Elk have replaced cows as the flash point in the debate over the return of wolves to the West. Ranchers led the campaign to eliminate wolves in the West early in the 20th century. Keeping wolves from eating livestock was the major concern when wolves were reintroduced to the region in 1995. But now, the complex relationship between wolves and their natural prey – and hunters and wildlife enthusiasts – dominates the debate.
“The reality is the wolves are competing with us,” said Nate Helm, executive director of Idaho’s chapter of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife. “Hunters’ visions are they can return to the same location year after year and have a positive experience with elk. Wolves threaten that.”
Wolves are efficient hunters of elk and can reduce local elk populations, biologists agree. But for at least 12,000 years, wolves and elk have coexisted in the forest and rangelands of the Rocky Mountains.
They evolved together, said wildlife biologist Doug Chadwick, shaping how each survives changes in habitat, climate and competition. Now, both animals are intensively managed to meet human expectations.
The issue isn’t biology, it’s sociology. Hunters want more elk in the places they’ve traditionally found them. Wildlife enthusiasts want opportunities to see both species. Managing these two human groups is at least as important as managing the animals.
The methods used by managers to balance these very different views are determined by how – or whether – Idahoans learn to live with wolves.
“This is a values thing,” said John Freemuth, Boise State University political science professor and senior fellow at the Andrus Center for Public Policy. “Mother Nature doesn’t maximize elk. Natural processes tend to affect populations cyclically.”
Environmentalist Caroline Pavlinik of Meridian wants wolves managed humanely.
“My biggest objection to having the wolves delisted is the outright slaughter of them,” she said. “We hear so much hatred about the animal here.”
Idaho has no intention of slaughtering wolves nor will the state allow the decimation of elk, said Steve Nadeau, Idaho Fish and Game’s large carnivore biologist. But the state has sent a mixed message. Gov. Butch Otter initially said he wanted the wolf population culled to 100 animals, less than one sixth of the population today. He backed off to the state plan’s goal of 150 wolves.
Idaho Fish and Game Commissioners, who set wildlife policy for the state, have set a goal of managing wolves as a game animal. Since wildlife agencies began managing game animals in the 20th century, hunting has never driven any species to the brink of extinction and usually increases their numbers, Nadeau said.
The Elk hunt
Fish and Game officials estimate the elk population at 125,000. Hunters killed 20,257 elk in 2006.
Yellowstone biologists estimate an adult wolf eats about 9 pounds of meat a day or 12 adult elk a year. Idaho’s 670 wolves, then, could eat about 8,000 elk annually.
“Scientific data shows that wolves have a negligible effect on hunter harvest success rates,” said Suzanne Asha Stone, Northern Rockies Representative of the Defenders of Wildlife in Boise.
But for hunters, the numbers are misleading, Helm said. Wolves have changed elk behavior. They have pushed elk out of traditional haunts and made them harder to find.
Outfitters like Scott Van Winkle, big game hunting manager for the Flying B Ranch in Kamiah, are changing their strategies. They hunt in different places where they can avoid wolves when possible.
In the woods, the competition between hunter and wolf sometimes is an individual encounter. Wolves have responded to Van Winkle’s elk call.
“You’d call on a calf call, and you’d hear wolves howling,” Van Winkle said.
Elk Baby Boom
Wildlife managers are seeing elk populations drop in some areas where wolf numbers are high. But they also are seeing elk numbers rise in other areas where wolf numbers are rising. Sometimes a mountain range is the dividing line between elk populations that are rising and declining.
In the Panther Creek area near Salmon, wildfires burned hot in 2000 and cleared away the forest overstory, triggering a rebirth of grasses and other elk food. Despite the presence of several wolf packs, elk are experiencing a baby boom with 40 calves per 100 cows counted during winter flights.
But in the Camas drainage one range over, only eight calves per 100 cows were seen. Fire burned less summer range there, and wolf numbers may be higher. Managers consider an elk herd healthy when the ratio is 20 calves to 100 cows.
