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Idaho’s wolf population finally declined in 2022

By Sean Ellis

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

POCATELLO – Idaho’s wolf population declined by 206, or 13 percent, in 2022. But the state’s total wolf number is still currently nine times greater than the original recovery goal for the animals.

That marks the first time the state’s wolf population has dropped by an appreciable amount since they were re-introduced in Idaho in 1994 and 1995.

Those who have borne the brunt of the wolf impact – ranchers – see that as a very good thing.

“That’s 100 percent a good thing,” says Blaine County rancher Clayton Mecham.

Since being re-introduced to Idaho, the state’s wolf population has grown rapidly and the predators have had a major negative impact on many livestock producers, as well as Idaho’s elk population.

According to IDFG, since 2014 alone, at least 299 Idaho livestock producers have sustained more than 1,291 verified losses to wolves. And department officials say those verified losses represent only the minimum of total wolf depredations. 

“Make no mistake, the majority of ranchers, farmers and Idahoans overall view a reduction in Idaho’s wolf population as a great thing,” said Idaho Farm Bureau Federation President Bryan Searle. “We can only hope the population continues to decline to a much more manageable level.”

Idaho Department of Fish and Game officials estimate the state’s wolf population reached 1,543 in 2021 but declined to 1,337 in 2022.

Idaho in 2019 became the first state to begin using remote cameras to estimate a statewide population.

Fish and Game crews used 533 cameras to collect about 10 million photos in July and August of 2022.

The department then used artificial intelligence software to sift through those photos and applied mathematical modeling to estimate Idaho’s wolf population.

Some environmental and animal rights groups have claimed Idaho plans to slaughter its wolf population but IDFG officials say that will not happen.

In response to written questions from Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, IDFG in an email said the department “will continue to maintain a viable population of wolves in the state while managing to reduce wolf conflicts with livestock and negative impacts on other big-game populations.”

The department pointed out that Idaho’s wolf population is well above the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2009 criteria that there be at least 150 wolves in the state before the animals could be delisted from the Endangered Species Act, which they were in 2011.

In fact, Idaho’s current wolf population is above what USFWS considers to be the management objective for the entire Northern Rocky Mountain wolf population in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming.

According to IDFG’s draft Idaho Gray Wolf Management Plan, the department plans to work to reduce the state’s wolf population to about 500 over a six-year span.

“The plan identified goals and strategies to reduce wolf numbers and to manage Idaho’s wolf population to fluctuate around 500 animals,” the plan’s executive summary states.

“The goal of the draft wolf plan is to manage for a wolf population below its current level but well above the USFWS’s delisting criteria,” the Fish and Game department told IFBF.

Once, and if, the state achieves its 500-wolf goal, the department will manage the wolf population adaptively as the population changes, IDFG told Idaho Farm Bureau Federation.

“If at any time the population is below the desired level, IDFG will modify management actions to stabilize the population around 500 wolves,” IDFG told IFBF, adding that Idaho’s Fish and Game Commission has the authority to close or modify wolf hunting seasons at any time.

In a news release, IDFG said that 500 number would reduce wolf and livestock conflicts while still maintaining a sustainable wolf population and healthy elk herds.

“It’s actually not alarming in any sense that there was a decrease in the state’s wolf population last year because the goal is to have a decrease year after year until we reach that sustainable population of around 500 wolves,” said Chyla Wilson, a governmental affairs specialist with Idaho Farm Bureau Federation.

Once that 500-wolf goal is realized, Fish and Game officials expect the predator’s population in Idaho to range from a high of 650 following reproduction in the spring, then reach a mid-point of about 500 in November, before declining to a low of about 350 just before reproduction the following year.

Fairfield farmer Rusty Kramer, president of the Idaho Trappers Association, believes reaching that 500-wolf goal won’t be an easy task given how difficult it has been to make even a small dent in Idaho’s wolf population.

“It’s going to be really tough to achieve that,” he said. “Wolves are so prolific that it’s going to be a long-term process.”

IDFG told IFBF the department will continue to use hunter and trapper harvests, as well as control actions to reduce wolf depredations on livestock, as the primary means to manage the population.

The department also proposes to continue to support cooperative agreements with third-party entities to reimburse hunter and trapper expenses to support people who are most effective at harvesting wolves.

If those actions aren’t successful in reducing the population to that 500-wolf goal, “additional IDFG-directed control actions will likely be necessary,” the department told Farm Bureau.

“The objective of reducing the population to fluctuate around 500 wolves by the end of the six-year period will be challenging to attain, but is achievable,” IDFG said.

According to the department, wolves are widely distributed throughout Idaho, from the Canadian border in the north to the Snake River Plain in the south.

They are occasionally seen south of the Snake River in southern Idaho.

“Most of the state south of the Snake River Plain remains unoccupied by wolves or wolves exist in very low numbers there,” IDFG told IFBF. “However, game management units along the Idaho-Wyoming border have higher quality wolf habitat and some established wolf packs.”

Besides being a thorn in the side to livestock producers, wolves have also had a major negative impact on some of Idaho’s wildlife populations, particularly elk.

“Elk are the primary ungulate prey of wolves in most of Idaho,” the Fish and Game department told Farm Bureau.

According to IDFG, wolf predation is a prominent factor limiting elk populations in five elk zones in the state, primarily in central Idaho.

Secondarily, the department added, “wolves prey upon moose, white-tailed deer, and mule deer where their ranges overlap. Wolves are opportunists and also prey on many other species, including other predators (mountain lions and bears), beavers, a variety of birds, small game species (rabbits and hares), etc.”