Amid hysterical claims that wolves are driving ranchers out of business, Idaho’s Republican state Senate this week approved legislation that would enable hired contractors to exterminate up to 90% of the state’s wild wolf population. The bill, if signed (as expected) by GOP Gov. Brad Little would end tag limits on wolves and allow year-round trapping on private land.
It may have had the appearance of being a simple anti-environmental move by conservative Republicans taking advantage of a late-tenure maneuver by Donald Trump that green-lighted the state to kill more wolves. But it was also part of a long Idaho tradition of conspiracist fearmongering in which killing wolves is seen as a way of fighting back against the federal government and liberal environmentalists.
“These wolves, there’s too many in the state of Idaho,” declared Sen. Mark Harris before Wednesday’s vote. “They’re destroying ranchers; they’re destroying wildlife.”
Harris—whose southeastern Idaho district in Soda Springs is nowhere near any Idaho wolf habitat, which is primarily relegated to the central and northern parts of the state—repeated a tale of a “gentleman rancher” victimizes by a pack of wolves. He complained that Idaho’s wolf management plan calls for only 150 wolves, and now over 1,500 wolves are believed to reside there.
The bill passed by a 26-7 vote. Little has not said whether or not he will sign it, but he did sign similar anti-wolf legislation in 2017.
The door to the legislation was opened by Trump’s decision in late October 2020, just before the election, to hand wolf management decisions over to the states and local tribes. At the time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director claimed the wolf populations were fully recovered, though there was no scientific data to support that claim. The wolves officially lost their federal protection 60 days later.
This is nothing particularly new for Idaho. In 2014, then-Gov. Butch Otter signed legislation approving $400,000 in funding to kill as many as 500 of the state’s estimated population of 650 wolves, leaving as few as 10 breeding pairs. Otter had made loathing of wolves a centerpiece of his political image.
Much of the antipathy is predicated on old fashioned fear about wolves, particularly given their predilection for preying on livestock and family pets in areas where humans inhabit their range, not to mention the potential threat they represent to human life. But there is also a powerful political element, particularly in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, that is fueled by far-right anti-government paranoia and conspiracy theories.
For years, wolf recovery efforts have been depicted in the rural West as the imposition of the “New World Order” on residents of the rural areas where the creatures roam. A number of far-right outlets, including the John Birch Society’s magazine and the conspiracist website World Net Daily, have run pieces describing how wolf recovery is a key component of a plot by radical environmentalists on behalf of the United Nations to destroy private property rights in America. In the Mountain West, holding such views is not uncommon.
When militias were first organizing in Idaho and Montana in the early to mid-1990s, much of the anti-government sentiment that drove recruitment revolved around resentment for the just-instituted wolf recovery efforts.
“It was seen as direct government intervention into their way of life and telling them what they had to put up with and what they couldn’t shoot,” recalls Amaroq Weiss, wolf recovery director for the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental organization that has filed numerous lawsuits over the years to prevent the wolf hunts in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. “So this goes way back. The wolf has always been a surrogate for hatred for the federal government in the areas where the reintroductions took place.”
The John Birch Society’s house organ, The New American, published an article in 2001 more or less outlining this same conspiracy: “Simply put, the ‘wolf recovery’ program is a form of environmental terrorism. Thus while the U.S. government is working through the UN to fight a war against terrorism abroad, it is collaborating with UN-linked environmental radicals to wage an eco-terrorist campaign against rural property owners here at home.”
The embodiment of the extreme nature of these sentiments came in the winter of 2013 when a group of men wearing Klan-like hoods posed with the corpse of a freshly killed wolf and an American flag and then posted it on Facebook. The page that published the picture belonged to a couple of Wyoming outfitters, who later explained that they were harkening back to Western vigilantism: “Trying to make a statement! … Frontier Justice! Wyoming hunters are fed up!”
The reality of livestock depredation by wolves makes a very different picture. Wildlife Services, the agency that oversees the killing of wolves, has been reporting that wolf predation in Idaho has been reaching record levels. However, those numbers have also been questioned by a number of environmentalist critics.
The problem with Wildlife Services’ numbers is that they were recently changed to be much broader, so that they now include killings even where there is no evidence of predation, injury, or struggle, since the Services claim—without scientific evidence—that cattle can die from overexertion hours or even days after encounters with wolves.
Moreover, wolf predation represents only a tiny portion of cattle losses each year. While proponents of the Idaho bill note that 753 cattle, 952 sheep, and 54 other animals were killed by wolves between 2015 and 2020, the state is home to some 2.5 million cattle; those losses represent less than 1% of that population.
Predation overall represents only 4% of all livestock deaths on an annual basis—and the largest portion of that predation (over 40%) is by coyotes. Wolves, at 4%, represent the second-smallest class of cattle predator (with bears coming in last).
The Humane Society of the United States called the Idaho bill “a blatant attempt to usurp state biologists tasked with managing Idaho’s wolves.
“This bill doesn’t just cross an ethical line; it sprints right past it. It is an embarrassment to the state of Idaho, and there is absolutely no scientific or ethical justification for this deeply misguided and dangerous legislation. In a race to slaughter one of America’s most treasured animals, this bill allows fear and hate to win. Idaho’s wolves deserve better; the environment deserves better. This bill must be vetoed by Governor Little if it comes to his desk.”