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Wolves: Taking Aim from the Air

Conservation orgs are battling the aerial shooting of wolves, coyotes and foxes on Idaho public lands. Will the feds listen?

Conservation groups have filed a petition with the U.S. Forest Service to ban the practice of shooting wolves from aircrafts. Here, the Junction Butte Pack in Yellowstone as seen from the air. It is illegal to shoot wolves in national parks. Photo courtesy NPS
Conservation groups have filed a petition with the U.S. Forest Service to ban the practice of shooting wolves from aircrafts. Here, the Junction Butte Pack in Yellowstone as seen from the air. It is illegal to shoot wolves in national parks. Photo courtesy NPS
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article referenced livestock dispersing as a result of nonlethal methods used to deter wolf predations of livestock. The article has been corrected to indicate that these methods encourage livestock to stick together making it harder for predators to infiltrate these groups.

by Julia Barton

Gray wolves are formidable predators that often chase their prey to exhaustion before making the kill. Ironically, the same tactic is being used to chase and shoot wolves, among other canids, from helicopters and planes in Idaho as a means of predator control.

Although the Federal Airborne Hunting Act prohibits recreational use of aircraft for hunting across the U.S., a few contingencies allow aerial gunning for depredation on private and public lands.

The Idaho Department of Agriculture authorized more than 20 private contractors to kill canids last year, including an unlimited number of wolves, according to a 2023 agency report. Sixteen wolves, two red foxes and more than 2,000 coyotes were shot and killed in Idaho using aircraft in 2022, according to a report from Wildlife Services, the federal agency tasked with wildlife removal. Aerial gunning was used to eliminate similar numbers of wolves in both Montana and Wyoming that same year, and is practiced in many states to kill thousands of coyotes and hundreds of foxes annually, according to the report.
Aerial gunning is used to eliminate wolves in Idaho as well as Montana and Wyoming, and is practiced in many states to kill thousands of coyotes and hundreds of foxes annually.
The Idaho Wolf Depredation Board approved—and later rescinded—state funding for multiple controversial aerial gunning proposals last October, eliciting the attention of the conservation group Center for Biological Diversity. The center, in collaboration with the Western Watersheds Project and the International Wildlife Coexistence Network, submitted a petition in November to regional U.S. Forest Service administrators urging the practice to be banned on national forest lands. Upwards of 30 conservation organizations have since written in support of the petition, citing various concerns for wolves and other Idaho wildlife.

“From our perspective it’s not the right way to treat ecologically important and intelligent predators,” Collette Adkins, the petition’s primary author, told Mountain Journal. “Some of [the proposals] specifically named federal lands as places where they had planned to do those operations and that's why we decided to try to get the Forest Service to ban this practice.”
Per the 2021 Idaho State Legislature, wolves in the state can be taken for depredation in the same manner as coyotes, a predator with an unlimited bag take, few hunting or trapping regulations, and an allowance for aerial gunning. The Idaho Fish and Game Department has, however, enforced some additional regulations by requiring a hunting license and species-specific tag for wolves, explained department wildlife biologist Katie Oelrich.

Idaho Fish and Game has attempted to put limitations on the “aerial take” of wolves by limiting the practice to private land, Oelrich said. But since the practice is used to mitigate conflict between wolves and livestock, and many ranchers graze their herds on public lands, aerial gunning proposals bleed onto federally managed public acreage.

The petition focuses on the impacts aerial take has in these areas, categorizing impacts into three categories: wildlife, recreational users, and public safety. The strongest argument, according to Adkins, pertains to wildlife protections afforded under the Endangered Species Act, since aircraft activity and gunshots may disturb protected species including grizzly bears and wolverines. Grizzlies are sensitive to the noise from both helicopters and planes, and have been observed fleeing areas within a mile of aircraft, according to research cited in the petition. Aerial gunning occurs most frequently in the winter when bears are denning, and the disturbance may cause bears to abandon their dens. As such, the petition argues that the Forest Service has a duty to protect these endangered species by banning the practice.
“We don't want these agencies to be killing predators, period. But to chase them to exhaustion in an airplane and then shoot them? It's just unimaginably cruel.” – Lizzy Pennock, carnivore coexistence attorney, WildEarth Guardians
“This is just one of many pieces of evidence that shows the states aren't doing a good job of managing wolves,” Adkins said. “They really have this outdated mentality of extermination, and that is exactly why [wolves] got put on the list decades ago, because of that hatred and animosity.”

Each organization that has written in support of the petition represents thousands of members, explained Lizzy Pennock, the carnivore coexistence attorney for WildEarth Guardians, a conservation group among the cosigners. As of this article’s publication, the Forest Service has not acted on the petition, but support from so many organizations helps grab the attention needed for action to be taken, Pennock explained.

“Aerial gunning itself is cruel,” she said. “We don't want these agencies to be killing predators, period. But to chase them to exhaustion in an airplane and then shoot them? It's just unimaginably cruel to do something like that.”

The organizations urge the prioritization of nonlethal methods to deter wolves rather than aerially exterminating them. Effective methods, Pennock said, include using humans on horseback to monitor and deter predators, livestock guardian animals, and low-stress livestock handling, a practice that encourages livestock to stick together, making it harder for predators to pick them off. Idaho Fish and Game does use many varied control methods, including some nonlethal practices, but maintains that removal is still necessary.

“There's this misconception that when we're doing predator management through aerial removal, that it's rampant throughout Idaho and that it's the only wolf-conflict [preventation] tool that we're using,” Oelrich said. “Wildlife damage management is an integrated approach … and which tools apply really depends on the site, how frequent conflict is, social factors, and what's feasible. As a result, the need for aerial removal exists as a predator management tool, but it's not the only one.”

The state wants to support a healthy and sustainable wolf population, just at a “lower level,” according to Oelrich, who believes that the Endangered Species Act is often used in situations like this as a “political football.”

Ultimately it will be up to the Forest Service to determine if aerial gunning will continue on federal lands. As for Idaho private lands, there isn’t a clear legal argument to be made to stop the practice, despite conservation organizations opposing the ethics. According to Adkins, the task for conservationists now is to convince the Forest Service it’s worth their time.

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Mountain Journal is the only nonprofit, public-interest journalism organization of its kind dedicated to covering the wildlife and wild lands of Greater Yellowstone. We take pride in our work, yet to keep bold, independent journalism free, we need your support. Please donate here. Thank you.
Julia Barton
About Julia Barton

Julia Barton is a freelance journalist and communications specialist based out of Bozeman. A Montana native, she earned a journalism degree from the University of Southern California and reports on the environment, outdoor recreation and the arts.
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