(Editor’s note: Among hunters, few topics elicit more passion than predators — and, in the West, no predator has caused more concern among hunters than wolves. Ten years after their re-introduction to Idaho, we asked Western Correspondent Dale Toweill to bring Hunting Report readers up to date on the current status of wolves and their effects on hunting. Dr. Toweill is author and editor of North American Elk: Ecology and Management and an expert on wildlife management.)
In September 2005, 10 years after the re-introduction of wolves to central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park, wolf populations continue to expand at a rate of more than 10 percent per year. The wolf population in the Northern Rocky Mountains is currently estimated to include over 900 wolves: 166 in Montana, 525 in Idaho and 221 in Wyoming (http://westerngraywolf.fws.gov).
The original recovery plan goal was to achieve a minimum of 30 breeding pairs of wolves more or less equally distributed among the three-state region over a period of three years. At that point, if the three states had developed and submitted plans for wolf management that assured future survival of wolf populations, the Fish and Wildlife Service would find the species "recovered" and would de-list wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains, transferring management authority to the respective state wildlife management agencies who would, by hunting and other means, manage the wolf population to keep it from burgeoning out of control.
By the Fish and Wildlife Service’s own admission (Federal Register Vol. 70, No. 4, page 1288), the third successive year that the wolf population had exceeded recovery goals was 2002. Currently, there are 18 breeding pairs (six with more than two pups each) in the southern Montana recovery area, plus an additional 18 breeding pairs (nine with more than two pups) in northern Montana. In Idaho, there are at least 53 pairs (35 with two or more pups, and many groups where the number of pups is unknown). Wyoming has no less than 22 breeding pairs (13 with two or more pups). So, what went wrong with de-listing plans?
In 1994, when the federal government (specifically, the US Fish and Wildlife Service) announced plans to re-introduce wolves into the northern Rocky Mountains, local opposition to wolf re-introduction was often both fierce and vocal. Many legislators in each of the three affected states were opposed to wolf reintroduction. Their concerns generally fell into four categories: (1) concerns by livestock owners about the impact of wolves on their livestock; (2) concerns by hunters about the impacts of wolves on resident wildlife, particularly elk and deer; (3) concern by local citizens about human health and safety; (4) financial impacts on state budgets. Direct financial impacts included the cost of programs to investigate complaints of wolves harassing and killing livestock, paying compensation to livestock owners for domestic animals killed by wolves and costs of administering a wolf management program that included regular monitoring of wolf populations (an extremely costly program, required to meet federal information needs). Indirect costs included license and tag sale losses associated with declines in sale of state hunting licenses and elk and deer tags.
Legislators were well aware that, although wolf re-introduction was funded from the federal treasury using US taxpayer dollars under provisions of the Endangered Species Act, once wolf populations were no longer endangered the Act would no longer apply — and states could be stuck with perpetual multi-million-dollar programs associated with wolf recovery. Despite state concerns, 15 wolves were released into central Idaho and 14 wolves were released into Yellowstone National Park in 1995; an additional 20 wolves were released in central Idaho and 17 wolves were released in Yellowstone National Park in 1996.
The Fish and Wildlife Service established boundaries for two "non-essential experimental populations" of wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains — one in Idaho and the other centered on Yellowstone National Park in northwestern Wyoming (which also includes portions of southern Montana and eastern Idaho). Re-introduced wolves were classified as "non-essential" and "experimental populations" to minimize restrictions on land use and maximize management flexibility in dealing with growing wolf populations. None of these measures reassured the affected states, and it took some time for states to develop wolf management plans. In fact, the Idaho legislature initially blocked the Idaho Department of Fish and Game from any involvement in wolf re-introduction or monitoring, and the Wyoming legislature declared wolves as predators to be shot on sight outside of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park.
All three states did finally complete wolf management plans, Idaho and Montana in 2002 and Wyoming in 2003. While Idaho and Montana agreed to identify the wolf as a game animal statewide after delisting, Wyoming agreed only to list the wolf as a game animal in a buffer strip around Yellowstone National Park, and as a predator without legal protection outside this boundary. (The plans and associated information are available online. To view the Idaho plan, go to http://fishgame.idaho.gov and click on "Fish/Wildlife" and then the link to "Wolf Management Plan"; Mon- tana’s plan may be viewed at http://fwp.state.mt.us by following links to "Wild Things" and "Threatened and Endangered Species" to "Montana Wolf Management;" and Wyoming’s petition and associated information may be found at http://gf.state.wy.us by following links "In the News" to "Wolf Delisting Petition Approved at July Meeting").
