In cooperation with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the USDA Wildlife Services has completed a wolf control action in northern Idaho's Lolo zone.
Over three days in early February, Wildlife Services agents killed 14 wolves from a helicopter. The action is part of, and consistent with Idaho's predation management plan for the Lolo elk zone.
In the Lolo zone, hunters have taken 11 wolves, trappers have taken 11, control efforts earlier in spring 2011 took six, and the most recent control effort took 14 for a total of 42 wolves.
The control action is part of continuing efforts to reduce excess predation on elk herds in the Lolo zone. Elk numbers in the Lolo zone have not met objectives in recent years with predation being the most important factor limiting elk.
In recent years wolves have been identified as the primary cause of death in female elk and calves over six months old. But the habitat in the area is capable of supporting an increased population, Deputy Director Jim Unsworth said.
"We'd like to see one of Idaho's premier elk populations recover as much as possible," he said.
In September, 2010, IDFG submitted a proposal to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to allow wolf control actions in the Lolo elk zone under a provision of the Endangered Species Act. The initial target of that proposal was the removal of 40 to 50 wolves.
In May, 2011, after wolves in Idaho were removed from the endangered species list, IDFG resumed management and initiated the first control action guided by the predation management plan for the Lolo and Selway elk zones.
IDFG says it will continue to monitor elk, moose and wolf populations, and will manage predation with an objective of increasing the Lolo elk herd.
Wolf populations are not in jeopardy in the Lolo zone, but IDFG intends to maintain wolf numbers at a level that will result in reduced elk mortality.
Before the start of the hunting season last fall, the population was estimated at about 75 to 100 wolves, with additional animals crossing back and forth between Idaho and Montana.
Elk will be monitored to see whether the population increases in response to regulated hunting, trapping and wolf control actions.
No more aerial control actions are planned at this time. The wolf hunting season in the Lolo continues through June, and the trapping season continues through the end of March.
The cost of the action is estimated at $22,500 in license funds.
As of Feb. 22, hunters and trappers have taken a total of 318 wolves across the state.
On Jan. 22, a Hailey-area homeowner killed a wolf that had been observed near his house for at least two days and was acting sick or injured.
Immediately after killing the wolf, the homeowner notified IDFG. Two IDFG officers arrived and retrieved the dead wolf, a juvenile female. The animal was emaciated and had green fluid diarrhea.
IDFG wildlife veterinarian Mark Drew preformed a standard necropsy, including submitting tissue samples to test for rabies as well as parvovirus - a common canine virus. Test results were negative for rabies. On February 14, lab reports came back positive for parvo, which causes vomiting and diarrhea, and ultimately death from dehydration.
Parvovirus is highly contagious, and is often fatal in canids, including wolves. Pups between six weeks and six months are more susceptible than adults. Domestic dogs can be vaccinated against parvovirus.
This was not the first time parvo has been found in wild wolves.
In August 2009, six juvenile wolves were found dead on national forest land north of Fairfield. Necropsies on the partially decomposed wolves eventually determined the cause of death to be canine parvoviral enteritis.
Meanwhile, Montana’s extended wolf hunt came to a close Feb. 15 with 166 animals being harvested, well shy of the statewide quota of 220 animals.
Varying quotas were met in only three of the state’s 18 districts, but some were just one or two animals short of being met.
While some hunters pressed for higher quotas prior to the season, the practical experience of this season suggests that wouldn’t be achievable, said Kent Laudon, wolf biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Northwest Montana’s Region One.
Even in the Bitterroot Valley’s District 210, where there was a quota of 36 — higher than any other district in the state — only 25 animals were harvested, despite incentives offered by merchants for wolf license holders to stick with the hunt.
Laudon analyzed the results between 2009, the first year the state had a regulated wolf hunt, and 2011. He found that the harvest rate and the number of animals harvested were about the same in Northwest Montana during the five-week general big game season. The difference this year was that the season was extended to Feb. 15.
The rate of harvest dropped off significantly after the general hunting season, just as it did in 2009 with Idaho’s extended season.
“Their harvest rate really slowed, and we expected that,” Laudon said. “You have less folks that are interested in it.”
Montana practically met its statewide quota of 75 wolves during its first-ever regulated wolf hunt in 2009, when 73 wolves being harvested.
The results of this year’s hunt and population trends will be examined closely by the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission this spring, Laudon said.
Wolf packs could become more evasive in future hunting seasons.
“It’s still a guess, but just from my own experiences it seems that wolves respond to negative experiences,” said Laudon, who has spent years tracking, trapping and monitoring packs with radio-collared wolves.
Some packs had multiple encounters with hunters while others had none.
“Some packs maybe didn’t learn very much, some packs learned a lot and then you have the new ones that come in every year,” he said.
“Elk are the same way. They are herd animals that seem to benefit from the experience of the older and more dominant animals in the herd. That’s probably more akin to the pack. The young and dumb ones can still benefit from the older and wiser.”