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Idaho wolf trapping cut over threat to grizzlies

by KAYE THORNBRUGH
Staff Writer | March 21, 2024 1:09 AM

Idaho’s wolf trapping and snaring season will be shortened by a federal court ruling, which found that grizzly bears, protected under the Endangered Species Act, could be injured or killed by the devices.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Candy Dale issued the decision Tuesday as part of a 2021 lawsuit filed by environmental activist groups over the Idaho Legislature’s expansion of trapping seasons.

“There is ample evidence in the record, including Idaho’s own witnesses, that lawfully set wolf traps and snares are reasonably likely to take grizzly bears in Idaho,” Dale wrote.

Under the ruling, Idaho may only authorize recreational gray wolf trapping and snaring on public or private land in grizzly bear habitat between Dec. 1 and Feb. 28, the period when almost all grizzlies will be in dens, unless Idaho obtains an incidental take permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Endangered Species Act requires that a permit be obtained for any take of an endangered or threatened species incidental to an otherwise lawful activity.

Idaho’s grizzly bear population tops out at about 200, depending on the time of year, with the largest concentration of grizzlies existing in the Panhandle and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. There are an estimated 50 grizzly bears in North Idaho.

Even one take “could have profound effects upon Idaho’s grizzly bear population,” Dale wrote.

“Yet Idaho has tacitly encouraged the expansion of trapping and snaring of gray wolves by allowing trapping year round on private land and the purchase of an unlimited number of wolf tags,” Dale wrote.

Statewide, a total of 907 trappers have a valid trapping license and have also completed wolf trapper education, according to Idaho Fish and Game. That means they can legally trap wolves but doesn’t necessarily mean they are currently or have recently attempted to do so.

Of those 907 trappers, 634 have a valid wolf tag. This is stronger evidence that they intend to trap wolves, according to Fish and Game.

These numbers can’t give a clear picture of how many people attempt to trap wolves in North Idaho, where grizzly bears are more prevalent than in other parts of the state.

“It would be impossible to know how many trapped in the Panhandle because trappers are allowed to trap anywhere in the state there’s an open season and people from outside the area could also travel to the Panhandle to trap,” Roger Phillips, Idaho Fish and Game public information supervisor, said via email Wednesday.

In her ruling, Dale pointed to two young male grizzlies in Boundary County that died in 2020 after they were caught in wolf snares that had been illegally set. One bear had “a wolf snare very tightly around its neck and another wolf snare wrapped around its front left paw.”

Hunters shot and killed the second grizzly after mistaking it for a black bear. The dead bear had “a wolf snare around its neck but had managed to break the snare and survive,” though officials said the snare “would have eventually resulted in death.”

Further, Dale wrote, there is evidence that experienced, professional trappers in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming have caught grizzly bears in foothold traps and snares meant for wolves.

Meanwhile, the state of Idaho is seeking court approval of a proposed settlement that would require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to issue a final rule by Jan. 1, 2026, to revise or remove the current listing of “lower 48” grizzly bears as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

The proposed settlement does not guarantee delisting of all grizzly bears, but the January 2026 deadline makes delisting grizzly bears in Idaho possible.

Sens. Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, as well as Rep. Russ Fulcher, published a letter Wednesday to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Director Martha Williams urging the agency “to abandon its problematic and broad use of distinct population segments” in Endangered Species Act listings.

While the legislators said they’re pleased with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s commitment “to correct the flawed ‘lower 48’ grizzly bear listing,” they said the issues are not confined to a single listing from the 1970s, pointing to listings for bull trout, Canada lynx, North American wolverine and gray wolf.

“These legally and biologically flawed listings are not harmless,” the letter said in part. “They impose unnecessary restrictions and administrative requirements, not only for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service but also for federal land management agencies, states and a wide swath of private enterprise and citizens.”