Jim Unsworth Interview

Jim Unsworth has been a biologist with the Idaho Fish and Game Department for almost thirty years. He is currently the deputy director of the agency. This interview was conducted in the summer of 2009.

You have a story about the day wolves were brought into Idaho.
The day they brought them in, I was in the Middle Fork with some other Fish and Game folks. We were counting elk and deer, and we had just finished up for the day, and we were on the Thomas Creek airstrip, and getting ready to head back to the cabin and have dinner. All of a sudden a bunch of fixed wings started landing, and here they were, dropping wolves off. None of us that were there counting elk even knew that this was going to happen. And so, I remember sitting there on the airstrip with some of the guys I was working with, and we’d just spent a week counting –- looking at one of the most remarkable elk herds in the world, and looking at these wolves that they had dropped off.

Jim Unsworth

And as a biologist, I was thinking, Whoa, this will be interesting! I mean, we have an incredibly abundant food source here, and a new top predator, and I wonder what’s going to happen. And we didn’t know if they would disperse and crash or whether they would really take off. So what happened was they really took off. And I guess we should’ve, people should’ve predicted that. But at the time, I think there was a lot of modeling done, and some predictions. I don’t think anyone dreamed that they would be as successful as they have, they would’ve increased distribution as well as they have, or that they would have the impacts that they have had on some elk populations or ungulate populations.

Why have wolves done so well in Idaho?
I think the reason why wolves have done so well is because Fish and Game departments, not just Idaho Fish and Game, but other states too, have done a good job managing deer and elk through the years. We have been, and are, on top of our elk management, and are able to produce quite a few of those animals for our sportsman.

And so wolves did really well because there were lots of animals to take advantage of, and wolves will continue to expand as long as they can keep pioneering into new areas that have healthy ungulate populations.

What do wolves do to the management of elk?
It certainly makes it a lot more challenging to manage elk. You know, you have another top predator that’s taking animals, and in the case of wolves, some people would like you to believe that it’s just the sick and weak, but they’re an opportunistic predator like everything else. They do take the sick and the weak, but they take other animals also. And so you’re adding another level of mortality, and in some of Idaho’s elk herds, we don’t have super productive habitat in much of Idaho, so we don’t crank out bunches and bunches of calves annually.

So wolves can actually have a higher impact on some of our elk herds than they might have in some ranges in Montana, where they’re very productive. Most of Montana elk herds are more similar to our eastern Idaho elk herds, that are quite productive. But many of our herds in the backcountry just don’t produce as many calves annually. It’s just something we deal with. We manage a less productive herd. So, it’s more challenging.

Wolves did really well because there were lots of animals to take advantage of, and wolves will continue to expand as long as they can keep pioneering into new areas that have healthy ungulate populations.

Like the Lolo area?
Yeah, the Lolo zone is one area. We have some habitat issues we’ve acknowledged in years past. And so we have an elk herd that’s not that productive that requires pretty careful management. We haven’t hunted cow elk there for years and years.

We just crop the bulls that we get out of that population. And so then when we’ve added wolves on top of that, the population has been reduced, and they’re bunching in a lower level now. Other herds that we’re pretty concerned about are in the Sawtooths and some of the Salmon River herds. We can manage very carefully for good strong populations, but it makes it more challenging with an extra predator like wolves.

How do the various predators affect elk?
Well, first off, wolves will take animals of all ages and sexes throughout the year. Calves are maybe more vulnerable to bears early on. That’s the predator that takes elk calves. But then after they’re real mobile, just after two or three weeks, then bears aren’t a factor anymore.

A wolf howling

And then they’re with the adults and so wolves are a bigger factor. Mountain lions, they’re a solitary predator that can take any of the age classes also, but they take one animal here and there throughout the year, and they’re maybe less visible and they’re more solitary hunters. Wolves, when you have them in an area, are very visible. They’re in larger packs, and so they impact the herd kind of throughout the year and on all age classes.

