The Wolf War Has Begun!
Back during the mid 1990s (basically 1995-1996), Yellowstone National Parks’ northern elk herd peaked at around 19,000 animals. The herd was a healthy mix of all ages. And so were the elk herds just to the north and west in Montana . In fact, the state’s elk herd had reached record levels – and for sportsmen, the hunting had never been better. Life was great if you were an elk hunter. Sound, and still growing, populations of elk could be found throughout most of the state. Likewise, the deer herds across Montana were also thriving, thanks to the same hundred years of dedicated conservation work and the billions of sportsmen provided dollars that funded all of that work. Additionally, ever expanding populations of pronghorn, moose, bighorn sheep and mountain goat also offered greater and greater hunting opportunities.
Unfortunately, the mid 1990s stand to be remembered as the “Good Ol’ Days” unless an all out effort is made to get a handle on the wildlife equivalent of a deadly virus or cancer which has been unleashed upon all big game found along the Northern Rockies. Reintroduced gray wolves are now making a very serious negative impact on our big game resources in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
In 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released the first 14 Canadian wolves in Yellowstone, getting the “Northern Rockies Wolf Recovery Plan” kicked off. The following year, they released 17 more wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Area. And from that core of 31 wolves, the number of wolves in and adjacent to the park had increased to 273 by 2002…and Yellowstone’s wondrous northern elk herd had dropped to less than 12,000.
What particularly worried area hunters, who valued the Yellowstone elk herds that wintered outside of the park, offering tremendous hunting opportunities, was how wolf packs were destroying the next generations of elk during the spring calving period. To sustain a huntable elk herd requires a calf survival rate of about 30-percent. By 2002, the calf to cow ratio of the Northern Yellowstone herd had dropped to only 14-percent. This was due to not only wolf depredation of newborn calves, but also the stress on pregnant cows from being constantly pursued by wolves, which very often resulted in fetuses being aborted. Likewise, elk that are constantly on the move do not have the luxury of fattening up for the winter, and many now go into the harshest weather of the year undernourished.
This past spring (2009), Yellowstone’s northern elk herd numbered only about 6,000 – about a third of what it was 14 years ago. The average age of the elk back when they were first thrown to the wolves was 4 to 5 years of age, today’s average Yellowstone elk is now 8 years old. Without adequate calf recruitment in the spring, this population of geriatric elk is headed for precipitous crash. Unless some very drastic measures are taken to eliminate half or more of the 450 wolves that now share the same range, this herd could be totally lost within the next five years. And as elk numbers continue to drop, the wolves have added most all other wildlife to their menus, now negatively impacting deer, moose, and other big game numbers.
The problem is not limited to just the Greater Yellowstone Area. Despite claims by MT Fish, Wildlife and Parks that elk and deer numbers remain “well above objective”, sportsmen here sure don’t agree. In most of western Montana, where wolves are most prominent, hunter success this past season took a big nose dive. In FWP’s Region 2 (west central), the elk harvest was down 45%…the whitetail harvest was down 50%…and the mule deer harvest was down 45% FROM THE PAST FIVE-YEAR AVERAGE! Likewise, hunters here and many other areas west of the Continental Divide reported seeing the fewest number of elk and deer in nearly 20 years.
Montana sportsmen are losing faith and trust in their wildlife agency, with many now claiming that MT FWP outright lies to them. This is especially true when it comes to the number of wolves that agency claims to be in Montana. For much of the past two years, MT FWP has sounded like a broken record, repeatedly claiming that the state’s wolf population is about 500. Hunters feel that far too much damage has already been done to the state’s elk and deer herds for the number to be that low.
During the 2008 federal delisting hearing to remove the gray wolf of the Northern Rockies from the protection of the Endangered Species Act, Dr. L. David Mech, who is arguably the leading wolf authority in the world, was deposed as an expert witness. In his declaration, Mech presented wolf population growth dynamics that indicated Montana’s wolf population is more likely 1,000 to 1,200. Based on how quickly the numbers of elk, deer and moose are declining in this state, hunters tend to agree. These same hunters also now feel that the “wolf experts” within MT FWP, or even the U.S.F.W.S. for that matter, lack the knowledge and technology to accurately assess just how many wolves there really are. According to David Mech, there are more like 3,000 to 3,500 wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming – not the “around 1,700” claimed.
