Will Wolves Wipe Out Montana’s Elk?

Though biologists say no, some hunters say yes. A new study could provide definitive answers. By Tom Dickson

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors
July–August 2002

On a windy morning in late April, John Winnie hikes up a side drainage of the upper Gallatin Canyon, in the northwestern corner of Yellowstone National Park. The 42-year-old Montana State University wildlife biology doctoral candidate keeps his eyes glued to the ground, barren but for scattered patches of clipped Idaho fescue and clumps of sage. In a backpack he carries the tools of his trade: radio receivers, climate condition measurers, binoculars, notebooks, plastic vials, plastic bags. As he nears a remnant snowdrift showing fresh elk tracks, Winnie kneels down to scoop a handful of fresh, marble-sized elk pellets into a vial.

“This,” he notes wryly, “is the glamorous part of the job.”

Collecting elk droppings may not put Winnie on the cover of Scientific American, but the information he gathers from analyzing hormones in the feces could help determine how Montana’s biologists manage both elk and wolves in the future—no minor achievement. He and MSU graduate student Justin Gude are taking part in a five-year multi-agency study begun in 2000 that aims to determine what effect the wolf population expanding north and west from Yellowstone National Park will have on Montana’s prized elk herds. As federal delisting of the wolf appears to near, management authority could soon revert from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the states where wolves thrive. When that happens, state biologists will need to factor in wolf predation as they decide how best to manage elk and other ungulate (hoofed mammal) populations.

“There’s a great deal of uncertainty right now,” says Kurt Alt, a FWP biologist at Bozeman, the epicenter of a growing controversy over wolves and elk. “This is the first time biologists in Montana have had to really deal with a situation like this, where basically wolves have been dumped in our lap. Right now there just isn’t enough data on wolves and elk for us to make the best possible management decisions.”

Information already exists
Many hunters, however, say plenty of information currently exists showing that wolves are devastating elk populations. Some of their main concerns:

• The number of wolves is growing and the population is spreading. Recent counts in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem showed 218 wolves, up substantially from the 31 introduced to the park in 1995-96. Statewide, Montana has at least 100 wolves, which includes wolves spreading south from established populations in the state’s northwestern region and those moving north from Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.

• The current northern Yellowstone elk herd count of 11,969 is down from last year’s count of 13,400 and well below the historic peak of 19,000 in the mid-1990s. This herd gets the most attention because of its large size and important late-season harvest as the animals move north from the park in winter.

• Of greatest concern, say local hunters, is the decline in calves, which they blame on wolf depredation and say indicates a weakened population that can’t sustain itself. They point to a 1997 University of Michigan study of the northern Yellowstone elk herd that showed a link between low elk calf numbers and both high wolf densities and expanding wolf populations. What’s more, surveys by Yellowstone National Park biologists this past spring found an average of 14 elk calves per 100 cows in the northern Yellowstone elk herd, the lowest ratio in decades. Generally this ratio, or “recruitment rate,” has been 20 to 30 calves per 100 cows in recent years.

“I can understand why the wildlife professionals can’t be definitive about this,” says Rep. Joe Balyeat, whose district covers the Gallatin Canyon, “but the evidence seems to strongly suggest that the low calf:cow ratio is being caused by wolves.”

That, in turn, could lead to an elk disaster, says a citizen’s group called Friends of the Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd (FNYEH). Based mainly on member observations, the group says Yellowstone’s elk population is on the verge of collapse and that southwestern Montana elk herds may be next. “It’s going to crash,” says FNYEH president Bill Hoppe, who lives near Gardiner along the park’s northern border. “It won’t take much longer.”

Record elk numbers
Biologists aren’t buying the imminent, widespread elk apocalypse scenario, however. Tom Lemke, FWP wildlife biologist at Livingston, notes that even though wolf numbers are increasing, Montana’s elk populations are currently at record highs in parts of the state. “In the four hunting districts that surround Living-ston, we’ve got more elk than we’ve ever had since we began counting in 1974,” Lemke says.