While the Fish and Wildlife Service found the Idaho and Montana plans acceptable, it rejected Wyoming’s plan. In response, the State of Wyoming filed a petition to remove the wolf from protection under the Endangered Species Act (and therefore from federal jurisdiction) on June 28, 2005.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has refused to allow any of the three states to manage their wolves until all states comply, as a way of applying political pressure on the state of Wyoming to accept wolves as game animals statewide. The status of wolves is a critical issue, since legal status of "game animal" means that control can be effectively focused only where wolves have already become well established, while "predator" status allows states to effectively stop wolves from immigrating into areas where they’re not wanted. Legal action continues, and eventual delisting is bound up in future court action.
Some progress has been made. Programs for investigating livestock losses are in place, featuring Fish and Wildlife Service personnel (assisted, in Montana and Idaho, with state wildlife personnel). Livestock owners are reimbursed (with private funds) when wolves have been found responsible for livestock losses. Livestock loss payments have been less than predicted (although some livestock owners argue that many animals are never found, and therefore, the losses of livestock to wolves are under-represented and owners are under-compensated). In addition, the definition of livestock has been expanded to include such species as llamas and dogs (wolves routinely kill domestic dogs, including hounds used by hunters to pursue black bears, mountain lions and bobcats). Revisions to the so-called "10j Rule" ease a number of issues involving legal compliance with federal regulations, and more particularly, make it easier for livestock owners to harass or kill problem wolves (or have federal officials remove entire packs when appropriate). But these provisions apply only in Idaho and Montana, states with approved wolf management plans. Some problems remain. Requirements to protect wolves prevent many livestock owners from managing coyotes, and losses due to coyotes are not reimbursed.
Impacts to wildlife and hunters are more difficult to assess. Many hunters report that elk and deer, formerly abundant in their favorite hunting areas, are completely gone from some areas. Biologists who manage elk and deer herds have found the reduction in elk and deer is often the result of a change in behavior of game animals such as elk. Without wolves, elk and other game animals could (and did) associate in large groups where the feed was best. Since wolf populations have been restored, however, the survivors quickly learned to avoid wolves, and that typically means (for elk at least) associating in smaller groups, on steeper or more heavily-forested areas and leaving areas when wolves are present, returning only after the wolves move elsewhere.
Although most hunters are convinced that elk and deer populations have declined, irrefutable evidence of population declines among free-ranging wild elk and deer is devilishly difficult to obtain. Individual animals are rarely marked and aerial surveys show only the distribution at a single point in time. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game has recently initiated a hugely expensive research project, funded in large part by the Idaho legislature, which involves tracking 300 elk and 300 deer across 15 big game management units to assess wolf impacts on elk and deer herds.
As might be expected, Wyoming has developed some of the most complete information on the impact of wolves on native wildlife, based on long-term studies of wolves in and around Yellowstone National Park, presented as a part of their recent petition. The information presented indicates that, while elk and moose populations outside of areas with wolves have remained more or less constant in size over the past decade, herds in areas where wolves were restored have declined (some dramatically).
Particularly noticeable were declines in the percentage of elk calves in affected herds, which have declined by 24 to 30 percent (elk calf recruitment has varied plus-or-minus 10 percent in comparable herds where no wolves exist).
Wyoming officials estimate that reduced elk calf recruitment has reduced elk herd productivity and the number of hunter-harvestable elk, reducing sales of elk tags in those herds and costing the Department of Game and Fish at least $225,000 in sales annually. Losses associated with the reduction of hunters may have cost local communities at least $2.9 million annually in lost revenue. Those losses are expected to escalate as wolf numbers increase.
Declines in moose herds were even more dramatic than those of elk. While moose populations where no wolves were present have remained static in numbers, moose populations have declined in the Jackson and Targhee areas by 40 percent, and in the Sublette area by 25 percent, since 1990. Critics contend that other factors — habitat change and disease — account for the observed decline, and it is likely that those factors and others have played a role in some areas.
