BOISE, Idaho — The number of wolves in Idaho has shown a steady decline since the approval of hunting and trapping of the animals in the state, but a new study showing there are 22 breeding pairs means state officials likely won't have to return management to the federal government, an official said Thursday.
Idaho Fish and Game biologist Jim Hayden said there are an estimated 1,000 wolves in the state, and probably many more breeding pairs of wolves than counted.
"The 22 is still tentative but it can only go up from there," he said before giving a presentation to the Idaho Fish and Game Commission in Boise.
Hayden said the number of breeding pairs in the state is not at risk of falling below 15, which would lead to the state having to return wolf management to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure the species' survival under the Endangered Species Act.
The estimate of 1,000 wolves is based on a sampling of wolf packs to determine pack size, Hayden said, and then determining the number of wolves associated with packs. He said about 10 to 15 percent of wolves are lone wolves not associated with a pack, so that is added.
The number of wolves in Idaho increased steadily since their reintroduction in 1995 and peaked in 2009 just before hunting and trapping began. It has declined each year since.
A final estimate for the total number of wolves currently in Idaho won't be made until April. But Hayden said that through mid-January it appears the wolf population has declined slightly from the estimate of 1,036 wolves as of Jan. 1, 2014.
Hayden noted that the report prepared for the Idaho Fish and Game Commission meeting on Thursday included an estimated range of 15-25 breeding pairs in Idaho. Hayden said those numbers were meant to show that the state is safely above the 15 minimum.
The declining wolf population reflects Idaho's poor management of the species, said Andrea Santarsiere, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.
"After fighting tooth and nail for the right to manage wolf populations, Idaho has already proven its true goal is to wipe out most of the state's wolves," she said in a statement. "This report should be a wake-up call to Fish and Wildlife Service."
The state agency spends much of its energy documenting breeding wolf pairs. Hayden said there are likely more than 22 breeding wolf pairs in the state as biologists this winter have gathered information on only 30 of the 107 known wolf packs in Idaho.
"We've got 77 packs we haven't looked at," he said.
For a breeding wolf pair to be counted, Hayden said, the pair has to have survived a year and at least two of their pups have to survive. To prove those conditions are meant, wildlife biologists trap wolves to put on collars, use remote cameras to capture images of wolves, and collect wolf scat to get DNA.
Hayden said DNA from the 1,200 samples collected so far can also be compared to the DNA of wolves killed by hunters and trappers to determine harvest rates. The report to the commissioners said the agency tried to collect wolf scat in the Frank Church Wilderness in central Idaho with three workers hiking a total of 503 miles, but eventually gave up due to the difficulty of the terrain and lack of success in finding samples.
The presentation on Thursday by Hayden to the Idaho Fish and Game Commission was for information only, and the state agency is requesting no action concerning wolves from the commissioners.