While some Wyoming legislators, hunters, and ranchers claim that wolves are decimating the state’s elk herds, analysis of the facts tells a different story. Prior to the reintroduction of wolves into the Greater Yellowstone area during 1995 and 1996, some pessimists predicted that following wolf recovery, Wyoming’s abundant elk herds and popular elk hunting would be things of the past.
In contrast, many wildlife biologists — who had a better grasp of predator-prey relationships — predicted that after wolves recovered, elk distribution and behavior might fluctuate in some herds, but that elk numbers would be largely unaffected. Now, wolf and elk population monitoring studies indicate that the wildlife biologists’ predictions were more accurate than the darker forecasts of the anti-wolf pessimists.
Many things kill Wyoming elk. Human hunters, animal predators, disease, too little or too much precipitation, hard winters, and poor forage all help determine which elk live and which die. Other things — auto-elk collisions, spring floods, lightning, fences, culling of diseased elk, and poaching — also take a toll. The risks to elk seem daunting at times, and the odds of an elk dying of old age are slim.
How many elk are in Wyoming and how many do we want? Through a public process taking into consideration many factors, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department sets objectives for the state elk population. The department weighs factors such as forage availability, winter range, and hunter demand. Other factors with greater weight, such as landowners’ desires and political wishes, are also considered. Game and Fish wildlife biologists annually compare elk populations against the population objectives in order to determine proper management strategies. If elk numbers are declining from the population objective, wildlife managers rummage in their “elk population tool box” for appropriate tools to fix the problem. For example, they may need fewer hunters and more habitat improvement projects. If elk numbers are increasing too much above the herd objective, wildlife managers may increase hunting opportunities by issuing more hunting licenses, lengthening hunting seasons, or instituting hunter access programs that facilitate elk harvest.
Each year Wyoming wildlife biologists collect data from elk herds and elk hunting seasons in order to gauge trends. Elk data from the state’s 35 elk herds and eight management districts are compiled in Wyoming Fish and Game Department annual reports that show the big picture of Wyoming elk populations. Interestingly, the annual reports’ data tell a far different story about Wyoming elk numbers and elk hunting opportunities than is often heard in coffee shops, from bar stools, and at the state legislature.
Nearly three decades of Wyoming elk data taken from the department’s annual reports show that the elk population, number of elk harvested, and elk hunter success rates have steadily increased both before and after wolf reintroduction. During this time, the number of elk hunting licenses sold each year has slightly decreased. This means that Wyoming has more elk today than thirty years ago, with about the same number of hunters killing more elk.
According to the 2008 Game and Fish Annual Report, the 2007 state elk population objective was 83,140 animals. The estimated Wyoming elk population was calculated from only 27 of 35 elk herds at 94,936 animals (population estimates for the other eight herd units are not available in the report or from the department). Even with eight herd units missing from the count, the 2007 Wyoming elk population was 14 percent above the target population objective, according to the annual report.
“The Department continues to manage for a reduction in Wyoming’s elk population,” the report states, noting that “overall, management strategies will continue to focus on decreasing the statewide population. However, some herds are at objective and will be managed for their current numbers.” (WGFD, 2008 Annual Report, p. A-2.)
**Click on each of these above charts to view the full-sized .pdf file.
*Source Wyoming Game and Fish Department Annual Reports.
(1) Statewide elk population was calculated from 27 of 35 elk herds; 8 herd populations unavailable
(2) Statewide elk population was calculated from 29 of 35 elk herds; 6 herd populations unavailable.
(3) Statewide elk population was calculated from 28 of 35 elk herds; 7 herd populations unavailable.
(4) Statewide elk population was calculated from 28 of 35 elk herds; 7 herd populations unavailable.
(5) Statewide elk population was calculated from 27 of 35 elk herds; 8 herd populations unavailable.
Note: 2003-07 elk population estimates are below actual numbers.
Wyoming has never been a state to let science or facts get in the way of culture, custom, and wishful thinking. Our 1880s-era political system is based on a one cow, one vote premise, and change comes hard.
