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What's eating the elk?

Folks in the Bitterroot know the answer is wolves. State biologists aren't so sure.



Julie Fillingham was standing stock-still and quiet in the dense undergrowth of the Bitterroot River's West Fork during hunting season last year, waiting for a bull elk to pass by, when something on the forest floor caught her attention.

At first Fillingham thought it was a stump. Lifting her binoculars for a closer look might have spooked the elk, so she just watched; whatever it was, it was squat, black and motionless against the pre-dawn brush, and it was just 40 yards away. Only when she saw the tracks later did she realize she'd been staring at a wolf.

"I went back over to where I was standing," she says. "The sun was up. No black stump, but wolf tracks...I kept thinking, 'It looks like the black head of a dog, with ears.' It was."

Fillingham and her husband, Scott, have hunted and guided in the West Fork for the better part of a decade. The two run the Hamilton-based Accurate Outfitters and cover a range of hunting districts: 240, 270 and 250, which includes the West Fork. Non-resident hunters are their bread and butter. But there's a new hunter in the woods these days, a hunter largely absent from this region for half a century.

Scott Fillingham says he used to see a moose every time he ventured up the West Fork. He'd run his hounds there without a leash on mountain lion hunts. He'd hunt the high ridges and pack trails for elk, which numbered nearly 1,500 when he first branched out on his own with Accurate Outfitters five years ago.

He doesn't see moose up the West Fork anymore, he says. And he leashes his hounds if he chases lions. The elk? They mostly hang out at lower elevations now, in dense brush and along rocky slopes.


The Fillinghams don't take clients after elk anymore. They can't, they say. And they know who—or, rather, what—is to blame.

"There's tracks all over," Scott says.

Wolf tracks.

Last year, Fish, Wildlife and Parks set a harvest quota of 18 gray wolves in the West Fork, in only the second wolf hunt in Montana since the species was first reintroduced to the Northern Rockies in 1995.

Beginning with an experimental population of 66 in Yellowstone National Park, wolves have dispersed throughout Montana, their numbers bolstered by migrants from Canada and transplants in central Idaho. By the end of 2010, FWP estimated there were 566 wolves in Montana—an increase of 7.4 percent over 2009. Idaho estimated its 2010 wolf population at just over 700.

In December, FWP deemed it necessary to extend the 2011 wolf hunt across much of the state, through Feb. 15, 2012. Hunters have only managed to remove three wolves from the West Fork since the season began last year.

"There's places you can't put your foot down without stepping in wolf turds," says Scott Boulanger, a member of the Bitterroot Elk Working Group and owner of Circle KBL Outfitters, the only outfitter with overnight camps in the West Fork. "They'll run those pack trails, they're like us. They're going to take the easiest path, run the ridges just like we do. You don't want to go through the thick blow-down crap... Those are the places the elk are trying not to be."

The situation in the Bitterroot often borders on volatile. Hunters, outfitters, public officials and business owners are crying out for the state to take more drastic steps to cull the wolves. The predators are killing all the game, they say; FWP has sacrificed one species, the elk, for another.

The numbers sound convincing. The dramatic drop in the West Fork elk herd—1,900 in 2005 to 764 in 2010, according to FWP—roughly coincides with the expansion of wolves into western Montana.

In considering the quota for its 2011 hunt, FWP estimated the current West Fork wolf population at around 30.

Locals tell stories about glowing eyes peering out of the forest near trailheads. They talk about pets disappearing from front yards and porches and about feral canines seated near bus stops in the early morning, watching school children. Public meetings are dominated with the stuff of Grimms' Fairy Tales.

But what's really behind this steep decline in elk numbers?

For FWP, it isn't an easy answer to come by biologically. In late 2010, the agency announced a three-year study to address the condition of elk herds in the Bitterroot's East and West forks, with a start-up price of $150,000. Biologists collared 40 cows and ear-tagged 66 calves in spring 2011 in order to track their movements. They captured an additional 19 cows and 31 calves last fall, hoping to boost data on wolf predation through the winter.

Hunters don't doubt the wolves are to blame, but as year one of the elk study wraps up, FWP is uncovering data that may suggest otherwise.

Where there's tracks...

Ben Jimenez circles what looks like a scene from a Cormac McCarthy novel. We're not far up the Hughes Creek drainage, which meanders through the snow-covered blow-down toward the West Fork. The snow at our feet is packed solid and stained with blood, urine and bird shit. In the center of it all, on its back, rests one of the forest's latest victims: an elk calf. At least, what's left of an elk calf.

FWP biologist Ben Jimenez spends at least two days a week monitoring collared elk in the Bitterroot’s West Fork. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • FWP biologist Ben Jimenez spends at least two days a week monitoring collared elk in the Bitterroot’s West Fork.

Jimenez surveys the frozen carcass with a detective's eye. He peels hide away from spine with a folding knife. He examines the chipped and broken tips of ribs. When he's seen enough, he cuts through fat and tendon on a rear leg joint and pulls the femur away. He sets it down next to his pack.

"Wolf kill?" I ask.

Jimenez glances at the large canine tracks littering the snow nearby. There's a distinct dog-like turd lying a few feet from the carcass. It certainly seems like wolves were here.

"Looks like something did chew on those ribs," Jimenez says. "That's typical wolf behavior. They'll gnaw on the ribs."

Jimenez goes on to explain what the hunters who found this carcass told him: They discovered it five days ago, fairly fresh, close to this Forest Service road. They followed what they took to be wolf tracks into the forest, where they discovered about nine bedding spots.

But Jimenez is a biologist and FWP's main man in the field for its elk study. He can't form an opinion based solely on word-of-mouth and circumstantial evidence. There's enough evidence for him to postulate; as for a definitive answer, he's non-committal.

Jimenez, 35, has spent the better part of the last year either in or above the East and West forks. Roughly twice a week, he travels by truck or air to monitor the elk herds. The truck is a battered FWP rig with a burned-out headlight that he puts about 2,500 miles on a month. The plane is a two-seater Super Cub kitted with an array of telemetry instruments. This elk study, funded through a combination of state dollars and private donations, isn't cheap.

After poking at the carcass a bit more, Jimenez picks up a hefty, four-pronged telemetry antenna and starts scanning the bushes. The receiver emits a rapid "ping" that grows stronger and fades as he walks around. He's searching for an ear tag. He finds it buried in the snow a few yards away.

He cracks the calf's femur in half on the tailgate of his truck. Usually, he can get a rough idea of the animal's health from the texture of the fat in the marrow, but this one's too frozen to tell, so he chucks both pieces back into the forest.

"I have no doubt people get wolves," he says as we head back down to the main branch of the West Fork. He means that they see them. "I've seen them from the air quite a bit, and I've heard them on the ground howling. But when you hear stories of, 'Oh, they were surrounding us in our tent and we looked out and saw their eyes all around us' kind of nod your head and let it go."

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