Idaho is home to both the highest percentage of state land under U.S. Forest Service management and the largest continuous federally managed wilderness outside of Alaska. This is important to note because it provides a huge opportunity for wolf habitat, yet most of the state is governed as multiple use. This means that ranchers are allowed to have livestock grazing alongside recreation and conservation actions. Idaho is very polarized when it comes to opinions on wolf reintroduction. Some opposed the reintroduction in fear for their livestock while others saw the ecological benefit to reintroducing a crucial species back into the ecosystem. Most recently, an influx of residents, not tied to agriculture and with contrasting environmental values, believe wolves should be managed today without the use of lethal control methods.
The reintroduction of gray wolves to Central Idaho in 1995 and 1996 is considered one of the great successes for 20th century conservation. Wolves are extremely important species in their ecosystems because they help regulate prey populations which helps prevent against the food chain collapsing in those areas. They also serve as charismatic symbols and often increase ecotourism revenues. However, these effects are debated and very dependent on specific place-based experiences.
Wild predators like wolves threaten livestock populations which, in turn, lead to conflicts between human and wildlife. This hostility can cause issues regarding overall biodiversity conservation. The long-standing practice of lethally controlling wildlife through aerial gunning, hunting, trapping, and snaring are now being considered expensive, controversial, and ineffective. This has led to other non-lethal methods becoming more popular. Researchers and projects have been trying to foster coexistence between gray wolves and livestock but have struggled with changing conditions and internal challenges. Their journey highlights the challenges of working with and around changing government in both economic and socio-political contexts. Despite the struggles, they provide insights for practitioners and policymakers who are working towards promoting wildlife coexistence in shared landscapes.
Indeed, the Idaho state legislature has made direct declarations against wolf presence in the state, including in the 2002 wolf management plan. Since delisting from the endangered species list, Idaho has extended public “harvest”—wolf trophy hunting seasons—as part of a strategy to reduce overall numbers. In 2014, Governor Otter gave the Idaho Wolf Control Board 2 million over 5 years—going exclusively to lethal control. In 2020, the Idaho state government approved rules to define much of southern Idaho as a “wolf-free zone” with year-round hunting seasons. Ranchers and rural residents frequently complain that while urbanites and environmentalists like wolves, they do not have to finance the costs and consequences of living with them. As one rancher says, “conservation costs money.” Nonlethal methods are time, labor, and resource intensive. Although elimination of wild predators is also costly—involving helicopters, trained sharpshooters, and trackers—these are financed by broader taxpayers instead of individuals. Yet, The Wood River Wolf Project leadership has noted that these ranchers can obtain free lethal control just by “picking up the phone.”
Despite the negative stigma of wolves in rural areas, coexistence is increasingly promoted regionally and globally. The Wood River Wolf Project (WRWP) is one example of an organization looking to show how possible coexistence is. They have worked with ranchers to graze thousands of sheep while demonstrating nonlethal techniques to manage wolf depredation and have shown the lowest loss rates of livestock. This feat gives communities hope that the wolf wars will end soon, despite having a government that is so opposed to wolf presence. To continue to promote coexistence the public’s opinion on wolves needs to change. There is a push for increased education to shift norms and practices towards wolves.
For over a decade and across more than 1,000 miles of western range, the WRWP has demonstrated the feasibility of shared space between wolves and livestock. It is important to note that WRWP was designed as a test case and management intervention rather than a scientific study. However, it still demonstrates the effectiveness of the Project’s interventions compared to outcomes outside the protected area. During the grazing season, when wolf-sheep interactions are most likely, the organization collaborates with ranchers to implement the best non-lethal deterrents like actively managing livestock and wolf locations through radio collars, trail cameras, howl surveys, and keeping wolves away with hazing techniques and mechanical tools since wolves are often afraid of anything unfamiliar. They make lethal control a last resort if all the other prevention fails. Chasing the wolves off with loud noises, lights, and barriers has proved to have the greatest effect on protecting livestock populations. However, it is all trial and error depending on the situation and location of the livestock and wolf populations. Tools need to be adapted and rotated to avoid wolf habituation to the deterrents. Non-lethal tools and techniques have been shown to be effective, efficient, and reliable in deterring depredation over significant time and space and thus the need for lethal control is in the past. Knowledge transfer, both among its partners and through regional trainings, helped the Project defeat skepticism and resistance from operators and wildlife managers.
Between climate and land use change, sharing space with wildlife is an ever more pressing concern. Efforts from groups like the WRWP illustrate important evidence that coexistence is possible while also highlighting the challenges needed to overcome governmental hostility towards wolves and public opinion.
Audrey Schuler is a naturalist for SIHA. She likes swimming in alpine lakes, long walks where she can see the mountains, and looking for cool plants and rocks.