In an e-mail exchange with WyoFile during the 2009 legislative session, Wyoming State Rep. Pat Childers (R-Park), chairman of the Travel, Recreation, and Wildlife Committee, stated his opinion that wolves are bad for elk.
“As for wolves and elks [sic], I have had two reports from the Wyoming Game & Fish presented to me that clearly show that the wolves are impacting the ungulate [sic] of the elk herds,” Childers wrote. “While the populations of those herds have not currently decreased, the study shows that the populations of the herds will soon be reduced to an alarming low level because the loss of ungulate [sic] will result in less animals.”
An “ungulate” is a hoofed mammal; it’s unclear what Chairman Childers thinks it is.
The Game and Fish department’s Absaroka Elk Study that Chairman Childers cites clearly shows that elk numbers have been well above the Clark’s Fork herd objective since 1992, throughout the entire wolf recovery period. What Childers thinks would reduce the elk to alarmingly low levels is not clear, but herd reduction appears to be the intended goal of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department order to manage the elk at or near the herd’s population objective. (Absaroka Elk Ecology Project, 2008 update. WYGFD, UW, and USFWS.)
All elk populations do not respond identically to sharing landscape with wolves, a new report from Montana suggests. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and Montana State University researchers spent the past seven years monitoring elk populations and behavior in southwestern Montana. Their study shows that elk numbers in some areas dropped, mostly due to the loss of elk calves to wolves and grizzly bears. But in other Montana areas, elk numbers increased while hunter-harvests of elk decreased, with little apparent influence by local wolf packs on elk numbers.
“One-size-fits-all explanations of wolf-elk interactions across large landscapes do not seem to exist,” said Justin Gude, chief of Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife research in Helena. He noted that the study also found that “calves with higher gamma globulin levels, a possible indicator of superior condition, survived better than those with lower levels, demonstrating that environmental factors are also important contributing factors to predation and survival with Yellowstone elk calves.”
How big a bite do predators take out of elk herds? Since wolf restoration in Greater Yellowstone, some people assumed the wolves would be the main cause of elk calf mortality. So from 2003 to 2005 the U.S. Geological Survey, Yellowstone National Park, and the University of Minnesota conducted an elk calf mortality study to answer the question of who’s eating what. The study showed that wolves accounted for about 12 percent of newborn calf deaths, while grizzly and black bears caused about 69 percent of recorded deaths, and coyotes killed 11 percent. wolf hunting
(Elk Calf Survival and Mortality Following Wolf Restoration to Yellowstone National Park, Shannon M. Barber-Meyer, L. David Mech, and P. J. White,13(3) Yellowstone Science, Summer 2005, p. 37.)
While many current ranchers are from fourth and fifth- generation families, wolves have had an even longer history in the West. (See, “Trophic Cascade: The Case For Wolves,” by Debra Donahue, WyoFile 07/21/2008)
And now there is a new economic constituency for wolves. Winter wolf-watch trips to Yellowstone are transforming Yellowstone into a year-around destination. According to Dr. John Duffield’s research for the University of Montana, wolves are now a tourist magnet annually bringing in at least $35 million directly, or $70 million indirectly through the multiplier effect, to such Yellowstone satellite communities as Cody, Dubois, and Jackson.
Wolf numbers are down this winter in Wyoming because of disease (distemper and mange), inter-pack conflicts, and excessive wolf shootings while the animal was delisted in the state during 2008.
“The number of wolves in Yellowstone National Park declined last year,” a January 2009 Yellowstone National Park news release stated. “It’s the first drop in wolf numbers in the park in three years. The Yellowstone Wolf Project reports the 2008 population at 124 wolves, down 27 percent from the 171 wolves recorded in 2007. The greatest decline occurred on the northern range, the area with the greatest wolf population density. The wolf population there dropped 40 percent, from 94 to 56 wolves.”
However, disease also reduced the population in 2005, when the numbers showed an even greater drop from 171 wolves in 2004, to 118, due to distemper. Sarcoptic mange is also a concern in Yellowstone wolves and has recently been identified in a Jackson-area wolf pack. The number of breeding pairs in the park has declined from 10 to six. This decline brings the wolves to the lowest number of breeding pairs recorded since 2000, when wolves first met the minimum population requirement for delisting.
