Idaho Fish and Game biologists have established that wolves are the primary cause of death of radio-collared cow elk in the Lolo hunting zone, where cow elk numbers are projected to be shrinking by 13 percent a year.
The department could use that conclusion, from its continuing study of elk, to again seek permission to authorize federal trappers to cull wolves in the remote area of central Idaho. But officials would rather see wolves removed from the endangered species list so wolf packs could be thinned through hunting.
"I just think it's generally more acceptable with folks to manage populations through hunting than any other way," said Jim Unsworth, deputy director of the department at Boise. "We are going to monitor the delisting process. If that occurs, we are going to pursue the hunting option. That is certainly our preferred option."
In case delisting is delayed or the department gets tied up in lawsuits, Fish and Game commissioners told the department to look at the options available under federal wolf-management rules, Unsworth said.
In 1996, the department sought permission to have government trappers kill up to 43 wolves in the Lolo elk-hunting zone. That effort eventually failed when it became clear the department could not prove that wolves were the primary problem facing elk in the area.
But two things have since happened: Federal wolf management rules have been changed so state and tribal agencies have to prove only that wolves are a major cause of elk or deer herds not meeting management objectives before they seek permission to kill wolves. And research biologists have collected much more data in their elk study and reached a stronger conclusion about the effects wolves are having on elk herds.
Wildlife biologists are using radio collars to follow cow elk in several elk-hunting zones across the state. When one dies, they investigate and try to determine what caused the death.
Their research paints a bleak picture for elk in the Lolo zone, where only about 75 percent of the cow elk survive each year. To maintain a healthy population or to grow a herd, survival has to be much higher.
"In the western U.S., you really need to be at 87 percent survival or better to have any chance of population stability or growth," said state wildlife biologist George Pauley at Kamiah. He and others have established that wolf predation is the chief cause of death among radio-collared elk in the Lolo zone.
"Of the known causes of death, 75 percent are wolves," Pauley said. "Wolves appear to be driving low cow survival."
Elk in the entire upper Clearwater Basin have been struggling for more than a decade. The population had been on a slow slide for years and then took a nosedive during the winter of 1996-1997. That decline occurred before wolf populations had grown strong enough to be the cause, and poor habitat was named as the culprit. Researchers say that because there are now far fewer elk in the basin, habitat should not be as big a problem. Their research tells them wolves are preventing elk from rebounding and are causing populations to continue to slide.
"The Lolo zone declined largely for other reasons, so it kind of became a cloudy issue," Pauley said. "More recently you could probably make the case it has declined by wolf predation."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is making a second run at removing wolves from the endangered-species list. That process is expected to culminate in mid-January, shortly before President Bush leaves office.
Everyone involved in the process expects the delisting decision to be challenged in court. That is what happened last year when wolves were removed from federal protection for a few months. Idaho, Montana and Wyoming all planned wolf-hunting seasons that were to take place this fall. But a federal judge in Montana found fault with the delisting move and restored federal protection in the three states.
There are about 1,500 wolves living in the Northern Rockies region, with about 700 to 800 in Idaho.
The state has a management objective of 6,100 to 9,100 cow elk for the zone, but the current cow population is estimated at 3,254.
"I think it's a demonstration of the critical nature we have in the Lolo zone and, of course, everybody talked about wolves," said Fred Trevey, the Fish and Game commissioner representing the Clearwater Region.
Earlier this month, Trevey and the rest of the commissioners directed the department to move forward with a proposal to thin wolf numbers in the Lolo zone.
The department also is seeking permission to land helicopters in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area to place radio collars on wolves. If approved by the Forest Service, the collaring would occur during winter elk survey flights.
"If we see a pack of wolves, it would be pretty straightforward to go down and mark a few and get some radio collars on them," Unsworth said. "No one is back there when we are doing that kind of work, and I don't think it would have much of an impact on the wilderness."
Landing helicopters or using any type of motorized vehicles in wilderness areas is generally permitted only for emergencies and is opposed by wilderness advocates.