They’re a more visible predator than bears or lions, and so hunters react more strongly to wolves because of that fact. When you have a pack of wolves, they’re leaving lots of signs – lots of tracks, lots of scat; their kills are more visible.

We’ve had strong bear and lion populations for years now, and we have a handful of livestock depredations from bears and lions annually. You’d get a big sheep pile up almost every year, but it just wasn’t as common. With wolves, they take advantage of livestock. Livestock depredations have gone through the roof with wolves, where they weren’t as common with bears and lions.

How exactly are you going to manage wolves?
We’re going to manage it carefully. We have, I think, a dozen zones where we’ll have a limit in each zone. As hunters harvest wolves, there’s a mandatory check. They’ll bring them in; we’ll take our measurements, take biological samples from the wolves.

And then as soon as that limit is reached, that zone will be closed. The Commission is going to set harvest at a level that will eventually get to our population objective that they’ve established with Fish and Game’s management plan. So that part has all been real carefully thought out.

How the hunt will actually work on the ground, you know, we won’t know for sure till we do it. But I can make some pretty good predictions on our experience with other hunts. I know that wolves will be more vulnerable in open country where there’s a lot of high road density than they are up north in the timbered country with low road density. We just know that from how we’ve managed elk all these years.

Also, actually that kind of country corresponds with where we have a lot of livestock depredation, so we’re going to be more willing to have more liberal wolf seasons there. If we have to control a wolf through wildlife services taking them to prevent livestock depredation, I would rather see a sportsman have that opportunity and reduce that wolf population and manage it at a lower level where we don’t have those kind of conflicts.

There will be lots of places where we’ll have wolf packs that won’t even see hunters. Something about Idaho that a lot of people don’t know is how much wilderness we have, and how big our country is. It’s unbelievable how much wild country we have that’s roadless. And there will be wolf packs there that live and die and never see hunters. And some of them will be harvested by our outfitted hunters in the backcountry.

Two wolves playing

I guess that’s kind of how I predict the hunt will go. You know, there’s been a lot of experience on wolf hunting in Alaska and Alberta, British Columbia. It’s interesting, I was just in Canada doing some grizzly bear work here a couple of months ago, and British Columbia has wolf seasons just across the border. You can harvest two wolves year round in a season, below 3,000 meters and then two other wolves in other parts of the province. It’s year round season; trapping’s okay.

A lot of folks miss the point that wolves are very productive, and they’re very intelligent. And sportsman probably won’t take as many or have the impact a lot of people are predicting. You can manage actually pretty liberal with wolves compared to other wildlife just because they’re so productive.

And we’ll track things very closely. The way it works is, you know, wildlife science isn’t a perfect science. We can’t control all the variables and we have to do our estimates annually with aerial surveys or whatever. We put a hunt out there and monitor it very closely, and then we kind of have to wait annually, reevaluate and see what happened.

I think they miss the people part of this whole equation. They miss the impact that these wolves are having just on local guys wanting to go out, recreate and feed their family for the winter.

We’ll have this hunt, we’ll estimate the wolf populations at the end of year, look at our elk and deer populations also, and decide where we’re at. Wolves are going to make us better deer and elk managers because it’s another mortality factor that we have to account for. It was easier from a manager’s standpoint when the only mortality on antlerless elk or calf elk was from hunters. We could control it; we could offer so many control permits. Now we have another hunter out there if you will, or predator out there that’s taking a bunch more elk that’s out of our control, so we have to do more estimation to do good management.

But that’s how we’ll do it. You know, we have a lot of experience doing that. Looking at things at the end of the year, determining what worked and what didn’t and how we can then manipulate populations to match up with what hunters and the people of Idaho want.

Do you think the wolves brought into the state are the same kind of wolves that used to be here?
Well, the information I have indicates that a wolf is a wolf is a wolf, kind of, and there are different local, I guess strains or subspecies if you will, that can vary in size.