Where does this leave people who are directly affected by wolves? Outfitter Bud Betts lives in the Dunoir Valley along the Wiggins elk herd migration route. His closest neighbors are elk, grizzly bears, and wolves. Betts says the wolves are doing fine, but the elk are not.
“The elk cow-calf numbers are down closer to herd objective, so we have reduced hunter opportunities. I don’t like the wolf,” he admits, but philosophically adds, “They are here and we have to live with them.”
Wildlife science still takes a back seat to politics in Wyoming. According to an Associated Press article in the February 24, 2009 Casper Star Tribune, Wyoming lawmakers want to test wolves for brucellosis, a bacterial infection best known in Wyoming in cattle and bison, although different forms of the disease can also infect swine, goats, sheep and dogs.
During the 2009 legislative session, Senate File 87, sponsored by Sen. Kit Jennings (R-Natrona) and Rep. Childers, would have required Wyoming Game and Fish to test wolves for the disease.
“[Brucellosis is] not even an issue,” said Mike Jimenez, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s wolf recovery project director for Wyoming. “No one’s ever really been concerned about it, but for whatever reason, if there is a concern, it’s easy enough to test for it.”
Jimenez said that federal wildlife agents have tested 16 captured or killed Wyoming wolves for the disease, but the results were all negative.
Terry Kreeger, state game and fish department supervisor of veterinary services, said the Sybille, WY research laboratory has tested wolves for brucellosis occasionally, and all results have been negative, he said.
“Given what we know today, we would consider wolves a dead-end host for [bovine brucellosis] bacteria, i.e., they become infected but they are not capable of transmitting it to other animals, even other wolves,” he said. Kreeger said he doesn’t believe wolves are a factor in Wyoming’s brucellosis problem. He said studies have shown that wolves infected with brucellosis do not transmit the disease.
Some Wyoming lawmakers are more practical than others when dealing with wolf management. In 2009 Wyoming Rep. Keith Gingery (R – Jackson/Dubois) introduced House Bill 21 to classify and manage wolves solely as “trophy game” statewide, which would have allowed the wolf to be delisted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In the mid-1990’s, state wildlife staff recommended the “trophy animals” classification, but the politically-appointed Wyoming Game and Fish Commission, livestock interests, and most Wyoming politicians flatly rejected the idea.
Instead, politics insisted that Wyoming wolves be classified as both “trophy and predator” throughout most of the state. Predator classification means that the animal can be shot on sight at any time. Trophy game status requires a Wyoming Game and Fish regulation to hunt the animal only with a seasonal license. This dual classification has kept wolf management out of state hands, so in 2008 the wildlife commission voted to support a statewide trophy game management plan. Soon after this decision, the Wyoming Wildlife Federtion, the state’s leading hunting organization, also read the writing on the wall and voted to change its position to now support statewide trophy game management for wolves. HB 21 died this session as lawmakers stuck to their guns and their original dual classification, predator/trophy game plan. The U.S. Wildlife Service has already rejected the plan, and after a lawsuit over the large number of wolves killed in Wyoming last year, the animals have been “relisted.”
“If Wyoming wants to get to the point at which the people of Wyoming, through the Wyoming Game and Fish, manage wolves rather than the Feds,” Gingery said to WyoFile, “then we need to change our proposed wolf plan. The Feds have made it clear that they will not accept a dual status of predator/trophy game. The Feds want Wyoming to adjust their plan to a single status, namely trophy game status, just like Montana and Idaho have already done. This was under the Bush administration, and I highly doubt the Obama administration will lessen that requirement.
“Thus, the option is either drop the dual status or continue to fight in court for the next five years knowing full well that in the end we will lose. The issue that the courts will look at is whether or not the Wyoming plan meets the requirements of the Endangered Species Act, and at this point it does not.”
During the past two decades, wolf recovery and management have dwelt much more in the political and legal realms than in the biology and wildlife management worlds. Endangered species such as wolves and grizzly bears resonate loudly on the states’ rights drum. While we humans navigate the procedures of the state and national management plan process, wolves and elk, predators and prey, continue their delicate dance in Greater Yellowstone, as they have for tens of thousands of years.
