Conservationist shares insight behind recent letter to Secretary of Agriculture

By Scott King

Gray wolves – photo: Jim and Jamie Dutcher, Living with Wolves

Last week, representatives from several conservation organizations sent a letter appealing to US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to stop the killing of wolf pups by the USDA’s Wildlife Services in Idaho. According to the Idaho Fish and Game Big Game Mortality Report for 2020 and 2021, obtained by at least one of the signers and corroborated by the Ally, 17 wolf pups were killed between January and June of this year, nearly matching last year’s total of 22 kills.

“Our reason for contacting the Department of Agriculture is that this was going on within their Department of Wildlife Services,” said Jim Dutcher, president of Living with Wolves and one of the co-signers of the letter. “Wildlife Services usually placate the ranching and farming communities by removing pests that interfere with growing crops and livestock, so they send agents to Idaho to get rid of surplus wolves.”

Wildlife Services is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and typically works in response to ongoing human/wildlife conflicts like with birds around airports. They also respond to incidents or requests to manage wildlife in defense of grazing animals, but wolves are largely killed for sport in Idaho.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game sold 37,244 wolf hunting tags, including 492 trapping tags in 2020. Individuals can take an unlimited number of wolves using firearms or a variety of traps and snares. State of Idaho records show that sport hunters and Wildlife Services killed numerous juvenile and wolf puppies in 2020 and 2021. The practice is ongoing.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture records, Wildlife Services uses firearms from fixed wing aircraft and helicopters when killing wolves. They also use foothold traps and neck snares.

While the purpose of curbing gray wolf populations is largely aimed at preventing attacks on livestock, according to Dutcher, wolf attacks on livestock are relatively rare.

“There are 2.8 million cattle and sheep in Idaho and only 173 were killed by wolves last year,” Dutcher said. “[173] is not a big number.”

Dutcher went on to say that killing wolves to protect livestock may actually be counterproductive and making the matter worse for ranchers.

“When you have a healthy pack of wolves, usually 10 or 12 wolves, they are able to feed on their natural prey like deer and Elk,” Dutcher said. “But if you start shooting them, it’s usually the alphas and when you do that and break up a pack, you end up with two or three wolves. Those small packs can’t bring down their natural prey and so they go after slower, easier to kill livestock animals that are out there on public lands.”

It’s this misconception surrounding the nature of wolf attacks on livestock that Dutcher wants the public to understand.

“These wolves aren’t coming into feedlots and farm yards, they’re out there with the Elk and the wild animals living a normal life, but ranchers put their livestock out on the open range on public lands in the spring and bring them back in the fall and if some are missing, they’re going to blame wolves,” Dutcher said. “But if a wolf can’t live in the wilderness and away from cattle, sheep and people–then where can it live?”

A gray wolf – photo: Jim and Jamie Dutcher, Living with Wolves

A key motivating factor for this letter to Secretary Vilsack, however, narrows in on the fact that wolf pups are being killed at den sites.

“Usually, wolf pups are born around the middle of April and according to the records of when they were killed, many of them were only one to three weeks old,” Dutcher said. “Wolf pups open their eyes at the age of ten days, so some of these pups are just opening their eyes. It is hideous that anybody would kill innocent puppies at a den site, but to be doing it on public lands is outrageous and it should be stopped and that’s why we contacted the Department of Agriculture.”

Gray wolf pup – photo: Jim and Jamie Dutcher, Living with Wolves

The gray wolf has had a long, complex history in the United States that continues today. After nearly being entirely wiped out from its historical habitats across the contiguous United States, the gray wolf became listed as an endangered species in 1974 under the Endangered Species Act.

Since then, gray wolf populations have rebounded, particularly after they were re-introduced to central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s.

“Until the middle of the 1990s, wolves were basically extinct from the Rocky Mountains,” Dutcher said. “But then wolves were captured in Canada and brought back into Idaho and Yellowstone National Park and that was a very successful operation.”

Although successfully reaching an estimated population level of 1,500 wolves in the state of Idaho, the gray wolf population pales in comparison to the Gem State’s 20,000 bears and 50,000 coyotes.

Nonetheless, the gray wolf was removed from listing under the Endangered Species Act in 2009, ultimately relegating responsibility of protecting and managing gray wolf populations to the states. Since then, several court challenges led to protection reinstatements in some states to varying degrees. But in Idaho, however, gray wolves were most recently delisted in 2011.

“Since then local states like Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana opened up hunting seasons to kill wolves,” Dutcher said. “The Idaho Fish and Game Department wants to lower the wolf population, which is around 1,500 wolves at the most, by 90%. This proposal to kill more wolves and then killing young pups on top of that really just gives a black eye to Idaho.”

Consequently, Dutcher’s organization is working with ranchers to encourage mitigation measures both new and old to protect livestock and wolves.

“There’s a lot of things that ranchers could do, one of them being just picking up dead livestock that die of natural causes in the open range, so wolves and other predators don’t get into the habit of eating them,” Dutcher said. “Breeding pens at night can protect sheep and using sirens, loud noise makers and blinking strobe lights can scare wolves away, too. But most of all, going back to how we used to do it, when you put a herd of cattle or sheep out in the open range you would have range riders stay with them, especially in the morning and in the evening, just to keep the wolves away.”

What makes a safe co-existence so important is evident in the benefits gray wolves have had on local ecosystems like at Yellowstone.

“There were so many Elk in Yellowstone National Park that they were just hammering the vegetation, but with the wolves back they pushed the Elk out of the riparian areas up onto the ridges and the vegetation has come back,” Dutcher said. “Trees grow along the stream banks providing shade, which allows for more and bigger trout. Songbirds are back nesting and there are fewer coyotes because of wolves, which brings back rodents, rabbits, squirrels and pocket gophers, which ultimately benefits the birds of prey. So having wolves back in Yellowstone and Idaho and the American West is really a benefit to the local ecosystems.”

Scott King writes about science, technology, and the environment for the Ally. Support his work.

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