It was a quiet morning in Paradise Valley last Wednesday, a calm that was soon broken by the sound of a helicopter. U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials were on the hunt and with the help of radio telemetry, they quickly zeroed in on two yearling wolves, bringing the body count of the Sheep Mountain wolf pack to six this fall.
So far, those shots are the only live rounds being fired in a backlash against Yellowstone wolves that erupted just as hunting season began. But the rumors have flown as fast and furious as bullets, with hunters and outfitters claiming that wolves are eating their prey into extinction. While the Sheep Mountain wolves were killed for preying on cattle, local sportsmen believe the big game population is plummeting due to wolf kills.
A few have decided to do something about it. More than 2,500 people have sent in a dollar to join the newly formed Friends of the Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd, according to founder Robert Fanning. The group aims to see the state of Montana take over management of wolves that cross the park’s boundary, and to see the wolves taken off the Endangered Species list.
“It’s a fraud,” he says. “They’re not endangered; they do not deserve protection.”
Like others who complain about the wolves, Fanning says he’s seen elk and moose populations drop precipitously in the last few years.
The fact is, according to park biologist Wendy Clark, the number of elk in the park’s northern herd has dropped—from about 17,000 during the 1994-’95 season to 11,700 last spring. But, she cautions, such fluctuations are not necessarily alarming.
“In the past, we’ve also had drops and the population has rebounded,” she says. “There’s a general consensus among biologists that the hard winter of ’96-’97 was important. ... But we don’t really know the relative roles of wolf and bear predation.”
David Gaillard, of the Bozeman-based Predator Conservation Alliance, says two factors may be driving the anti-wolf sentiment. “We’re at a critical juncture in terms of wolf recovery efforts because most of the convenient places to have wolves—the park and wilderness areas—are at capacity. But we’re still shy of recovery goals, which means they’re beginning to use places where people are more likely to see them, where hunters can get in with motorized vehicles.”
Second, Gaillard points out, what’s been “normal” for the past 40 or 50 years is not normal in terms of the historic relationship between the region’s predators and their prey. “There’s this sentiment bordering on hysteria that suddenly predators are overrunning the landscape,” he says, “but really it just means we’re making progress in restoring balance to the region.”