“It’s a very complex system,” said Tom Keegan, Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s salmon region director. “Different pieces of the system react differently.”
Wildlife managers can limit elk hunting and may eventually be able to issue wolf hunting licenses to increase elk herds. Setting seasons and limits is the traditional tool for managing hunters and wildlife.
But when the game animal is the polarizing wolf, management is more controversial. For instance, in the Lemhi Range, Keegan has more than twice as many elk as the state wants there.
That goal is set by biologists based on habitat, hunter demand and other factors, such as when elk raid farmers’ crops. Ultimately, the goal is approved by the Idaho Fish and Game Commission, members of which are appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate.
Keegan plans to recommend allowing hunters to kill more elk to reduce the population, which he said is pushing bighorn sheep and mule deer out of their traditional habitat. To him, killing more elk to improve bighorn and mule deer populations is no different than killing more wolves to improve elk numbers.
A look at Alaska
Alaska’s efforts to aggressively reduce wolf numbers to help moose and caribou populations rebound has brought an international tourism boycott and successful legal challenges by environmental groups and animal rights advocates.
Alaska has 8,000 to 11,000 wolves, robust populations with no threat of extinction and wide-open expanses of wilderness. State agencies have found wolf hunting by itself insufficient to reduce wolf numbers enough to increase the numbers of moose and caribou.
The state first used state shooters from helicopters to attempt to reduce wolf numbers in key areas. While effective, helicopters are expensive and the most controversial method.
Environmental groups’ opposition to helicopter gunning led officials to halt the practice in the 1990s.
Four years ago, they came up with a new strategy. They gave hunters and pilots who qualified permits to kill wolves from airplanes in popular hunting areas where moose and caribou numbers were far below goals.
For the last three years, these volunteer shooters have met their goals. This year’s mild winter made wolf shooting more difficult, said Matt Robus, Alaska’s Division of Wildlife Conservation director.
Hunters and even newspapers like the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner urged new Gov. Sarah Palin to authorize the use of helicopters and state employees to make sure the goals were met.
Research conducted along with the program shows increased moose numbers in the areas where wolves were reduced.
“We have early indications that if you sustain (the wolf killing program), it works,” Robus said.
Friends of Animals
But to sustain the program, Robus has to get around Priscilla Feral, president of Darien, Conn.-based Friends of Animals, one of the nation’s most powerful animal rights groups. Feral’s group had success in court limiting the scope of Alaska’s wolf and bear control programs.
She doesn’t support hunting either, but “you can’t sue on ethics, you have to sue on law,” she said in a telephone interview.
“If we can trip them up on technicalities, we’re here to offer as much resistance as we can,” Feral said. “In the course of that, people begin to see wolves as animals that deserve respect.”
She wasn’t paying much attention to Idaho until Gov. Butch Otter made national news saying he wanted to bid for the first tag to kill a wolf once Idaho wolves are delisted. But now she’s planning to join the groups that sue to stop delisting.
“We really did consider boycotting the Idaho potato, but we didn’t want to take it out on the potato,” Feral said.
Under the Microscope
Doug Smith, Yellowstone’s chief wolf biologist, doesn’t have to deal with hunting or wolf control. But his wolf program is under a microscope since Americans care so much about the national park.
His program attracts critics from all sides of the debate over issues ranging from treating disease to elk numbers. “Wolves are the abortion issue of wildlife management,” Smith said.
Idaho’s chief wolf manager, Steve Nadeau, is hopeful the state can find the balance between the different human values by managing wolves the same way the state manages bears and mountain lions.
When environmentalists see the state isn’t going to slaughter wolves, he said, they will become more comfortable. And he’s hopeful hunters will support the state when wolves are brought under control.
“I think they’ll be much more accepting of wolves on the land because there is management,” Nadeau said.
This is the first in a series by Idaho Statesman writers and photographers detailing how Idahoans are learning to live with a growing population of wolves.