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Wolves and Big Game in Montana

Will wolves affect game populations like deer, elk and moose?

Yes. How much, where, and how varies through space and time. Wolves-like mountain lions, coyotes, and bears-eat deer, elk, moose and other game animals. Research in Montana and elsewhere has shown that predation may influence deer, elk and moose populations through changes in the survival of young and adult animals or a combination of both. In Montana, elk numbers in some areas have declined, due in part to wolf predation. Yet in other areas where wolves and elk interact, elk numbers are stable or increasing. Habitat, weather patterns, human hunting, the presence of other large predators in the same area, and the presence of livestock seasonally or year round are important factors, too. Wolf predation by itself does not initiate declines in prey populations, but it can exacerbate them or lengthen periods of prey population rebounds. Research in Yellowstone National Park and elsewhere has shown that elk use habitats differently since wolves have returned. One study showed that when wolves are in the local area, elk spend less time in open areas and more time in forested areas. Hunters may need to adjust their strategies.

Will wolves affect hunting in Montana?

They probably will in some places, but there are no clear answers that apply across the board. Different combinations and densities of predator and prey species, terrain, vegetation, climate, land ownership patterns and land uses result in different ecological relationships and different opportunities for hunters. In mountainous areas with harsh winter weather conditions, multiple predator species including grizzly bears, and less productive vegetation, wolf predation seems to be more influential than in areas where livestock are present seasonally or year round. Lethal wolf control to resolve wolf-livestock conflicts may buffer potential effects of wolf predation by affecting local wolf densities (wolf distribution) and overall predator densities. Biologists now consider wolf activity among the many factors potentially affecting big game populations and hunter success. After weighing all the factors, biologists must adjust hunter opportunity accordingly, as they have always done. One example is FWP's decision to decrease hunter opportunity for antlerless elk in some mountainous hunting districts of the Gallatin Range north of Yellowstone National Park because of several years of poor calf recruitment. Yet in a few other districts just northwest of West Yellowstone, hunter opportunity for elk was expanded because populations were over management objectives.

What is FWP doing about it?

FWP earmarked money from the federally-funded wolf program to increase big game monitoring efforts to keep closer tabs on those prey populations. Additional surveys will supplement existing effort. In addition, FWP is actively involved in various projects that are researching predator-prey relations, population dynamics of black bears and mountain lions, large carnivore monitoring techniques, and wildlife diseases to name a few. FWP is also asking hunters to help monitor wolf numbers and distribution in Montana by forwarding their field reports of wolves and/or wolf sign. Over the years, many new packs have been discovered based on hunter information. That information helps FWP better manage wolves and contributes to the effort to delist wolves from the Endangered Species Act. Hunters can go online, mail a pre-printed postcard available from FWP offices, contact the wolf program staff, or call any FWP office. Ultimately, habitat is the key for all wildlife in Montana. FWP continues to work with interested landowners to protect traditional farm and ranch land, and to preserve wildlife habitat. A variety of funding sources enable FWP to protect seriously threatened habitats and provide recreational opportunities through purchased or donated conservation easements and purchases of land. About $4 million from several sources goes to fund projects selected annually by the FWP Commission.