Wolves continue to thrive as elk numbers drop. And the elk hunting game has changed as a result.
Over the past several years I've written about the growing numbers of wolves in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming; the impact of wolves on elk; and the lack of wolf management. When states petitioned to get wolves removed from the endangered species listing so that the states could manage growing packs, animal-rightists predicted that wolves would be eliminated. One group went so far as to predict extermination, perhaps using such extreme language to cajole more donations from well-meaning but misinformed citizens.
The April 2, 2010, online issue of The Outdoor Wire outlined the facts on the hunts.
Idaho had set a harvest quota of 220 wolves, and hunters in that state killed 185, or about 26 percent of the state's estimated population of 850 wolves. Montana set a quota of 75 wolves, and hunters killed 72, or 14 percent, of the estimated pre-hunt population -- and this occurred after the 2009 wolf population growth of 18 percent. In truth, then, the number of wolves killed in the "management" hunts hasn't even equaled the average 20 percent reproduction increase that occurs in the Northwest. Given these facts, the term "exterminate" is more than a little misleading.
Meanwhile, wolves are hammering elk in some areas such as Idaho's Lolo Zone, where elk numbers have dropped from 16,000 to 2,000 in recent years. Habitat loss is part of the reason, but wolves have taken more than their share.
Various factions continue to debate the impact of wolves on elk, and the best assessment I could find on this situation comes from elk biologists in Montana. You can read the results of their study regarding the impact of wolves and other predators on elk numbers (and I strongly encourage you to do so) by going to www.fwp.mt.gov/wildthings/wolf/game.html. This report basically shows that when hunter numbers are stable and habitat and weather conditions stay the same, high numbers of wolves, mountain lions, and bears have a major effect on elk numbers. When these predator numbers are low, elk do well. In one of the best elk habitat areas in the country (northwest of Yellowstone Park), elk numbers in the past three years have dropped 30 percent a year, and elk hunting there is all but gone. Indeed, in some elk areas, wolves take more elk than hunters do.
Most biologists feel that wolf harvests need to double if elk herds are to remain stable. Things have gotten so bad that in some areas of the Northwest, outfitters no longer take elk hunters. When wolf numbers are kept at reasonable numbers, elk do okay. Studies indicate that elk may be changing migration patterns in response to wolves. They may also be reducing herd size, again because of wolves. No question, the wolves have changed the elk, making the hunter's job a bit harder. Where wolves and elk overlap, the hunting game has changed, and hunters must adapt.
However, there is no question that certain areas of the Northwest have too many wolves. Overall, wolf numbers are higher than the targets set when they were introduced and protected, yet groups such as Defenders of Wildlife continue to cry "wolf!" All this has stimulated the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) to publicly challenge the "mischaracterizations (of animal-rights groups) of the real impacts of wolves in the northern Rockies" (quote from the April 9 The Outdoor Wire). You can read the RMEF letter on this topic at www.rmef.org. This letter is must-read material considering the fact that animal-rightists want the "endangered" wolf protected, but the wolf is not listed as an endangered species. This is just another example of what happens when emotion and politics derail informed wildlife management.