Data from Yellowstone National Park, where hunting is not allowed, appears to indicate that as wolf populations increased, the northern elk herds were displaced or reduced. Over time, wolf numbers seem to have stabilized, as the elk kill rate declined about 40 percent, from 1.8 elk per wolf per month during the period 1995-2000 to 1.1 elk per wolf per month in 2001-2004 (information from the 2004 Annual Report of the Yellowstone Wolf Project).
Wolf experts agree that wolf population growth in all three states is likely to slow dramatically in the coming few years. Wolves have rapidly occupied available wilderness and national park areas, and control efforts are removing an increasing number of individuals and even packs as they attempt to establish in national forests and on private lands where they come into conflict with livestock owners and others.
So, what does the future hold for hunters? Clearly, at this point, it is evident that wolves will be a factor in the northern Rockies for the foreseeable future. Hunters seeking elk and deer will probably have to hunt harder to locate game, poking into heavily-forested areas and rougher terrain. Hunters may also need to become more flexible, re-locating to avoid areas where wolves are present, which will (and has) reduced the success of some outfitting and guiding operations, as well as hunters accustomed to hunting from traditional camps.
There will be hunting seasons for wolves, almost as soon as wolves are de-listed and management authority is transferred to the individual states. The first will no doubt be controlled hunts, where hunters apply for a permit good only in a specified area – a way to allow hunters to aid the states in removing wolves from marginal areas where they have caused (or are likely to cause) trouble, as well as helping cap populations in other areas where wolf impacts on game herds may be a particular concern. The first few years, while wolves are naïve, success rates may be high, but experience from elsewhere seems to indicate that wolves will quickly become so secretive that sporthunting will have little or no impact on wolf populations.
Until wolves are de-listed, hunters can expect to have wolf encounters. Most will likely consist of hearing wolves howling at night, but some will experience wolves up close, possibly threatening pack-stock and hunting dogs. Hunters who want to avoid those problems will have to keep their animals close. After de-listing, those problems will likely decline. All of the wolves originally transplanted are now dead, and none of the wolves in the three-state area has ever been hunted (except for those selectively removed by federal agents because of unacceptable depredations). None have any reason to fear humans until wolf hunting is restored.
The bottom line is, the northern Rockies have become a substantially different place because of wolves, for better and for worse, both wilder and more unpredictable. The behavior of big game herds has been and will continue to be affected. Populations of big game animals, especially elk and moose, may be reduced in some areas. That may not be a bad thing, even for hunters, because although hunters may have to work a little harder to find game, reduced populations may result in less pressure on key food plants, producing bigger, healthier survivors. This country has begun an extremely complex experiment, the outcome of which depends on far more factors than can be predicted or easily monitored … and like it or not, hunters are along for the ride.
Wolf reintroduction has been a howling success for proponents, but it does not mean the end of hunting. Elk, deer, moose and other big game animals will continue to provide hunting opportunity, and wolves will join the list of huntable big game animals. Hunters (and outfitters and guides) will have to hunt harder and longer in some areas; the days of abundant game standing around in meadows without a care are history. The northern Rocky Mountains have changed because of wolf reintroduction; wildlife has become wilder, more unpredictable, and wildlife management more complex and difficult. De-listing of wolves and transfer of management authority to state wildlife management agencies is a necessary first step toward a future that includes hunters and hunting in the northern Rockies. – Dale Toweill.
(Don Causey Note: Have you had personal experiences with wolves out West that make you think this article understates the threat they pose to hunting? Do you simply have a strong opinion about wolves? Well, send me your comments, and I will post them on our web site, in a new forum I’ve created called, "The ‘Real Skinny’ On Wolves and Western Hunting?" You can e-mail your comments to me at: doncausey @msn.com. Or, you can post them directly to the new forum by going to www.huntingreport.com. Click on, "The ‘Real Skinny’ On Wolves and Western Hunting." You can also fax your comments to: 305-670-1376. Or, mail them to: The Hunting Report, 9300 South Dadeland Blvd., Suite 605, Miami, FL 33156.)