Sportsmen have grown sick and tired of the guessing game, and the loss of big game due to the inability of state and federal wildlife agencies to manage a pestilence that is dealing a devastating blow to what was one of the greatest wildlife resources in the world. A growing number have decided it is time to unite and fight – to let the wolf war really begin.
One group is now looking at forming a Montana Chapter of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, and a primary goal of the new organization will be to push for a much escalated management of wolf numbers. Among those making up this group are several state senators. Likewise, the group is turning to the national shooting and hunting industry for financial support, and several major companies have already said they will step up to the plate to fight this serious threat to hunting in general.
One goal of the group will be to show up in force at FWP Commission meetings, to make sure that the demands of Montana sportsmen are herd – and headed. Another is to be standing on the curb and on the steps of the U.S. District Court in Missoula during any hearings regarding wolves, carrying signs to show support for keeping the wolf delisted – and to demand greater management of these apex predators, not to just slow the growth of wolf numbers…but to insure that we pull their numbers down to a level that allows big game numbers to rebound. In short, the goal will be to put a lot more sensible control on out-of-control wolf numbers. That’s something that’s totally missing right now.
For the time being, the battles will be spotlighted on the LOBO WATCH web site (www.lobowatch.com), giving everyone a place where they can keep in touch with what’s happening, and what’s not…and who’s with us and who’s not. Bowhunting.net editor Rich Walton has offered me the opportunity to do the same there with a monthly column, to also be known as LOBO WATCH. In the following months, this column will reveal how the environmental organizations are purposely using wolf reintroduction to curtail sport hunting, how some game departments now tend to favor the pro-wolf movement and ignore today’s hunters, the impact wolves are now making on the deer herds of the upper Midwest, the ultimate goal of the Wolf Reintroduction Project, how the negative impact wolves are making will affect the shooting & hunting industry, how that industry needs to unify and put anti-hunting environmental groups on the defense, legislative issues regarding wolf management, and just how many wolves there are…and how many are really needed to maintain a viable population. These and many other wolf related issues will be shared in this column each and every month.
Many of you reading this probably know me best for my coverage of muzzleloading and muzzleloader hunting. I’m actually one of those who take full advantage of all seasons. I bow hunt…I muzzleloader hunt…I hunt with modern guns. If there were sling shot seasons, I’d be out there chucking rocks! I love to hunt, and that is why I have elected to challenge the wolf issue. Most of you reading this are removed from wolf problems by 500…1,000…maybe even 2,000 miles. Still, you are somewhat affected by what happens over the next 5 or 6 years in wolf states like Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, New Mexico, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. And whether you know it or not, the big plan of the Wolf Reintroduction Project is to bring wolves back into all of its original home range in this country – which means the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could be bringing wolves to a neck of your woods soon.
The wolf war has begun, it’s time to stop this idiocy now! – Toby Bridges, LOBO WATCH
Note: The official northern Yellowstone elk herd count this past winter (2011) was down to around 4,400 elk, made up of animals 9 to 10 years of age. The Lolo elk unit of Idaho has undergone the same degree of wolf depredation, with the herd dropping from around 14,000 just 6 years ago, to around 2,300 this past winter/spring. In Montana, the West Fork of the Bitterroot herd has crashed from over 2,000 elk to fewer than 700. And other herds in the Northern Rockies have suffered the same fate. Still, in Montana, the state’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks continues to lie to residents, claiming that between Missoula and Butte, there is now a record number of elk. Please watch for an upcomiong LOBO WATCH editorial release which will share how Montana voters can take care of the FWP problem during the 2012 election…and just who the state senators and representatives are that continue to vote against wolf control measures.