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Let Wolves be Wolves

If the published comments and quotes of David Allen of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) are accurate reflections of his attitudes (and I don’t know that they are), one might get the impression that the only reason hunters and anglers helped to recover elk and deer populations was to enable them to claim all future elk and deer as their private property to shoot and consume. Allen even used a bit of hyperbole to declare the restoration of wolves to the Rockies as “one of the worst wildlife management disasters since the destruction of bison herds in the 19th Century.”

RMEF and other prominent pro hunting organizations are demanding that wolves be “managed” so they will have little effect upon elk numbers which hunters’ desire. This is not to suggest that wolves cannot influence ungulate numbers. Thankfully they can. Nor am I worried that wolves will go extinct if managed. But I do worry that wolves may not be permitted to exert their top down ecological footprint upon the land if they are managed to minimize their influence upon ungulate populations.

Here’s the rub. If wolves are going to have an ecological influence upon prey species like elk, they will occasionally reduce elk and other prey numbers in some places at some time. Ungulate population will often stabilize at lower numbers. Other times they will–over time–rise again. But far too many hunters are impatient. They remember the “good old days” when they could blast elk without much effort.

RMEF President David Allen likes to make the point that since wolves were introduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1995, elk numbers have declined from the high point of 19,000 to 6,000-7000 animals. Yet he does not acknowledge readily that elk declined in Yellowstone for many reasons—and wolves are only one factor. Drought, other predators like bears, and even hunting outside the park have all contributed to this decline.

The fear among many hunters is that the few well documented declines in elk numbers reported here and there will become the norm everywhere unless wolves are actively controlled. There is good reason to believe this will not be the case. It’s important to point out that the vast majority of elk herds are holding their own in spite of the presence of wolves. Indeed, many elk hunting units in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming have populations that are at and/or above agency objectives despite the presence of wolves and other predators. But there is no doubt that wolves can affect prey numbers and occasionally cause them to decline.

But that is a good thing. Among the changes in Yellowstone attributed to wolf predation that many feel are positive—riparian areas are sprouting new growth. Stems of aspen have seen a reduction in elk browsing and subsequent higher proportion of aspen surviving to become mature boles. Beaver have responded to the increase in willows and aspen and are recolonizing areas where they have not been seen in decades. So as to emphasize the last point, this February I watched a beaver gathering willow at the confluence of the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek in the park—a place where no beaver has been seen for decades. The presence of wolves has led to a reduction in coyotes. Since coyotes are the main predator on pronghorn fawns, the reduction in coyotes has led to more pronghorn.Wolves also produce carrion throughout the year that supports many scavenger species. Some ecologists have even suggested that extra carrion may help counter somewhat the effects of warmer winters due to climate change (in the past harsh winters killed many more elk and created a lot of carrion). These positive changes and more could only occur if wolves are left to “manage” their own numbers.

Unfortunately, most hunters are single minded about what is important and ecological integrity takes a backseat to “getting their elk.” Not only are elk numbers lower in some areas, but research has shown that elk appear to be more alert and wary, and are moving around more than in the past. All of these changes mean it is more difficult to get “your” elk in some parts of the West these days.

I think some hunters resent wolves, bears, cougars and other predators because predators are competition and make them look incompetent. Far too many hunters are out of shape, and lack real hunting skills. They may know how to shoot a rifle, and can debate the merits of various rifle calibers, but that is different from knowing how to hunt. And when you have wolves and other predators on the land, you have to be a good hunter, in shape, and ever alert to be consistently successful.

Predators challenge some hunter’s self image as “manly men.”

I certainly know exceptions to the above statement about hunters. They spend lots of time studying wildlife. They are willing and able to walk all day, day after day for an opportunity to engage with elk and other prey. These hunters are willing to share the land with wolves and other predators. If you asked them, they would say that the presence of wolves enhances their entire outdoor experience whether they actually kill an elk or not. For many it is more exciting to cross a wolf track than a track of an elk. They put ecosystem integrity and the integrity of the wildlife first and foremost. Unfortunately I fear they are in the minority of self identified hunter/conservationists.

I do not want to diminish the contribution that the RMEF and many other hunting and angling organizations have made to wildlife habitat acquisition that benefit all wildlife species. Over the years hunters have contributed many millions towards acquisition of wildlife habitat. Yet such contributions do not give anyone greater “rights” to public wildlife. And the majority of the public wants wolves back on the land, and they want wolves to be wolves, not some emasculated version of their former self. The main value of wolves is their ecological footprint—how they influence ungulate populations. A few token wolves here and there will not be enough to sustain this ecological influence.

If the restoration of wolves to the Rockies is really “one of the worst wildlife management disasters since the destruction of bison herds in the 19th Century” as David Allen suggests, I believe we need a lot more of these disasters across the country.

GEORGE WUERTHNER has a degree in wildlife biology and is a former hunting guide.

 

WORDS THAT STICK

 

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George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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