Modern Wolf Management in the State of Idaho: The Legal Recovery and State Management of an Endangered Species
This paper will briefly review the legalities of modern wolf management in the state of Idaho and their removal from federal protection as a distinct population segment in order to better understand how wolves are currently managed and how recent laws and policies have evolved. This paper will review: (1) the historical protective status of the wolf under the Endangered Species Act (ESA); (2) the pressure of Idaho’s legislation to delist the species; and (3) the federal removal of the wolf and its current status under the authority of the state of Idaho.
Wolves (Canis lupus) were declared endangered in 1974 under the ESA. In 1987, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) created a species recovery plan for wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains, which included central Idaho and the state’s adjoining Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. In 1995 and 1996, a total of 66 wolves were captured in Canada and translocated to central Idaho (35) and Yellowstone National Park (31). Since then the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf population has grown to approximately 1,700 withstanding regular hunting and trapping seasons in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Idaho wildlife managers currently estimate the state’s wolf population is between 684 and 786 (Hayden 2017).
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By 2002, Idaho’s wolf population had exceeded the metrics required by the FWS for delisting so the state composed a species delisting and management plan (Idaho Legislative Wolf Oversight Committee 2002). However, due to legal challenges, wolves were not fully removed from the ESA for several more years. Although the efforts for wolf recovery in Idaho had been fruitful, the subject of wolf management remained tentative. In 2011, to pressure the federal government into allowing wolves to be managed by the state, Idaho legislatures declared wolves a natural resource disaster (Idaho Statue §67-5801-5807). The Northern Rocky Mountain wolf population was finally removed from ESA protections by an unprecedented Congressional directive (Bruskotter, Enzler, Treves 2011).
Today, wolves in Idaho are managed via the state’s implemented 2002 Idaho Wolf Conservation and Management Plan despite lawsuits filed by numerous advocates who contend for the regional delisting of wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains (Alliance for the Wild Rockies v. Salazar 2011, Hayden 2017).
Congress passed the ESA in 1973 in recognition of species’ “esthetic, ecological, education, recreational, and scientific value to our Nation and its people” (ESA§1531 (a) 3). Under the protection of the ESA, species of plants or wildlife may be federally listed as threatened or endangered of extinction. Species may become listed for protection on the basis of their biological status and threats to their existence (ESA§1533). While under ESA authority, listed species are protected from being “taken,” defined as “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect or attempt to engage in any such conduct” (ESA, §1532-19). Due to the extreme reduction of the wolf’s historic range in the contiguous United States, the ESA listed the wolf as endangered in 1974 and shortly thereafter began planning a wolf recovery effort for the Northern Rocky Mountains region (Hayden 2017).
Following the implementation of the FWS Northern Rocky Mountain wolf recovery plan in the 1990s, the ESA’s prohibition of “taking” wolves in Idaho and adjoining states allowed the species to substantially expand its population. From an initial translocation number of 66 wolves from Canada, and several dozen wolves naturally repopulating Montana, the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf population grew to ~1,700 in little more than fifteen years (Hayden 2017).
While some viewed the recovery of the wolf as an ecological success, other frustrated citizens saw the federal wolf recovery efforts as an infringement on state’s rights (Bruskotter, Enzler, Treves 2011). Politicians in the Intermountain American West rhetorically expressed their citizen’s aggravations and repeatedly pushed for state authority to manage wolf populations by attempting to delist the wolf in 2003, 2008, and 2009 (Hayden 2017).
Idaho’s Natural Resource Disaster
With wolf populations expanding in the Northern Rocky Mountains, the state of Idaho’s legislation declared the existence of a natural resource disaster. According to the Idaho Code, §36-103 (a), all wildlife within the state of Idaho’s boundaries belongs to the state. The state claims the responsibility for managing and protecting all natural resources within the state’s jurisdiction and reserves the responsibility to suppress any danger or threat to its natural resources (Idaho Code §67-5801). In order fulfill its duties, the governor has the authority to declare a ‘natural resource disaster,’ which may require any agency of the executive branch of state government to suppress the disaster by “the furnishing of all necessary manpower, materials, equipment, and facilities” requested (Idaho Code §67-5802, §67-5804).
