Packs of hungry wolves are decimating Wyoming's 35 herds of elk, right?
Wrong. And yet that's what some people continue to claim, even as studies repeatedly disprove the accusation. Nearly three decades of the data displayed in Wyoming's annual reports show that elk numbers, elk harvests and hunter success rates have steadily increased in the Yellowstone region. In fact, Wyoming has 100,000 elk—more elk today than it had 30 years ago, with the same number of hunters killing more elk now.
If anything, Wyoming has too many elk. In 2008, the state's Department of Fish and Game announced that, in general, it needed to manage "for a reduction in Wyoming's elk population," although some herds would continue to be managed for their current numbers.
Wyoming, however, has never been a state to let science or facts get in the way of culture, custom and wishful thinking. Our 1880s-era political system is based on a one cow, one vote premise, and change comes hard.
Wyoming State Rep. Pat Childers, R-Park, who is chairman of the Travel, Recreation, and Wildlife Committee, continues to believe that wolves are bad for elk.
"As for wolves and elk, I have had two reports from the Wyoming Game and Fish presented to me that clearly show that the wolves are impacting the ungulate of the elk herds," Childers said. "While the populations of those herds have not currently decreased, the study shows that the populations of the herds will soon be reduced to an alarming low level because the loss of ungulate will result in less animals."
Childers was referring to a state elk study, which actually showed just the opposite of his somewhat confusing contention. Reducing the elk herd in the Clark's Fork area continues to be the state objective, even though calves have declined in some sub-units.
Wolves, it turns out, aren't even the top predator of elk. Studies in Yellowstone National Park showed that wolves accounted for only 12 percent of the deaths of newborn calves, while grizzly and black bears caused about 69 percent of recorded deaths, and coyotes killed 11 percent. Calf-cow ratios were declining in the Clark's Fork herd for a decade prior to wolf recovery, and some of the herd's calves continued to decline while others rebounded. At the same time, wolf numbers are down because of disease, inter-pack conflicts and shootings of wolves.
Most recently, a January 2009 count showed that wolves in Yellowstone National Park were in decline, from 171 in 2007 to 124. The greatest decline occurred on the northern range, where the wolf population dropped 40 percent, from 94 to 56.
Where does this leave people who are affected by wolves? Outfitter Bud Betts lives in the Dunoir Valley, where his closest neighbors are elk, grizzly bears and wolves. Betts says he thinks the wolves are doing fine, but the elk are not, and this hurts hunting. "I don't like the wolf," he says, but adds, "they are here and we have to live with them."
Many others in Wyoming aren't so sure. In the mid-1990s, state wildlife staff recommended classifying wolves as "trophy game," but the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission, livestock interests and most politicians insisted that Wyoming wolves be managed as "trophy game and predator." This dual status kept wolf management in federal hands.
In 2008, the wildlife commission changed its tune and voted to support managing wolves as trophy game only. Wyoming Rep. Keith Gingery, R - Jackson/Dubois, agreed and introduced a bill to classify wolves as "trophy game" statewide. His bill died this session when lawmakers stuck to their guns. Currently, wolves remain under federal management.
"If Wyoming wants to get to the point at which the people of Wyoming, through the Wyoming Game and Fish, manage wolves rather than the feds," Gingery said, "then we need to change our proposed wolf plan."
Montana and Idaho made the switch and now manage their wolves, Gingery pointed out.
"The option is either drop the dual status or continue to fight in court for the next five years, knowing full well that in the end we will lose," he said. "The issue that the courts will look at is whether or not the Wyoming plan meets the requirements of the Endangered Species Act, and at this point it does not."
Those of us who are glad to see wolves return hope that Wyoming will come to its senses about managing these predators. Meanwhile, as we humans keep debating, wolves and elk and grizzlies and coyotes continue their delicate dance in Greater Yellowstone, just as they have for tens of thousands of years.
Meredith and Tory Taylor are contributors to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). They write about wildlife and work as outfitters in Dubois, Wyoming.