevent our sheep being killed," he explained. "And non-lethal behaviors, techniques, tools, and equipment we found to our surprise were very effective in our landscape."

Bean was consulted by the Wood River Wolf Project, an organization that promotes co-existence between ranchers and wolves.

"We spend a lot of time working with ranchers and their herders to use non-lethal tools such as lights, airhorns, starter pistols, which are fake pistols that just make sound – to keep wolves away from sheep," said Logan Miller, the field manager of the Wood River Wolf Project. "We’re one of the few areas in the state of Idaho that uses these non-lethal procedures, and we also have some of the lowest wolf depredations."

Jim Dutcher said the statewide wolf depredation rate is already low.

"There’s 2.8 million cattle and sheep in Idaho. 2.8 million, and one year, 102 were killed by wolves," he said. "That’s less than 1%."

The Idaho Wolf Depredation Control Board compensates ranchers for livestock lost. SB 1211 adds $190,000 to the board's funds, bringing the total to $300,000.

Kramer, who is also the director of the Foundation for Wildlife Management, said hunters and trappers can be compensated for their wolf kills with a harvest slip from Fish and Game.

Confirmed wolf kills in areas with chronic depredation, or multiple livestock losses within a 12 month period, are worth $1,000. All other kills are worth $500.

"They’re effectively pimping wolves for political gain," Bean said.

Killing an overwhelming majority of Idaho's wolves will create a black hole in the ecosystem, according to Jamie Dutcher.

Bean said coyotes do far more damage to his ranch operations than wolves do.

"We experienced five to ten times more depredation on our livestock from coyotes than we ever did from wolves," he said.

The Dutchers said wolves are a keystone species, which means they keep Idaho's ecosystems healthy. Wolves keep deer and elk on the move, which prevents overgrazing and allows the land to recover.

SB 1211 will destroy this balance, according to Jamie Dutcher.

"If we’ve realized what we’ve done, which is a horrible thing, wolf numbers can recover," she said. "It takes a little time, but they can recover. But they will not recover if this is the path that Idaho is going to take."

"It just boggles my mind to be doing this in 2021," Jim Dutcher said.

SB 1211 goes into effect on July 1, 2021. The extra funds allocated to the wolf depredation control fund will become available on Oct. 1, 2021.

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