On April 19, 2011, the Idaho legislature issued LEGISLATIVE FINDINGS AND INTENT statute §67-5805:
The Idaho legislature finds and declares that the state’s citizens, businesses, hunting, tourism and agricultural industries, private property and wildlife, are immediately and continuously threatened and harmed by the presence and growing population of Canadian gray wolves in the state of Idaho [. . .] public safety has been compromised, economic activity has been disrupted and private and public property continue to be imperiled. The uncontrolled proliferation of imported wolves on private land has produced a clear and present danger to humans, their pets and livestock, and has altered and hindered historical uses of private and public land, dramatically inhibiting previously safe activates [. . .] therefore, it is the intent of the legislature to regulate the presence of Canadian gray wolves in Idaho in order to safeguard the public, wildlife, economy and private property against additional devastation to Idaho’s social culture, economy and natural resources (added by S.L. 2011, ch. 334, § 1, eff. April 19, 2011).
By executive order of the governor, Idaho’s state of disaster emergency may be proclaimed for any of the following reasons: (a) if wolves are found carrying diseases; (b) if wolf-human conflicts occur; (c) if wolves kill livestock or show evidence of being habituated toward livestock; (d) if wolf numbers impact big game herds as identified by the 2002 Wolf Management Plan, and if there is evidence of Idaho’s wolf population exceeding 100 individuals; and (e) if big game populations are low enough to impact the value of businesses related to hunting (Idaho Code §67-5807).
The Idaho legislation amended the declaration of emergency to include any part of the state where wolves have been sighted by the public and documented by IDFG (Idaho Code §67-5806). The declaration was intended to last until wolves were either delisted in Idaho with full management restored to the state, or until the threat had been significantly dealt with (Idaho Code §67-5807-3).
Delisting Wolves in Idaho
During Idaho’s legislative declaration of a natural resource disaster, wolves were finally removed from the protection of the ESA’s endangered species list in the Northern Rocky Mountains region. Contrastingly, a 2010 federal court ruling that had promised to renew ESA protection of wolves prompted this sudden delisting. Federal legislators from Idaho and Montana bypassed the ESA’s delisting process by attaching a rider to the Federal Continuing Budget Resolution for Congressional approval. Legislative riders are arrangements added to bills that often have little or no relation to the original bill and can be used to pass controversial legislation that would struggle to pass on its own (Bruskotter, Enzler, Treves 2011). The rider attached to the 2011 budget was explicitly exempt from judicial review and could not be challenged in court.
Legal Challenges to the Delisting
Following Congress’s unprecedented decision to remove a species’ federal protections via a legislative rider, a lawsuit contending the congressional action was filed. The case of Alliance for the Wild Rockies v. Salazar was argued and submitted November 8, 2011. Plaintiff environmental groups attempted to reverse the ESA’s “partial delisting” of wolves by contending that §1713 was a violation of the separation of powers; this argument had proved vital to defeating the 2009 proposed delisting of wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains.
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In 2009, the FWS designated the Northern Rocky Mountain wolves as a distinct population and attempted to remove wolves from the ESA’s protection in both Idaho and Montana. A district court denied this action on the grounds that it violated statutes of the ESA, which “does not permit partial delisting of a distinct population segment” (IDFG Wolf Management and Background 2019).
However, in the 2011 case of Alliance for the Wild Rockies v. Salazar (2011), the district court declined the plaintiffs’ claims due to the legitimate authority given to Congress by the constitution to change laws applicable to pending litigation (Hayden 2017). Therefore, the district court denied the appeal and wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains remained delisted as a distinct population to be managed by the states of Idaho and Montana (see Figure 1).
Current Management Approach
Wolves are currently classified in Idaho as ‘big game animals’ with a harvest season for both hunting and trapping. Initially hunters could take up to five wolves per season and trappers could take up to ten – five trapped and five hunted – but because hunting quotas were never met IDFG determined that the limits were unnecessary and removed them at the beginning of 2017 (Hayden 2017, IDFG: Wolf Harvest Quota 2019). In accordance with the management regulations established by the FWS, IDFG is responsible for monitoring the state’s wolf population, ensuring that there are at least 15 wolf packs existing in the state – the minimum requirement for keeping the species delisted. In 2011, hunters and trappers harvested 376 wolves. Since then, harvest rates have declined an average of 9.7% annually (Hayden 2017).
