By RALPH BARTHOLDT
There are 1,541 wolves in Idaho, according to Idaho Fish and Game, and the estimate is better than one used five years ago.
That’s because the department has employed new ways to count wolves.
The latest, statewide wolf population was compiled using game cameras and mathematical modeling, and will be repeated annually as biologists fine-tune the process over the next several years, said Fish and Game spokesman Roger Phillips.
The latest population estimate comes five years after the department last tried getting a handle on Gem State wolf numbers. In 2015, Fish and Game estimated 786 wolves lived in the state. The department cautioned, however, that the 2015 number was reached using different methods — not game cameras.
Between 2006 and 2015, the department monitored wolf populations to ensure that more than 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs lived in Idaho over an extended period to ensure the federal government that Idaho was meeting management goals. Biologists used collared wolves and winter game counts to reach the 2015 estimate.
“Those surveys were intended to show the wolf population exceeded targets needed to remove them from federal protection and oversight,” Phillips said.
At the latest Fish and Game commission meeting on Jan. 23 in Boise, biologists said the 1,541 wolf estimate was recorded during the summer’s peak population after pups were born.
Wolf populations usually jump in the summer and then begin to decrease during the hunting season and winter.
After last year’s count, 327 wolves were killed through management actions, including hunting and trapping. Another 208 wolves died of natural causes, according to Fish and Game.
Last year, Fish and Game deployed 569 cameras specifically for estimating wolf abundance, which took about 11 million photos over the course of a few months. Using software that can detect animals including wolves, 259 of the cameras detected wolves, Phillips said.
Kevin Sawyer, a Sandpoint wolf trapper and member of the Foundation for Wildlife Management, a group that pays hunters and trappers to harvest wolves as part of the state’s management initiative, thinks the number is conservative.
Sawyer said that in the past, wolves traveling between Idaho and neighboring states and Canada were not counted as Idaho wolves, thereby lowering Gem State wolf estimates.
“To me that’s an absolutely and totally flawed number,” Sawyer said. “There are a lot of wolves within a day’s travel (of a border).”
Estimates would drastically increase by including individuals in border packs, Sawyer said.
Counts may be conservative, Phillips said, but as biologists tweak how they collect data, the department will get a better picture of not just wolf numbers, but population estimates for other animals including deer, elk and moose.
“This is the first time that I know that any agency has ever done wolf estimates over such a big landscape,” Phillips said.
Using cameras will be invaluable to gather data on a variety of species, he said.
“This will give us a lot of information on a whole range of wildlife,” Phillips added.