How many wolves roam Idaho is a question that for decades has been a best-guess affair.
Official numbers estimated the total at approximately 835 wolves in 94 packs and 49 breeding pairs. The figure, extrapolated from data in 2009 is based on computer models and has been used by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game for more than a decade, although unofficial estimates put Idaho's wolf population at more than 1,000 animals, according to the state.
For the past several years however, an IDFG project that uses hunter game cameras to find animals has been deployed to count wolves and other species in Idaho.
The project was bolstered this spring with a 90-day effort to focus on just one species: canis lupus.
Biologists and technicians used wolf rendezvous sites, predictable wolf habitat and historical information collected from collared wolves to deploy more than 800 game cameras throughout the state. The cameras are expected to result in millions of pictures, which will be analyzed using software to count wolves.
In the Panhandle, a portion of those cameras were placed in units 1, 2, 4, 4A and 6, biologist Kara Campbell of Coeur d'Alene said.
"We got slightly less than 145 cameras," Campbell said.
The cameras were strapped, for the most part, to trees 8 to 10 feet above the ground and started shooting images July 1. They will be collected by early October.
"They are typically on a trail, or a lightly used road, not at eye level," Campbell said.
Since 35 wolves were introduced beginning in 1995 to Idaho's midsection, the species has spread from Idaho to western Washington and Oregon. The federal government's Idaho recovery level of 10 pairs that bred successfully for three consecutive years was reached more than a decade ago, and wolves were last collared in the state in 2015.
Before retiring early this year, Jim Hayden, the state's former wolf biologist said Idaho wolves these days populate every available pocket of habitat suitable for the species.
Although the trail camera project will not document every wolf in the state, it will update long-standing figures with new estimates, Campbell said.
"We're going to generate a better estimate with these cameras," she said. "We're going to have a better idea of what there is, based on what we have currently."
Biologists in the past tracked collared wolves to packs, and pack sizes were used to determine a statewide population, Brian Pearson of IDFG said. Biologists counted wolves in individual packs from aircraft or on the ground during early winter, and used that information to calculate an average pack size.
As part of its wolf management plan, the department until three years ago was required to track radio collared wolves to show there were more than 15 breeding pairs in that state and more than 150 total wolves.
"This kind of monitoring was really targeted at federal Endangered Species Act recovery goals. That's why we were doing that," Fish and Game Wildlife Research Manager Mark Hurley said. "That sort of effort works with very small populations."
As Idaho's wolf population burgeoned, it became apparent that new techniques must be developed for better population estimates. Although placing cameras was labor intensive, the department thinks the cameras will prove more cost effective in the long run.
Monitoring used to cost about $750,000 per year, with a large portion coming from federal funding, Boudreau said.
The software IDFG plans to employ can distinguish between animal species, Campbell said.
"It filters out photos that are blank and photos that have animals in them,"she said.
Sifting through millions of images will be labor intensive, Pearson said, but IDFG hopes to early next year have the most robust and accurate count of wolves in Idaho to date.