Setting the record straight on wolves

By Don Gay
Reader Contributor

In my opinion, the Reader opinion article on wolf trapping [“Trapping is a legal, useful tool to manage wolf populations,” March 31, 2022, by Eric Wieland] is purely opinion. The article is replete with statements that are false and misleading. Despite my belief that the Reader is one of the best sources of news on local and statewide news, it is also my opinion that, in this circumstance, the Reader did a public disservice by serving as a platform to disseminate misinformation, rather than informing and providing an environment for informed discussion of an emotionally charged issue.

I agree with Mr. Wieland’s premise that trapping is a legal and useful tool to manage wolf populations. However, when the basis for trapping is stated in untrue and misleading ways, the proper use of that tool is unlikely to occur.

The article begins with the author’s experience at a site where wolves had killed some elk. The author states that the deaths were “not quick.” Anyone who has witnessed predation, even the family cat toying with a bird it has caught, realizes that predation often causes suffering in the prey animal beyond the absolute minimum suffering necessary. However, wolves have limited tools to kill their food and they use what tools they have. Wolves are not the only predators that cause unnecessary suffering. Trapping laws in Idaho require checking traps at least every 72 hours. The three days that an animal spends in a trap cannot be considered a quick death. For those non-target species that die unnecessarily, their deaths are considered collateral damage. The use of neck snares to catch wolves on animal trails has already killed at least one grizzly bear, and who knows how many elk and moose calves, and adult deer. 

Mr. Wieland also notes that because the entire animal was not consumed at the kill site he encountered that the cow elk was “left to rot.” It is not known if the wolves could not eat any more at one sitting and would have returned to finish consuming the elk, or if they had moved on for some reason prior to completely consuming the carcass. Each kill of a prey animal by a wolf involves some risk of injury to the wolf and it is most likely that wolves will minimize their risk of injury by killing the fewest numbers of prey. If one is concerned about wasted elk meat, Unsworth et al. (Journal of Wildlife Management, 57(3), pages 495-502) found that in the Clearwater Drainage of Idaho, 17.4% of elk mortality was due to elk shot during hunting season that were not recovered. This is a lot of elk meat left to rot, and deaths resulting from poor rifle or archery shots are not quick ones.

Mr. Wieland states that “wolves decimate ungulate populations” without providing any facts about where and when. Page 12 of the 2018 Idaho statewide elk report states that “most annual mortality of elk is associated with human harvest.” On Page 16, the report indicates that, “the most important impact to elk populations in the panhandle is severe winter weather and delayed spring green up.” 

The report states that overwinter elk cow survival was 98% and calf survival was 64%. Page 17 of the report summarizes recent research on elk survival in Idaho where cougars were the most important cause of elk calf deaths. Wolves were responsible for 17% of the dead calves, but they were not the primary cause of death. Eacker et al. (Journal of Wildlife Management, 2016) found similar results in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana. There 5% of elk calf deaths were due to wolves, while 36% were killed by cougars and 11% by black bears. Furthermore, the statewide elk report states that for Game Management Unit 1 (Idaho north of the Clark Fork River) the elk population status trend shows little change to increasing. Although Mr. Wieland’s opinion that elk populations are decimated by wolves, research and all available information do not corroborate that opinion.

As the author correctly states, wolves were reintroduced to central Idaho, but their recovery in the northern counties was a result of natural immigration. However, Mr. Wieland’s statement that state and local governments concluded that Idaho could only sustain 10 breeding pairs is completely untrue. That amount of animals was the minimum number to consider the central Idaho population recovered. The 2002 Idaho wolf conservation and management plan suggests managing for at least 15 breeding packs to avoid wolves being relisted under the endangered species act. 

Whether Mr. Wieland has been misinformed, has avoided finding accurate information or is intentionally misleading is unknown, but what is clear is that his article is inaccurate. And by the way, there is no state leash law for dogs in the state (

If Mr. Wieland’s opinion is that all, or nearly all, wolves should be eliminated from the state so that human hunters can benefit from an infinitesimally small increase in their elk hunting success, he is entitled to that opinion. However, it is fantasy that such an act would drastically increase elk numbers.

Based on the unsupported opinions of Mr. Wieland, many of them obvious misstatements, this paper decided to publish an article that is full of disinformation. Although I realize that the Reader is not well funded and as well staffed as is likely desired, that is not an excuse for abetting the spread of falsehoods. 

I was asked by friends to respond to Mr. Wieland’s article because they looked at the article and thought it was likely inaccurate. If they could sense inaccuracy, it would not be unlikely that the editorial staff at the Reader might also have some doubts and delayed publication of the piece until a credible review of the opinion article was performed and the author provided with the opportunity to remedy any deviations from fact. 

It is my opinion and hope that the Reader can do a better job of preventing the spread of disinformation in the future. It is also my opinion that issues are best resolved when proponents of all sides of the discussion limit the debate to the most accurate information available. 

Perhaps in these times, that is more of a hallucination.

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