Sunday, June 11, 2006

Wolves vs. elk: 10 years after wolves' return, are Idaho's most controversial predators decimating elk herds?

by Roger Phillips - The Idaho Statesman

Hunters' fears that wolves would decimate elk herds have so far been unproven since the controversial canines were reintroduced into Idaho 11 years ago. Elk hunters have feared wolves would drastically reduce their favorite game animal, and hunters have complained that where they used to find abundant elk herds they now see fewer elk and more wolf sign.

But more than 10 years after the wolves' reintroduction in Idaho, the effect of wolves on elk herds remains unclear — it's more a matter of passion and opinion than clear science. The Idaho Statesman talked to five experts to get their ideas on the subject, but there's no consensus, even among these hunters and wildlife biologists.

Wolves are a handy scapegoat for hunters, and in many cases, they are probably correct. Wolves may have driven the elk from hunters' favorite spots. But statewide elk harvests have remained relatively stable in the past 20 years despite the normal year-to-year fluctuations.

Despite the rapidly growing wolf population, now estimated between 500 and 600, Idaho Department of Fish and Game statistics show 86,342 hunters killed 21,523 elk last year. It was the largest elk harvest in a decade and the seventh-highest on record dating back to 1935. Not a hunter? As wolf packs continue to grow, the outcome will mean more than whether there's elk meat in a hunter's freezer. Elk hunting adds tens of millions of dollars to Idaho's economy.

F&G surveyed hunters in 1996 and found they spent about $105 every day they hunted elk. Each hunter averaged 6.7 days hunting last year, which would put the value of the elk season at more than $60 million. Between 80,000 and 90,000 people participate in elk hunting every fall, second only to deer season. Nonresident elk hunters spent nearly $7.6 million dollars on hunting licenses and elk tags alone last year.

Even without wolves, much has changed in the elk hunting world in the last 20 years. There were regulation changes unrelated to the wolf reintroduction; wildfires that burned hundreds of thousands of acres and improved habitat; mild winters, hard winters, and many other factors that have affected elk herds and how F&G manages them.

"Most changes are due to cumulative effects, not a single factor," F&G wildlife bureau chief Jim Unsworth said. But wolves have remained the most controversial factor in the past decade.

After 29 wolves were released into the remote Central Idaho backcountry in 1995 and 1996, they have flourished and now occupy nearly all the terrain between the Snake River and the Canadian border. That same area also is home to most of Idaho's elk, which are the wolves' favorite prey. In most places, they appear to be coexisting. Elk populations are meeting F&G's objectives in 26 out of 29 of its elk management zones.

Even so, F&G is asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to allow the state to kill wolves in one of the three zones management zones not meeting objectives to see if fewer wolves will benefit struggling elk herds.

F&G's harvest data shows harvests have remained stable, but the percentage of successful elk hunters has declined since wolves were reintroduced. Between 1985 and 1994, the average hunter success rate was 26 percent. Between 1995 and 2004, the average success rate dropped to 22 percent. Elk hunting is now more tightly regulated than it was before wolves were reintroduced. Hunters must now choose one area to hunt, and in many units choose which weapon they use to hunt. In the Boise River Zone, if you hunt with a rifle, you can't hunt with a bow and arrow or muzzleloader, and vice versa.

All of the people who commented for this story had copies of the harvest data.

  • Idaho Statesman