LEWISTON, Idaho — Federal wildlife agents report they have shot and killed 14 wolves from helicopters in northern Idaho as part of an effort to help restores the elk population in the Lolo zone, an area long considered home to the best elk herds and habitat in the state.
The three-day operation was carried out earlier this month at a cost of $22,500 by agents with the USDA Wildlife Services and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
Wildlife managers believe that a sustained reduction in wolf numbers will allow the Lolo elk herd, which has been severely depressed since the mid-1990s, to rebound.
State wildlife officials have long had a goal of reducing wolf numbers in the area along the upper Lochsa and North Fork of the Clearwater rivers, once renowned for its elk hunting.
"We'd like to see one of Idaho's premier elk populations recover as much as possible," said Jim Unsworth, deputy director of Fish and Game.
The wolf population in the area has also been diminished by hunters and trappers in recent months. Through Wednesday, the state reported sportsmen had taken 22 wolves from the Lolo, while another six wolves were shot from helicopters last spring, bringing the total of known wolf kills to 42.
Before the start of the hunting season, the Lolo zone wolf population was estimated at 75 to 100, with additional animals crossing back and forth between Idaho and Montana.
Biologists said the biggest problem for Lolo elk herds was a long-term change in the habitat. But state officials also blame growing numbers of bears and mountain lions.
Hunting seasons on those predators were liberalized and managers expected elk numbers to slowly climb. But as the herds continued to shrink and blame was placed on the increasing number of wolves moving into the area.
Recent studies by Fish and Game researchers now show wolves are the primary cause of death in female elk in the Lolo and of calves more than 6 months old.
Researchers have said the habitat is capable of supporting far more than the 2,000 elk estimated to be in the area.
Statewide, Fish and Game officials report that hunters and trappers had killed 318 wolves since the public hunting season opened last fall. Most hunting and trapping seasons end March 31, but wolf hunting will be allowed in the Lolo and Selway zones through June.
The department has a goal of reducing the number of wolves in the state, but has not set a target population or limit.