New Idaho law allows killing up to 90 percent of state’s wolves

The move could partially undo decades of efforts—which have cost taxpayers tens of millions—to recover wolves in the region.

In 1995, wolves were reintroduced to Idaho and Yellowstone National Park, home to the canyon wolf pack, seen here. Since then many have pushed to expand wolf hunting in the region, and now, in May 2021, Idaho's governor signed a law that erases most limits on wolf killing in the state.
Photograph by Ronan Donovan, National Geographic

 Editor's note: This story was originally published April 29 but was updated May 7 to reflect the news that Idaho Governor Brad Little has signed SB1211.

Idaho lawmakers have passed a bill aimed at killing the majority of the state’s wolves, which gets rid of most limits on hunting the predators. It represents the most sweeping expansion of wolf hunting in the state, and has drawn outrage from scientists, conservationists, and even pro-hunting groups.

The act, SB1211, was signed into law on May 5 by Republican Governor Brad Little and will go into effect within months. It will allow hunters and private contractors to kill 90 percent or more of the state’s wolves, which number around 1,500 at last count. The decision comes just months after the species was removed from the U.S. Endangered Species Act, though wolves in the Northern Rockies have been delisted since 2011. The move threatens to partially undo decades of intense efforts—costing tens of millions in taxpayer dollars—to recover wolves in the region.

The bill passed along party lines, with an overwhelming majority of Republicans in support and Democrats mostly opposed. In the State Senate, it passed on April 21 with a vote of 26 to seven and cleared the State House of Representatives on April 27 with a tally of 58 to 11.

The act will allow for wolves—animals which many in the state perceive as harmful to livestock and elk—to be hunted just about any way, including being shot from airplanes, helicopters, ATVs, and snow machines. Baiting and night hunting with spotlights will be permitted. It allows trapping and snaring wolves on private property year-round, and each hunter can purchase an unlimited number of tags for killing the predators.

The act paves the way for $300,000 in state funds to go specifically toward killing wolves that prey on elk, an annual increase of $190,000. This is an addition to more than $500,000 the state earmarks toward killing wolves that attack livestock. Some of this money can be given to individuals as reimbursement for expenses accrued killing wolves, which many critics see as a return to the bounty-hunting system that led to the near-elimination of wolves from the Lower 48 in the early 20th century. (Is the gray wolf still endangered? Depends who you ask.)

The bill was opposed by many organizations that traditionally support hunting, including the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the Idaho Sportsmen group.

“It’s senseless,” says Carter Niemeyer, a retired wildlife manager who spent much of his career in predator control. “To me there’s just not the justification for it. We’re going backward.”

But the bill is supported by most ranchers, who are generally hostile to wolves, Niemeyer says.

“These wolves, there’s too many in the state of Idaho now,” Republican Senator Mark Harris, a rancher and one of the bill’s sponsors, said last week during debates on the Senate floor. “We’re supposed to have 15 packs, 150 wolves... They’re destroying ranchers. They’re destroying wildlife. This is a needed bill.”

A stabilizing force 

Scientific studies of wolves and their impact on their ecosystem, however, reveal a very different reality.

It’s well known that since the wolves’ 1995 reintroduction to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which includes parts of Idaho, they’ve stabilized the ecosystem. For instance, elk numbers in Idaho are well above 120,000, according to state agencies—about what they were, or higher, than when wolves were first reintroduced to the state. Research in Yellowstone National Park has clearly shown that wolves can help improve the health of elk herds by reducing disease and creating more resilient populations.

Moreover, overpopulation of elk is a problem in several areas of Idaho where wolf numbers are lower. Elk often eat large quantities of crops, leading the state to reimburse farmers large sums in some cases, says Garrick Dutcher, research and program director for Living with Wolves, an Idaho-based conservation organization.

According to Niemeyer, many state lawmakers resented the reintroduction of wolves by the federal government several decades ago, and they’ve tried to fight back ever since—a sentiment that propels the current bill. Similar moves to expand wolf hunting have recently taken place elsewhere, including in Montana and Wisconsin.

“Idaho has been responding to wolf depredations for years, and this legislation is an attempt to provide additional tools to address conflicts that negatively impact our wildlife populations and harm Idaho’s agricultural industry—the backbone of our economy,” said Governor Little, in a statement.

The bill made its way through the legislative process extremely quickly, and key partners such as the Idaho Department of Fish and Game were not thoroughly consulted, says State Representative Muffy Davis, a Democrat who voted against it. Scientists and conservationists, many of whom are outraged about the law, were also not part of the process.

“This was a bill that was just rushed through at the end of the session,” Davis says. One reason she objects to it is that it “usurps the authority of Fish and Game.” Under the bill, the Wolf Depredation Control Board, within the governor’s office, will have the primary say in how many wolves are killed, and the power to hire private contractors to kill the animals.

The bill also doesn’t consider the relatively small number of livestock killed by wolves. In fiscal year 2020, wolves likely killed 102 cattle and sheep, according to state investigators. That works out to about one in 28,000 of the state’s 2.8 million total cattle and sheep, Dutcher says.

“How does that warrant killing the vast majority of Idaho’s wolves?” he says. “The numbers are also not disproportionate to the amount killed by other carnivores, but rightfully, those other [species] are not being persecuted.”

Indiscriminate killing

Over the last few years, hunters in Idaho have legally killed about 500 wolves annually, so that the managed population has remained close to 1,500.

Some of the law's supporters have implied that they don’t want Idaho’s population of wolves to drop below 15 breeding pairs, or 150 in total. If numbers fall below these, it would allow for the federal Fish and Wildlife Service to resume management of the wolves, explains Andrea Zaccardi, a senior attorney with the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity.

These numbers are the lower limit spelled out by the Fish and Wildlife Service when wolves in the northern Rockies were delisted from the Endangered Species Act in 2011. But Davis also suggests the law could theoretically lead to such a large massacre of wolves that federal management might kick in again, the opposite of what the bill’s supporters intend.

The act is controversial for many reasons, Dutcher says. Not only will it expand killing of wolves in their dens, including pups, the legislation allows hunters unfettered right to set traps and snares on private property year-round, which can be lethal to other wildlife—not to mention humans and their pets

State Senator Michelle Stennett, who voted against the legislation, was walking her nine-year-old golden retriever Teagan along a snowy road in early January when he got caught in a metal trap, which snapped shut on his leg and trapped him for 90 minutes. Teagan accidentally bit Stennett while panicking, and both required emergency medical attention afterward—though both made a full recovery.

“Where [a] dog got stuck, a child could have been walking there,” Davis adds. 

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