In one of his districts, elk numbers have grown from 100 to 1,400 in the past 28 years. And in most of the state’s south-central region, elk numbers are so high that this fall Montana FWP will allow an unprecedented cow elk harvest to bring the population in line with available habitat and landowner tolerance.

Regarding fears of a declining northern Yellowstone elk population, biologists say they consider the 19,000 figure to be a nonsustainable extreme. “We can’t manage wildlife at their historic
population highs,” says Alt, who adds that the Yellowstone herd’s 35-year population average is about 14,000 elk.

Biologists also point out that the Yellowstone herd differs significantly from other Montana elk herds, primarily because it is protected from harvest except during the late hunting season.

“Yellowstone elk,” notes Lemke, “endure harsh winter conditions, live in a predator-rich environment, and have a population that fluctuates from 10 to 40 percent annually.” This population differs from Montana’s managed (hunted) populations, which have fewer natural predators, less winterkill, and yearly population fluctuations of only 5 to 15 percent. Adds Lemke: “The Yellowstone scenario may not be a good predictor of what will happen in the rest of Montana.”

As for elk recruitment, wildlife experts agree the low calf:cow ratio is troubling, but they don’t agree that wolves are the only or even the main cause. Ken Hamlin, FWP’s elk researcher, notes that elk recruitment rates dropped throughout Montana this year, even in areas with no wolves.
“We know wolves are having an impact, because they eat red meat for a living,” Hamlin says. “But at this stage we can’t say what proportion of it is due to any specific cause. For all we know, some of the decline could be due to mountain lions, grizzlies, the long-term drought, high densities of elk reaching their maximum forage carrying capacity, or other factors. Something has to account for the decline in calf:cow ratios in areas that have few or no wolves.”

The new study
Hunters say one thing, biologists another. So what actually is happening between wolves and elk in southwestern Montana?

A five-year research project begun in 2000 aims to find out. At five different sites covering roughly 500 square miles in the Greater Yellowstone Area, Winnie, Jude, and other researchers are monitoring the effects of wolves on elk demographics (numbers, population dynamics, reproductive rate, and health) and elk distribution (behavior and movement).

Not only is this one of the most geographically expansive studies of wolves and elk ever conducted in North America, the project is also looking at an exhaustive range of factors that could affect elk when wolves move into the region. Among those being measured: elk herd density and size, wolf pack size, weather conditions, snow depth, hunter harvest, elk habitat, and distance to safety cover. By testing these various parameters, scientists can pinpoint specific factors that may, for example, increase or decrease predation (such as the presence and duration of snow crust that can support wolves but not the elk they chase down).

“The studies are looking at two basic questions,” says Alt. “How are wolves affecting elk distribution and how are they affecting population numbers?”

Most other wolf-elk studies have been conducted within Yellowstone National Park, where, due to the lack of hunting, the elk herd is older and more susceptible to population extremes. The new studies focus on elk outside the park, where the herds are managed with regulated hunting seasons that keep herds young and healthy.

“The park elk are at the edge of their biological carrying capacity,” says MSU Ecology Department professor Bob Garrott, who has been studying elk and wolves in the park’s Firehole-Madison (western) region since 1991. “Those elk are not as robust as those outside, and predation there could be much higher than it will be elsewhere as wolves spread into Montana.”

During their November-to-May study season, Winnie and Gude track wolves and elk fitted with collars that emit radio signals. (Because wolves are hard to capture for collaring, the researchers also look for fresh tracks and spot wolves from the ground.) They keep tabs on elk numbers to make a yearly estimate of each elk population, describe how elk herds in the study areas move each week, and check the survival and reproduction levels of adult cow elk. “The bulls aren’t studied as much, because the cows are what sustain the population,” says Winnie.

In their respective study areas—Winnie in the upper Gallatin Canyon and Gude in the Madison Valley—the researchers monitor elk in early morning and late afternoon. A “mortality sensor” on each radio collar announces when a collared elk stops moving for several hours, indicating it is dead. Once that happens, the researchers race to the site to determine how the elk died. By looking for blood trails, signs of struggle, and hemorrhaging patterns under the skin, they can determine whether wolves made the kill or simply found an elk felled by starvation or disease.

