Biden administration defends killing of 8 wolf pups in Idaho

A lethal response to a mild nuisance

The Biden administration is defending a decision by the USDA’s Wildlife Services program to kill 8 wolf pups in their dens in Idaho this spring.

Biologists who study and track Idaho wolves noticed earlier this year that the den of a well-known pack suddenly appeared empty. Data from the state’s Department of Fish and Game showed that the pups had been killed by federal agents with the USDA. In total, 8 pups in two different locations were killed.

In an October 1 letter to conservation groups, an administration official writing of behalf of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack defended the decision to kill 8 pups in their dens.

The letter states that wolves in Idaho have killed 108 livestock since the start of 2021. “When nonlethal methods proved ineffective, [USDA Wildlife Services] removed eight juvenile wolves—four from Boise County and four from Idaho County. This work was conducted in chronic livestock depredation areas and in consultation with [Idaho Fish & Game]. In both instances, WS determined that removing juvenile wolves would encourage adult wolves to relocate, thereby reducing the total number of wolves requiring removal.”

There are well over 2 million cattle in the state of Idaho, and around 1,500 wolves. Officials often try to justify the killing of the latter by citing the need to protect the former.

“It is important that our management professionals have access to all available tools to effectively respond to wildlife depredation,” the Biden administration letter states. “As such, we cannot stop using any legal, humane management options, including the lethal removal of juvenile wolves. We assure you that WS personnel work carefully to remove only those animals necessary to protect livestock, other agricultural resources, natural resources, human health and safety, or property.”

But the risk to livestock and property is almost always overstated. In any given year in Idaho, for instance, "confirmed wolf-caused losses amount to 0.00428 percent of the state’s livestock,” according to an Outside magazine analysis. The state compensates ranchers for any wolf-related losses. And while often depicted in popular portrayals as hardscrabble salt-of-the-earth types struggling to make ends meet, in reality most cattle ranchers are extremely wealthy: the typical family cattle rancher has a net worth of about $3.7 million, according to USDA data.

Wolf depredations are, at worst, a mild nuisance to the cattle industry, and one which taxpayers already compensate ranchers for. That should be the end of the story. Instead, ranchers and their allies in state and federal legislatures also insist that the government step in and kill any wolves that inconvenience their herds. In essence, they’re demanding taxpayers fund the eradication of endangered animals in order to protect the business interests of a handful of multi-millionaire landowners. A lethal government handout for some of the most fortunate among us, driven by bloodlust and little else.

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The Biden administration could put an end to it whenever it wants by reversing the late Trump-era decision that makes it possible: the removal of wolves from the Endangered Species Act. That move was almost universally derided by wildlife scientists and conservationists.

In May, the host of a popular YouTube wildlife show told the President that wolves “need protections more than ever.” Biden agreed: “I’m in. I’m in with you,” he said.

Instead, in August the Biden administration went to federal court to uphold the Trump-era regulatory change. It only recently backed down following widespread public outcry, and only in a bare minimum fashion: the Fish and Wildlife Service now says it will spend up to a year reviewing the decision.

Following the Trump' administration’s delisting of wolves, the state of Idaho passed legislation allowing for up to 90 percent of its total wolf population to be killed. How many will be left by the time the Biden administration finishes its review?