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States defend expanded hunting after Biden administration says gray wolves may still need protection

"I don’t agree with it. We’ve gotten to a point where we properly manage the wolves," Montana state Sen. Bob Brown, a Republican, said.
Nature and Wildlife
Gray wolves in Montana.Dennis Fast / VWPics / Getty Images

State officials and trappers in the Western U.S. say they don’t want the Biden administration to restore federal protections for gray wolves, with some arguing that doing so would lead to a population boom that could threaten livestock.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said last week it would spend up to a year reviewing whether or not to reinstate federal protections on gray wolves, a turnaround from August when the Biden administration said it would uphold the previous administration’s decision to remove the gray wolf from the list of animals protected by the Endangered Species Act.

"I don’t agree with it. We’ve gotten to a point where we properly manage the wolves," Montana state Sen. Bob Brown, a Republican, said. "The state has been managing them, and I believe it should be up to the state to continue."

While gray wolves have recovered from near extinction in parts of the country, they have not returned to their historic range in the lower 48 states.

The federal agency's decision to re-examine its position came after it found credible a pair of petitions arguing that the animals should receive protection after some states adopted more permissive hunting laws.

In May, the Center for Biological Diversity and The Humane Society of the United States said in a petition to federal officials that laws enacted earlier this year in Idaho and Montana allow hunters and trappers to kill a large majority of gray wolves.

In July, the Western Watersheds Project, whose petition included about 75 other conservation and wildlife groups, voiced similar concerns and concluded that gray wolves could possibly become extinct in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

State officials in Montana and Idaho said that while the new laws do advance wolf hunting, measures are in place to maintain a sizable population.

For instance, if Montana’s wolf population drops below 450 or if Idaho doesn’t maintain at least 15 wolf packs — possibly 150 wolves — then an automatic review is triggered from either state’s fish and wildlife commission, which oversees hunting, officials said.

“It is unfortunate that Idaho’s wolf management has been mischaracterized and sensationalized,” Idaho Republican Gov. Brad Little wrote in a statement. “I am confident the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will recognize that Idaho has struck an appropriate balance that allows for active management of wolves while ensuring sufficient mechanisms are in place to maintain a healthy population.”

A record number of wolves were killed in both Montana and Idaho last year, yet the wolf population has remained flat, officials in both states said.

Still, federal wildlife officials saw enough in the petitions to warrant a review.

“The petitioners present substantial information that potential increases in human-caused mortality may pose a threat to the gray wolf in the western U.S.,” the Fish and Wildlife Service said in a statement. “The service also finds that new regulatory mechanisms in Idaho and Montana may be inadequate. Therefore, the service finds that gray wolves in the western U.S. may warrant listing.”

Designating wolves under the act would protect them from extinction by disallowing the hunting of the animals.

In 1978, the federal government reclassified the gray wolf as an endangered population throughout the U.S. with the exception of Minnesota, which designated the species as threatened, according to the service.

In 2011, the wolves were delisted in Idaho and Montana due to recovery, meaning their numbers were restored.

Critics opposed to federal oversight of wolf hunting and the bestowal of an endangered species designation said the animals reproduce quickly and tend to roam Western states feeding on livestock, which hurts ranching and farming.

Both Montana and Idaho enacted laws this year making wolf hunting easier.

In Montana, Senate Bill 314 allows for the hunting of wolves with the intent to reduce the population to a sustainable level but not less than 15 breeding pairs, according to the legislation sponsored by Brown.

In Idaho, Senate Bill 1211 established a year-round trapping season for wolves on private property with the owner’s permission, there are no weapon or motor vehicle restrictions on designated public lands and dogs may be used to hunt wolves, the law reads.

State wildlife officials estimated there are roughly 1,200 gray wolves in Montana and around 1,550 in Idaho.

In 2020, both states had record-setting hunting seasons. There were 327 kills in Montana and 584 in Idaho. Wildlife officials in both states said the record hunts did not diminish the wolf population.

“Wolves are closer to being out of control than extinct,” said Chyla Wilson, spokeswoman for the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation. “Placing wolves on an endangered species list would essentially revoke hunting season and lead to a population boom. We’re 10 times above the required amount.”

Sharon Kiefer, spokeswoman for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, agreed the number of wolves would increase under federal protection, resulting in more elk, deer and private livestock being killed by wolves.

Neither state has a limit on how many wolves can be hunted.

Suzanne Asha Stone, director of Idaho-based International Wildlife Coexistence Network, said wolves are being eradicated.

“Wolves should be embraced like mountain lions, bears, elk and deer. Wolves are being persecuted in ways other animals aren’t,” she said. “In order for them to not be wiped out again, they need to be put on an endangered species list.”

Jim Dutcher, who famously spent six years raising and living with a wolf pack, said he wants the federal government to take control of wolf regulations in the West once the review is complete.

“We’re all for it. We’ve been asking for it to happen. Idaho is out of control,” said Dutcher, co-founder of the Idaho-based nonprofit Living With Wolves.

But there are many who maintain the two Western states are hunting wolves successfully.

“The new laws in Idaho and Montana are going to have very little effect on wolves,” said Rusty Kramer, president of the Idaho Trappers Association. “I’m seeing more wolves than ever before.”