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Conservative lawmakers in Idaho and Montana are going after wolves in those states. New laws call for killing more than a thousand wolves and paying people to shoot them, too. Boise State Public Radio's Troy Oppie says the laws passed despite objections from local wildlife managers.
TROY OPPIE, BYLINE: Twenty-five years ago federal wildlife officials reintroduced wolves to Idaho. They did well enough that 10 years ago the animal came off the endangered species list. Since then, hunters have legally killed hundreds every year. Idaho's current wolf population is about 1,500, and that's way too many for state lawmakers like Dorothy Moon.
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DOROTHY MOON: You know, when they are so fearless that they are now walking down the center of a dirt road, that means there's too many of them.
OPPIE: Moon and many others don't like how some of the state's prized herds of elk have become smaller since wolves returned. But biologist Michael Lucid, formerly with Idaho's Department of Fish and Game, says big herds of elk don't necessarily indicate healthy ecosystems.
MICHAEL LUCID: One of the points of having wolves in the ecosystem is to have a reasonable number of them and have them perform their roles as predators, keeping elk and other prey wild animals and doing things like reducing disease and culling older and weaker members of those herds.
OPPIE: Lucid helped write Idaho's Wolf Management Plan, informed by studies showing positive ecological impacts from returning wolves to Yellowstone National Park and other locations. But lawmakers have a different idea of what a reasonable number of wolves is. Idaho's new law calls for killing up to 90% of them. Again, lawmaker Dorothy Moon, whose central Idaho district includes wolves and some of their prime habitat.
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MOON: We've got to get this in check. And all due respect to Fish and Game - they need this help.
OPPIE: That help means giving wolf hunters the right to do things that are illegal when pursuing other animals, like using night vision goggles, killing wolf pups in their dens and chasing wolves with motorized vehicles. Those changes don't sit well with Ned Burns, the mayor of a small town near where wolves currently roam. He's also a hunter and says it's more important to follow the principles of fair chase than what laws might allow.
NED BURNS: If it's in a wide open area and they can't get into cover, if you can just run one down until it basically exhausts itself, I don't necessarily know that that's the way I've ever been raised to hunt animals.
OPPIE: It's unclear how many hunters will respond to Idaho lawmakers' call to kill more than 1,300 wolves. They've also liberalized trapping rules, and there's increased funding to hire professionals to exterminate wolves, including shooting them from helicopters. Across the border in Montana, there are similar new laws, although state game managers will have more say in how those laws are implemented and Montana has not set an absolute number of wolves to be killed. The new laws will please ranchers in both states, many of whom have long opposed wolf reintroduction. Michael Lucid, the former Idaho Fish and Game biologist who now consults on wildlife conservation, is worried too many wolves will be killed.
LUCID: I think the new wolf law is overall going to have a very negative impact on wildlife in Idaho. And furthermore, it's going to have a negative impact on wolves' ability to disperse out of Idaho and recolonize other areas in the northwest, where they need to recolonize.
OPPIE: Conservation groups have already asked the Biden administration to step in and take back wolf management again and are considering legal challenges as well. If the wolf population declines, citizens could petition the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reevaluate endangered species protections. For NPR News, I'm Troy Oppie in Boise.
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