Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) director Cal Groen said the declining elk populations in parts of the state could lead to a bigger wolf harvest this coming fall. The leader of a conservation group opposing the wolf hunt said he expects there may not be another wolf hunt in the state.

Groen said in a statement released Monday that preserving elk remains a top priority for the department. “Idaho Fish and Game is committed to saving the Lolo herd and keeping Idaho’s other elk herds healthy,” he said. A recent IDFG study showed that the elk population dropped 57 percent since 2006 in the Lolo Elk Management Zone in north central Idaho. Groen said that wolves are the primary reason for the dwindling numbers of elk. “Wolves took over and became the leading cause of Lolo elk deaths. It wasn’t until May of last year that the state could finally manage wolves. By then, the balance of elk and wolves in the Lolo Zone was completely out of whack. Extreme predation on adult females and calves means not enough calves survive to replace the adults that die each year.”

Groen said that in part because of the lowering elk population, fish and game commissioners are looking to expand the state’s licensed wolf hunt. “More aggressive wolf management is needed to restore the (elk) herd. State wildlife managers will recommend significant changes to wolf seasons in the Lolo and other elk-depressed zones … These management tools could include increased harvest limits, multiple tags, trapping, and asking outfitters to help reduce wolf numbers.” Currently, hunters can only get one wolf tag for this winter’s hunt.

One Idaho conservationist said that he thinks the current wolf hunt, which ends March 30, could be Idaho’s last. Jon Marvel of Hailey, the founder of the Western Watersheds Project, said he expects a federal judge in Montana to rule in the next few months that the decision to remove wolves from the endangered species list, and allow Idaho’s wolf hunt, was illegal. “If he determines that it is illegal, as we think he will, there will not be any hunting of wolves in the fall of 2010,” Marvel said. He also said that Groen is taking the wrong approach to wildlife and catering to hunters. “I think it’s mistaken to manage wildlife solely for the benefit of hunters, and that seems to be what director Groen is trying to do.”

Marvel also said that a declining elk population in parts of the state isn’t necessarily cause for concern. “There’s a mistaken belief that elk and other huntable wildlife need to be maintained at a certain level no matter what,” he said. “We think that there is a balance that will occur naturally between predators and native wildlife that are prey species. If the level of elk turns out to be lower or even significantly lower in some parts of the state that may be an outcome of a more natural process, and therefore much healthier.”
A federal court decision on wolves is scheduled to come sometime this spring. If Idaho’s wolf hunt is ruled legal, IDFG commissioners would set new quotas for a wolf hunt in August. Hunters have harvested 171 wolves since the state’s hunt opened last fall.

Read director Groen’s statement on elk and wolves here.

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