The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

High-schoolers tracked a wolf pack for years. The feds killed eight of the pups, conservationists say.

A wolf leaps across a road into the wilds of central Idaho. In May, Republican Gov. Brad Little signed a law allowing private contractors to kill 90 percent of the state’s wolf population, which officials estimate is about 1,500. (Douglas Pizac/AP)
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Students at Timberline High School in Boise, Idaho, have been studying a group of wolves — known as the Timberline wolf pack — in a nearby national forest since 2003. But sometime in the spring, biologists who track the pack noticed its den was empty, which was unusual, said wolf conservationist Suzanne Asha Stone.

After conservationists obtained a wolf “mortality list” from the state’s Department of Fish and Game, they realized pups in the Boise National Forest’s Timberline pack were killed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services branch, Stone told The Washington Post.

Michel Liao, a student at Timberline High, was shocked when he found out.

“I understand a lot of people think wolves are dangerous animals,” Liao, a member of the school’s environmental club, told The Washington Post. “But it was so shocking to see that federal agents were the ones to come into a pups’ den to kill them, even though the pups didn’t do anything.”

The incident came as Idaho Gov. Brad Little (R) in May signed a law allowing private contractors to kill 90 percent of the state’s wolf population, which officials estimate is about 1,500.

In August, wolf conservationist groups called on the Agriculture Department to “immediately suspend the killing of wolf pups on all public lands.”

But officials this month denied that request. In an Oct. 1 letter to the groups, Jenny Lester Moffitt, the USDA’s undersecretary of marketing and regulatory programs, confirmed that the department killed eight “juvenile wolves” because they were attacking livestock. The pup killings, Moffitt said, encouraged “adult wolves to relocate, thereby reducing the total number of wolves requiring removal.”

“Lethal control methods” are sometimes necessary, Moffitt explained.

“While we understand your objections, it is important that our management professionals have access to all available tools to effectively respond to wildlife depredation,” Moffitt wrote to the conservationists. “As such, we cannot stop using any legal, humane management options, including the lethal removal of juvenile wolves.”

Proponents of the law signed by Little argued that the wolf population is too large, leading to attacks on livestock that harm the ranching industry, the Associated Press reported. In addition to allowing the state to hire private contractors to kill wolves, the law allows for the use of all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles and helicopters while hunting wolves, and pups can be killed on private land. A similar law was enacted in Montana, where the wolf population is about 1,100, according to recent estimates.

The passage of laws in Montana and Idaho followed a Trump administration decision to strip gray wolves of Endangered Species Act protections in the Lower 48 states days before the 2020 election, leaving individual states to decide how to manage their wolf populations. The Biden administration is considering whether to reinstate the protections.

But for now, it is “open season on wolves,” Stone, a conservationist who has worked with the canines in Idaho for three decades, told The Post.

Stone was especially dismayed when she and other conservationists discovered the young wolves had been killed earlier this year. “The mission of Wildlife Services is ‘to improve the coexistence of people and wildlife,’ not killing defenseless puppies in their den, especially when there are so many effective nonlethal alternatives,” she said in a news release.

“There’s essentially been generations of Timberline wolves in the same area,” Stone added to The Post. “The kids have been following generations of this same pack.”

Liao, the high school student, said he and his classmates are writing a letter to President Biden, urging him to place gray wolves back on the Endangered Species list. He said students want the animals to stay on the list until “Idaho’s politicians can prove they’re able to manage wolves without killing them off.”