Wolves are continuous now from Idaho clear to Alaska. And I’m sure in some areas, they are much bigger. The wolves that are here will, I think size out, grade out if you will, depending on their food supply. Right now, when they’re just reintroduced, it’s obviously a good time for wolves. They’re having high reproductive rates. They’re going to have prime physical condition, and they will probably be at a size now that they may not be in the future, if things change in terms of their prey base. And so, you know, people talk about the Canadian gray wolf as being somewhat different. I don’t think that there’s much fact in that.

Does the wolf help to make the case that Fish and Game should be funded by more than just sportsmen?
I certainly think that you could make that argument. The Fish and Game Department manages lots of species that aren’t hunted or fished and also they have a high value for the people of Idaho. And I think a lot of folks would agree that maybe the general public should share in those management costs.

Right now the overwhelming lion’s share of funds comes from sportsmen. And, you know, sometimes we’re criticized because we manage for sportsman, but, just a reality check, that’s who is paying our bills. That’s who is paying our paycheck and who is paying for the management.

In the future should there be general funds?
Yes, I think so. We do a lot of things for the general public. Our enforcement guys are often times working side by side with county sheriffs. They’re the only law enforcement in some rural areas. We do a lot of working with planning and zoning with Idaho Department of Transportation on highway projects. Lot’s of things that ensure that there’s going to be wildlife and abundant wildlife, not only hunted and fished wildlife, but all wildlife in Idaho. We do that for the general public and it’s part of our mandate. We’re to preserve, protect and perpetuate all wildlife in the state of Idaho. And a big part of that is for hunting and fishing, but we also do it for the general good.

Do you ever remember a hotter issue than wolf re-introduction?
I can tell you in my career, which is getting close to 30 years with Idaho, it’s certainly the hottest issue that I’ve worked with, and the most polarizing. And it has a lot of facets. It’s not just the biology. I think if wolves had been reintroduced into the state of Idaho, the Fish and Game Department could’ve starting managing in 2002 when we reached biological objectives of the Fish and Wildlife Service, maybe things would be a lot better now. People would have more confidence in our ability to manage them.

I think that for folks in Idaho and our sportsman in particular, it was as much, or it has been as much that they feel like something was done to them that they didn’t want and they didn’t ask for. And then when they think it was time for, okay, it happened, you did it, now it’s time for us to be involved and to manage these animals, they’ve been denied that all these years and so they’re frustrated. They’re frustrated with folks that will use the court system to deny that kind of practical management. And so yeah, it’s been really interesting.

Also, in the mid 90s we had this amazing elk herd. We still have an amazing elk herd. But it’s different, you know, the animals are not distributed the same. They’re more difficult to hunt. And in some areas they’ve been impacted and populations are lower. If that happened on your favorite mountain where you’ve shot an elk every year for five or six years, you’re mad.

Elk is such an important part of the fabric of our life, for lots of people. That’s where they get their winter’s food. A lot of people don’t understand that, that are back east watching. They like the idea of wolves, and how everything’s happening out here, but I think they miss the people part of this whole equation. They miss the impact that these wolves are having just on local guys wanting to go out, recreate and feed their family for the winter. People miss that. So, yeah, it’s polarizing. It’s been a tough issue.

What do you tell hunters?
I say, hang in there, we’re going to get there eventually, and we’re going to manage wolves. And I think that we are going to see different kinds of elk herds in some places, because I don’t think that hunter harvest of wolves will reduce their populations to the point where we’ll have the size of elk herds that we once had. And so, I try to be just upfront and very honest with guys. They’re going to have to maybe be a little bit more mobile, have to move around a little bit more.

Hunters get kind of locked in. They get their traditional camp where they set up their camp every single year, and their grandpa and dad are there, and dad has his tree he likes to sit under on opening morning and stuff. Sometimes you aren’t going to be able to do that. You’re going to have to be a little bit more mobile. You’re going to have to spread out and look in drainages. If you see wolf sign, lots of wolf sign, you may have to move a drainage or two. You‘ll probably have to hunt in darker timber and north slopes, west slopes, places where there have always been elk . The places you didn’t go before because it was too tough.

