How much of an impact are wolves having on elk herds and are hunters suffering because of them? If you ask a hunter, the answer is of course yes. Every season that doesn’t result in a kill is a victory for the wolves. If you ask a conservationist, they are likely to point their finger at increased hunting pressure, loss of habitat and other human factors for the lack of elk being harvested.
Which group is right? The truth is both and neither. The answer lies somewhere between going back to a pre-1940s world where wolves roamed the continent and exterminating the species a second time.
How do we decide the best way to move forward? If it was easy, it would be done and everyone would be happy. However, it is not easy and wolves are one of the most emotional topics being discussed in Montana.
Here is a look at some of the data collected about elk and wolves since the grey wolf was taken off the endangered species list in 2011.
Some of the easiest to process data is from Idaho and hunting has been historically good since 2014. 2015, 2017 and 2018 were among the top 10 seasons all time for elk harvested in Idaho. These numbers by themselves seem to indicate that wolf management strategies in Idaho are working and the elk herds are recovering from the shock of the reintroduction of an apex predator in 1995.
Idaho Fish and Game does note that elk behavior is changing with fewer animals being harvested in the back country and more being taken in what are considered “front country” areas. In the last historic good run from 1988 to 1994 when much of the focus was on elk harvested from the back country.
The back-country areas are also the ones most likely impacted by the reintroduction of wolves. Three of the five top game units for number of wolves harvested saw increases in the number of elk taken in 2017 compared to 2011.
The evidence of wolves impacting elk herds in the top game units where wolves are harvested doesn’t paint a clear enough picture to say for sure that wolves alone are impacting the elk harvest.
For Idaho, the numbers point to effective management of the wolf population. Elk numbers have recovered since de-listing in 2011 and wolf populations appear to be stable enough to support increased hunting pressure as harvests of wolves continue to rise.
Montana’s elk harvest numbers follow along closely with Idaho since 2012 and appear to indicate variables that would have more to do with weather conditions than predators. The consistency between the two states and the indication of healthy elk harvests, therefore healthy elk populations indicate the wolves impact is being healthily managed.
Are we once again starting a wolf eradication process to create the recovery we have seen in the elk harvests? Montana Fish and Wildlife indicated that in 2017 there were about 900 wolves in the state, a number well above the recovery goals.
In 2016 Idaho Fish and Wildlife estimated in their annual Wolf Report that there were between 684 and 796 wolves in the state. The number is down from the 2008 high estimate of 849 wolves.
While wolves have clearly not returned to the inland Northwest in numbers before human settlement and their extermination, populations are steady and management strategies appear to have found a balance between elk harvest and wolf population.
The biggest threats to elk and wolves both likely come from the impact of an increasing human population in the area.
Idaho has the fastest growing human population based on percentage growth of any state in America right now. Their population grew 2.2% from 2016-2017 and the total population of Idaho is now over 1.7 million people.
Montana’s population is growing at a slower, 1.15% pace, but that still means that 66,000+ people have been added to the population since 2011.
Despite the population growth, both Idaho and Montana are seeing fewer licenses sold and facing revenue shortfalls due largely to unsold non-resident hunting licenses. According to US Census data, hunting participation has been growing nationally, but not in the Inland Northwest. Fewer hunters with a similar success rate could indicate a decrease in the elk population overall, but can also be attributed to a wide variety of factors including a percentage of the hunting population not being very committed or
Additional pressures from the human population growth like deforestation of land for homes, additional traffic in wilderness areas and more harvesting of resources in wilderness areas will also contribute to the rise and fall of harvest numbers over time. There are many hurdles ahead for elk and wolf populations in the inland Northwest that have more to do with human impact than natural balance.
Despite emotional arguments on both sides, the numbers indicate that wolf delisting and wolf management strategies are not depleting the wolf populations in the inland Northwest and that elk populations and elk harvest numbers have recovered after the initial shock of wolf reintroduction during the mid-1990s.
The numbers point to a promising future where wolves, elk and people all find a balance in our forests.