For years, animal “rights” groups have fought to keep wolves in the Rocky Mountains protected under the Endangered Species Act. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence that wolf populations in the area far exceed the numbers needed to remove that protection and manage them like any other big game animal, the animal rightists continue to protest controlled, regulated wolf hunting.
One of the arguments that animal “rights” groups have used often in recent years is that there is no evidence that wolf predation causes significant declines in elk populations. In fact, groups like Defenders of Wildlife and the Western Wildlife Conservancy—using data from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation—have recently been asserting that restored wolf populations have somehow translated to growing elk herds in the northern Rockies.
These assertions led to a public statement from RMEF that the anti-hunting groups are misrepresenting their data.
“The theory that wolves haven’t had a significant adverse impact on some elk populations is not accurate. We’ve become all too familiar with these groups’ tactic of cherry-picking select pieces of information to support their own agenda, even when it is misleading,” said David Allen, RMEF president and CEO. “We will not allow that claim to go unchallenged.”
RMEF population data, which come from state wildlife agencies, show that elk populations are expanding the most in areas of the northern Rockies where wolves are not present. However, where elk share habitat with wolves, such as the greater Yellowstone area, some elk populations are declining fast. In fact, since the mid-1990s introduction of gray wolves, the northern Yellowstone elk herd has dropped from about 17,000 to 7,100 animals—a 58 percent decline.
A recently completed survey in Idaho showed an even more accelerated decline—the elk population in the state’s Lolo Zone has declined from 5,110 to 2,178, a 57-percent reduction—just since 2006! The Lolo Elk Management Zone is 1.5 million acres of the Clearwater Region, north and south of the Lochsa River, up to the Montana border.
Additionally, some research shows that Idaho elk remaining in areas of concentrated wolf populations are suffering nutrition loss, lower body weights and decreasing birth rates.
“This survey, combined with ongoing research showing wolves are the primary cause of elk mortality today, is further scientific evidence of the impact wolves are having,” Idaho Fish and Game Director Cal Groen said. “The rate of this decline in just four short years should help people understand there is an urgency to manage for a balance in this area.”
Wolf predation is the major source of mortality on this elk herd and is affecting population size because too few calves are surviving to replace the adults that die each year. Predation is preventing recovery from a decline that began in the late 1980s and a steep decline following the severe winter of 1996-97.
When it comes to wolves or any other game management question, NRA maintains its longstanding position that decisions be based on sound science. We have the science—in addition to a wealth of anecdotal evidence from hunters of the Rocky Mountains—that wolves are taking a drastic toll on elk.
For anti-hunting groups to misuse data from RMEF or anyone else is hardly surprising, but it shows their true colors—and it shows their ignorance of what the wolves themselves need. Wolves reproduce at a rate of about 20 percent a year, and the quotas set by Montana and Idaho in their 2009-2010 wolf seasons were designed to harvest about 20 percent from the existing numbers. So while wolf numbers are at least staying stable, their prey base of elk is declining. Perhaps the animal rights’ groups could tell us what they think happens to a predator when it eventually runs out of prey.