Counting, killing wolves an expensive business falling on Idahoans

BOISE, Idaho (KBOI) - The state and ultimately, taxpayers, are picking up the tab to manage wolves within our borders. With federal funding on the way out, counting them each year and killing some is an expensive business that's now falling on Idahoans.

Idaho Fish and Game is tasked with monitoring the state's wolves. The agency tracks them down for an end-of-year count. Jennifer Struthers, IDFG wildlife biologist, uses a device connected to an antenna to let her know how close she is to a radio collar around a wolf's neck.

Statewide, Fish and Game has 60 or 70 on the animals at any one time. "The biggest challenge for us is when you lose a collar, it takes a lot of effort to replace that collar," Struthers said. "You may not be able to replace it or find the pack at the end of the year, and so then we can't use them to meet our delisting criteria." Struthers and other state workers have to find more wolves to collar each year.

That's because some die, many during the hunting season Fish and Game established in 2009. Sportsmen took more than 350 last year. The federal government re-introduced wolves in 1995 and 1996. During the two-year period, 35 were moved to Idaho.

The count peaked at 858 wolves in 2009, and at the end of 2013, IDFG tallied 658. "Is there a sense that the federal government brought these wolves in in the mid-90s and now we're stuck paying for them?" KBOI 2News asked Todd Grimm, who directs the USDA Wildlife Services Program in Idaho, a federal agency that investigates when livestock is killed.

"Every meeting that I went to last year, that was one of the things that came up -- the feds dumped them on us, and now they're leaving us with the bill," Grimm responded. Grimm said that is essentially what has happened, but it is simply the reality.

"We are going to end up picking up the lion's share of the load," Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter told KBOI 2News. In the last legislative session, Idaho lawmakers established a new Wolf Depredation Control Board and set aside $400,000 for its first year. Legislation directs the new board to spend the money on "all activities associated with legal lethal means of control." In other words, the funding is meant for killing wolves.

However, part of the problem is wolves are killing farm animals. Grimm's wildlife specialists investigate when that happens, and if wolves are to blame, Idaho Fish and Game may direct Wildlife Services to take them out. Page 1 of 2Page 2 of 2"Depending upon where it is, we'll put airplanes in the air, maybe a helicopter in the air, we may put traps on the ground, we may break out the night vision equipment, station guys on hillsides to see if they can locate the wolves that are causing the problems," Grimm said. "Anyway, it's quite a bit of boots on the ground."

Grimm added the work is very expensive, and while Wildlife Services gets most of its funding from the feds, a portion of the $400,000 in state funding could be allocated to his agency for removing problematic wolves (although the control board has yet to be named or make any decisions regarding how that money is to be spent).

In 2013, Wildlife Services confirmed the animals killed more than 400 sheep and cattle. Those confirmations provide proof needed for livestock owners to be compensated for the losses. "When we have more wolves, we have more livestock killed," Grimm said as he looked at two charts, which compared the wolf population with the number of depredations over the last few years.

Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies Representative for Defenders of Wildlife, says she released the third wolf in Idaho in 1995. She says taxpayers will have to pay more to track the animals as their numbers dwindle.

"The state would have to invest a lot more in radio collars, a lot more in helicopter monitoring," Stone said. "The more wolves that are killed, the fewer the number, the more expensive it is." Fish and Game traps the animals on the ground or darts them from the air. Struthers estimates getting a radio collar on a wolf costs $3,000 to $4,000.

The work had been largely funded with federal dollars, but the money has already been cut and will be phased-out by 2016. Struthers says the reporting timeline will be more lax, but the amount of work will not change.

"We'll have to be able to demonstrate we have 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs," she said. If numbers drop too low, the feds get involved, so for now, Idaho is working through its wolf woes by allocating money to manage them, kill the wolves causing problems and count the rest.