While Montana and Idaho actually initiated conservative, tightly controlled wolf hunting seasons this year—after years of needless controversy—animal rights’ groups still hope to find ways to scuttle the hunts and get wolves put back on the Endangered Species List. Defenders of Wildlife, for example, has more than 92,000 signatures on an online petition to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, urging him to restore federal protection for wolves.
Among the points of contention that will come up in continued wolf debate is vehement disagreement over how significant wolf predation is on elk.
Those who support regulated wolf hunting say that increasing wolf populations are driving elk numbers down significantly, at least in some areas, reducing herds and resulting in lost opportunities for elk hunters, guides and outfitters. (Fewer elk hunters also means less revenue for the state game and fish departments, which are losing the license fees elk hunters would otherwise pay.)
Residents of the Rocky Mountains have a lot of first-hand evidence regarding the toll wolves take on elk. Every now and then, people actually see it take place, or else they find the gruesome aftermath. (Visit www.saveourelk.com.) Others, like Idaho resident James Lewis, can tell you, “Since the introduction of wolves I can hunt for an entire week and see maybe 3-8 elk—where we once saw up to 300 a day.”
“Nobody denies wolves kill elk,” the antis bellow, “the question is, are wolves taking a significant, scientifically documented, toll on elk? Enough of a toll that it somehow justifies reducing wolf numbers?”
Anti-hunters will soon be pointing gleefully to a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota that found a wolf’s predatory ability peaks at about two or three years old and erodes significantly thereafter. So, they will tell us, the wolf’s affect on elk is less than we might believe.
Yet another recent study, however, showed that the mere presence of wolves, regardless of their age, can drive down elk numbers significantly—even without direct predation.
The study found that wolves cause elk to switch from grazing in open meadows to browsing woody plants in heavily forested areas where they retreat for safety. According to the study, that means elk living near wolves eat 27 percent less food than elk living far from wolves, which results in weight loss, starvation and ultimately lower calving rates.
“Elk hunted regularly by wolves are essentially starving faster than those not hunted by wolves,” said Scott Creel, ecology professor at Montana State University and lead author of the study. In the three years prior to wolf reintroduction in Greater Yellowstone (the site of the study) in 1995, elk numbered between 17,000 and 19,000. But from 2004-2007, elk counts declined to between 6,738 and 6,279.
“This research shows that the total effect of a predator on prey numbers can be larger than one would determine simply by looking at the number that are killed,” Creel said. “Until now, it would have seemed obvious to conclude that a herd losing many of its numbers to predators would decline faster than a herd where predators were less successful. However, now it is conceivable that the herd with the lower direct predation rate could decline faster, if it spends more of its time and energy avoiding being eaten and less on reproduction,” Creel concluded.
Let me hasten to add that proof of wolves’ toll on elk, whether through direct predation or because they lead to lower calving success, is not a signal to “exterminate wolves,” as animal rights’ groups continue to label any statement that advocates a managed wolf season. Nor does it attempt to hide the fact that a number of other factors affect elk populations, too—deep snow, disease, other predators, drought and habitat loss can all come into play.
There are plenty of good reasons to hunt wolves besides the fact that they take a significant toll on elk—but the fact is they do.