Let’s hear your feedback on this story! Email the editor here!
Here’s What Readers Have To Say…
I knew when Meredith Taylor asked me for comments that she would take my comments and change them to fit her benefit. My comments about the elk numbers and the wolf impacts were that the “calves” or “young” in the herds in the Big Horn Basin were not at a sustainable level, I may have used the word “ungulate” improperly but it had been used by others in the description of the impacts. the elk herds may be at record levels, but because of the low elk/calf ratio, we do have a problem. With those low levels the herd levels will decrease dramatically. If Ms. Taylor wants to write articles, maybe she should use my comments as I meant them and not as she wants to use them.
Representative Pat Childers
Is just terrific. I thank the lord, or someone, that you are continuing the good fight. Ignorance and greed still have the upper hand I fear.
Good article on wolves. Nice to see people actually using facts when discussing wolf policy, rather than rumors.
Wyoming State Rep.Keith Gingery (R-Jackson-Dubois)
Good work by Tory and Meredith Taylor. I’ve been quite troubled by the leaps to conclusions about impacts of wolves here and there. Thanks!
Roger Coupal, Laramie
Please take me permanently off your email list. I don’t need your liberal nonsense and so called research in my mail box. I also requested this same thing last year and somehow, I got back on your list. This time, please take me of permanently – like forever!!
Mike Madden, Dist. 40
Amazing article. Clear, comprehensive, well researched. I loved it. Very interesting and informative
Devon Meyer, Scottsdale, Arizona
I found your article informative but also misleading too. While elk numbers are currently strong you provide information that shoots holes into it. Yes, the standing crop is strong and above objective in many areas you ignore even your own facts. In order for the population to maintain its numbers loss must equal gains in numbers. If as you stated 12% of fawns were taken by wolves and 69% by bears and 11% by coyotes that is an overall loss of 92% of new born elk calves or an 8% calf survival in just new born calves. Health of herds is measured in the number of young to females. This ratio for your quoted numbers is 8:100! With only 8 calves of which say 50% are females thats a mere 4 to replace losses to any ages of females lost to any cause. And assuming they survived the rest of the year to breed. Any biologist would readily say that the population will crash as the standing crop ages. A top heavy population with so many more older animals is in danger of collapse within the next 10 years.
Greg Taylor, Lander
The Authors Respond …
Thank you for your comments. The data analysis of the causes of elk calf mortality use figures cited from the survey as the percentage of elk calves killed, not total elk calves. Therefore, of 100 elk calves killed, wolves took 12 %, bears took 69 %, and coyotes killed 11 %. For more information about the data, please see the study report cited in the article. “The study showed that wolves accounted for about 12 percent of newborn calf deaths, while grizzly and black bears caused about 69 % of recorded deaths, and coyotes killed 11 % of recorded deaths. (Elk Calf Survival and Mortality Following Wolf Restoration to Yellowstone National Park, Shannon M. Barber-Meyer, L. David Mech, and P. J. White,13(3) Yellowstone Science, Summer 2005, p. 37.) ”
Tory and Meredith Taylor
Barber-Meyer, Shannon M., L. David Mech, and P. J. White, “Yellowstone Elk Calf Survival and Mortality Following Wolf Restoration, Bears remain top summer predator.” 13(3) Yellowstone Science, Summer 2005, p. 37.
Donahue, Debra, “Trophic Cascade: The Case For Wolves.” WyoFile, 07/21/2008.
Duffield, John, “Changing Times, Changing Values,” Social/Cultural Values, Economic Valuation, University of Montana, 2004.
Gude, Justin, “Wolves and Big Game,” available online at fwp.mt.gov “Elk-Wolf Interactions”; or call Justin Gude, at FWP, Helena, MT, 406-444-3767, 2009.
Joyce, Matt, “Lawmakers want to test wolves for brucellosis.” Associated Press article in the Casper Star Tribune, February 24, 2009.
McWhirter, Doug, Absaroka Elk Ecology Project. WYGFD, UW, and USFWS, 2008 update.
Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Annual Reports (1979-2008). WY Game & Fish Commission, Cheyenne, WY 82006.