The researchers also record the elk’s sex, age (by examining the teeth), and condition (by analyzing marrow fat content from a section of femur they cut from the carcass).

The particular focus of Winnie’s study is on how elk change their distribution and behavior when wolves show up. For example, do the ungulates spend more time in winter watching for wolves and less time feeding, thus making them weaker and more susceptible to disease and starvation?

“One thing I’m doing is looking for a trend in each drainage, to see if wolves are pushing elk out of their prime feeding habitat into the trees, and if that translates into a reduced caloric intake,” Winnie says.

Meanwhile, Gude is focusing on finding which variables most affect wolf predation on elk, and how many elk wolves actually kill each winter.

Many interests watching
The stakes of their research are high. Montana’s prized elk herds are hugely popular among residents and visitors. Over the past 80 years, hunters have spent hundreds of millions of dollars restoring elk populations decimated by unregulated, market hunting. Elk now thrive in Montana, and “hunters are rightfully proud of what they’ve done,” says Alt, who adds that a wolf restoration would not have been possible “if it weren’t for elk hunters bringing back that huge prey base.”
Elk comprise a large part of the roughly $14 million Montana FWP generates each year in big game hunting license revenue. The money is used to conserve winter habitat to maintain healthy elk populations. Half the state’s elk harvest comes from the southwest region surrounding Yellowstone National Park, which is why all eyes are on the wolves spreading north and west from the park.

“What hunters are concerned about is what this [expanding wolf population] means to their hunting opportunities,” says Jeff Herbert, who heads FWP’s wildlife research unit. “That’s what these studies are trying to find out.”

Yet wolves also have a loyal and influential constituency. And these folks aren’t all “Easterners” imposing their will on Montanans, says David Gilliard of the Bozeman-based Predator Conservation Alliance. He contends that many Montana residents object to the notion that elk are the exclusive domain of hunters, to be treated as a commodity.

“There’s more to wildlife management in Montana than maximizing hunter harvest,” says Gilliard, “and most of the hunters I talk to agree. They understand that wolves have a role in making wildlife wild, and how a big part of the hunting experience is that you’re out there with the full complement of wildlife, including predators.”

Another related issue keeping wildlife biologists awake at night is elk depredation. The 400- to 1,000-pound animals eat crops, graze pasture meant for cattle, and reduce massive hay bales to scraps, sending furious ranchers and farmers to their telephones to demand relief.

“On state wildlife management areas we’ve worked hard over the years to manage winter range for elk, in part to build the herds but also to keep them off private land,” says Glenn Erickson, chief of FWP’s Big Game Bureau. “We need to learn how wolves might move elk around and change their distribution.”

On a chilly spring afternoon, Gude and MSU wildlife technician Thain Cook hike across a wind-whipped range to the top of a rise overlooking the Madison Valley. Below, in the distance, a herd of what appears to be more than a thousand elk graze in an area the size of 20 football fields. As Cook records temperature, wind speed, and other conditions, Gude sets up his spotting scope and begins counting, in groups of five. After 10 minutes he steps back from the scope and announces, “One thousand six hundred and fifty-one.” On the way back to the pickup, Gude points to a site in the distance where the only two wolves now in the valley have recently set up their den. Looking back at the sea of elk, still visible a half-mile away, he says, “You’d think there could be a lot more wolves in this valley before they’d have much of an effect on that herd.”

Perhaps. But it will take time, and a lot more research, to find out for sure.Bear bullet

Because roughly 570 gray wolves now inhabit the federal wolf recovery areas in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could propose removing the wolf from the federal list of endangered species as soon as January, 2003. Before that can happen, however, all three states must have a management plan that ensures wolves won’t once again become endangered. Montana began its process for producing a plan earlier this year and aims to have it in place by December. To learn more about opportunities for public comment and involvement, visit Montana FWP’s web site, and click the Montana wolf management link.

Tom Dickson is editor of Montana Outdoors.