Although IDFG relies primarily on sport hunting in its population goals, depredation management has remained a cooperative effort between IDFG and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Service (WS) to whom IDFG pays with funds from the state’s Wolf Depredation Control Board (Western Watersheds Project v. Grimm, 2019). Since 2011, between forty and eighty wolves have been lethally removed annually by WS or livestock producers to mitigate livestock depredation and an additional zero to twenty-three wolves have been removed annually from critical elk habitat zones (Western Watersheds Project v. Grimm, 2019).
Recent Legal Dispute
Recently, a federal panel of appellate judges reversed a district court’s dismissal of a lawsuit filed by five environmental advocacy groups against the WS’ wolf-killing activities in Idaho. The Western Watersheds Project v. Grimm (2019) was decided in the United States Court of Appeals in the Ninth Circuit on April 23, 2019. Conservationist plaintiffs objecting to the federal government’s collaboration with IDFG to lethally remove wolves was argued to be in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969. The original case was dismissed on the grounds that the plaintiffs lacked standing, therefore the district court objected to the case, stating the plaintiffs “had now shown that their injuries were redressable because Idaho could engage in the same lethal wolf management operations without the help of the federal government” (The Western Watersheds Project v. Grimm, 2019). This conclusion was drawn from IDFG’s comment that “in the absence from Wildlife Services, it would conduct its own wolf removal operations for the purpose of protecting ungulates” (The Western Watersheds Project v. Grimm, 2019).
Nevertheless, the case was returned to the district court after reviewing the previous outcome by a panel of federal judges. It has been determined IDFG and the WS will need to review environmental impacts caused by lethal wolf removal by the federal government before further actions are taken.
Modern wolf management in the state of Idaho is a reflection of elastic wildlife legislation and policies. Due to the controversial nature of the species, wolf reintroduction and management in Idaho clearly demonstrates how federal and state wildlife objectives can become intertwined with the duplicity of human politics. Currently, IDFG is managing its wolf population with a program designed seventeen years ago without any major updates or altercations. In spite of the program’s stagnant execution, there remain volatile interagency conflicts concerning the best way to manage this species amidst a collection of humans who both hate and love these animals. It was the federal involvement of the ESA that took the initiative to bring wolves back to Idaho. Only after many years of legal strife were wolves finally removed and placed under state authority to manage – but even now, the combatants of managing wildlife for the public trust continues to unfold.
Figure 1. Northern Rocky Mountain Gray Wolf Distinct Population Segment boundaries established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (2015 Idaho Wolf Management Progress Report).
Figure 2. Idaho wolf pack distribution (2015 Idaho Wolf Management Progress Report).
- Alliance for the Wild Rockies v. Salazar, 672 F. 3d 1170 – Court of Appeals (9th Cir. 2012).
- Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Idaho; Edward J. Lodge, District Judge, Presiding, D.C. No. 1:16-cv-00218-EJL-CWD.
- Bruskotter, J.T., Enzler, S.A., Treves, A. 2011. Rescuing Wolves from Politics: Wildlife as a Public Trust Resource. Science 333 (6051), 1828-1829. DOI: 10.1126/science.1207803
- Endangered Species Act 16. U.S.C. Sections 1531-1544
- Hayden, J. 2017. Idaho Department of Fish and Game: Surveys and Inventories Statewide Report: Wolf. Boise (ID) 2017.
- Idaho Department of Fish and Game. 2015. 2015 Idaho wolf monitoring progress report. Idaho Department of Fish and Game, 600 South Walnut, Boise, Idaho. 71 pp.
- Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG). 2019. Wildlife Conservation and Management: Wolf Management and Background.
- Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG). 2019. Wolf Harvest Quota.
- Idaho Legislature. 2019. Idaho Statues: Title 67. State Government and State Affairs. Chapter 58. Protection of Natural Resources. I.C. § 67-5801 – 5807
- Stuebner, S. May 10, 2019. Idaho Press: Wolves and the West: Wolf Reintroduction to Idaho Creates Conflict. Idaho Press: Local News Worth Holding, Nampa (ID) 2019.
- Western Watersheds Project v. Grimm, No. 18-35075 (9th Cir. 2019).
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