So it’s going to be tougher for hunters?
It’s going to be tougher. It will be tougher in some areas, but not everywhere, though. And so that’s the thing I tell hunters more than anything else. I hate to say it, but you’re going to have to be a little more flexible maybe and try some little bit different areas. Even if you want to go to your same areas, you’ll maybe have to try little different strategies and tactics.

What will be the impact of wolves on other animals?
We see some impacts on other predators. Certainly lion densities have decreased in some areas. Lions will get chased off their kills by wolf packs. That happens, we know. I think that you’ll see maybe more niche definition, that’s a good biological word. You see lions using habitats that are rockier, that work better for their stalking kind of strategy. Cliffy country, maybe more timber.

You’ll see wolves working in more open country where they’re a coursing predator; they can chase and move animals across the hillside. So you’ll see changes in the distribution. Bears, of course, they’re such an opportunist. They really only have a good opportunity for the first two or three weeks of an ungulate’s life. After that, unless they really get lucky, they don’t have much of an impact. They move on to other things.

In some areas coyote density has dropped with wolves. We see some areas that seem to have a little bit greater mule deer populations with wolves, lower elk populations. So there can be a lot of switching that goes on. You know, if you have fewer coyotes – coyotes are a real good deer fawn predator -- we may end up having a few more deer in some areas. It’s a real dynamic.

That’s the thing I tell hunters more than anything else. I hate to say it, but you’re going to have to be a little more flexible maybe and try some little bit different areas.

I guess if I have a frustration with either wolf people, even sometimes with our hunters, is people always expect things to stay the same. And if you talk to people, they say it’s the same as it was 50 years ago; well, it’s not. It’s different today than it was yesterday. But over time, lots of things change and it’s a real dynamic world we live in. And some populations will do wonderfully and others will decline. The trick is to keep them all present, and so that you can see the dynamic, see them reacting to their habitat, see them under all sorts of situations. See them after a fire or after the trees have gotten big. You know, I mean, things don’t disappear; they just become less abundant or more abundant unless we really muck things up. And then they disappear.

Critics suggest the Legislature won’t let Fish and Game do what the biologists need to do.
The Idaho Legislature, they’re representing their constituents. I was born in Idaho, you know. People are concerned and they see things from their perspective. So, I don’t know, it’s just Idaho.

If we were real successful in harvesting wolves in some real open country, maybe there will be a point when we’ll want to increase a wolf population. That’s another thing that people miss, is that the biggest champion of mountain lions are mountain lion hunters. The biggest champion of black bears are black bear hunters. Our guys specialize; they get interested in stuff.

There’s going to be guys who get interested in wolf hunting like it’s the ultimate for them. I’ve already had guys who call me from Georgia and North Carolina wanting to know when they can come out and hunt wolves, because they’re kind of predator specialists. It’s what they love to do. Those folks – and maybe someday down the road after my career – there will be some of those hunters that will want us to manage for more wolves in some of those areas because it gives them more hunting opportunity, and opportunity to appreciate an animal that they like to pursue. It’s not right now, but sometime in the future there will.

So are you enjoying all this?
Oh, it is exciting; it’s fascinating. You know, when I talk about our changing environment and the whole suite of prey and predators – it’s fascinating. At the same time I realize that we selectively manage for some things over others. We selectively manage to have lots of deer, lots of elk, where we can. Other critters that our sportsman who are paying for our programs want. I’m not ashamed of that one bit. I’m very proud of that. But it’s exciting just to watch too. But you can’t sit back and watch.

We have a million and a half people in Idaho. We have people who are making a living on Idaho rangelands. Their interests need to be thought of and protected. So there’s a human element in all of this. I definitely don’t think humans are here to watch. I think we’re here to actively be involved in management and also to be involved in our recreation, our pursuit of wild things. So, you know, it’s crazy to think we’re not a part of that.