What's eating the elk?

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



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FWP has recognized a problem with wolves in the Bitterroot, even if it hasn't taken the steps demanded by outfitters. As the issue of state management over wolves raged in federal court in 2010, the agency requested that U.S. Fish and Game extend management privileges in the Bitterroot in time for a 2011 hunting season to cull the wolf population. The animals were once again delisted last spring, however, placing management in FWP's hands and giving officials time to arrange a fall hunt. FWP maintains its stance that a fair-chase season should be enough to fill quotas.

"Hunters may not realize that there are good, accessible areas for wolf hunting remaining, and that there are still open quotas," Quentin Kujala, FWP's fish and wildlife section chief, said in a statewide wolf quota update this month. "For those wanting to harvest a wolf, now is the time."

Boulanger wants more. Hunters can't meet the state's quotas under the restrictions placed on wolf hunting, he says, arguing that FWP's hunting regulations and harvest quotas amount to a "predator protection plan." His temper flares when he thinks back on all the explanations FWP has offered for not taking more aggressive action against wolves.

Locals have demanded more lenient predator hunts, pointing to Idaho as a model. Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife has outlined the differences in predator control between the two states on the group's website. Idaho allows baiting and trapping for lions, bears and wolves; Montana doesn't. Non-resident predator tags in Idaho are $31.75; in Montana, they're $350. The seasons are longer in Idaho. You don't have to wear orange. There's no wolf quota.

Rattling off this list, Boulanger's voice rises.

"When the discussion at the meeting turns into increased bear harvests, increased lion harvests and increased wolf harvests," he says, "Craig Jourdonnais says, 'You know, I was reading a study the other day, and if you remove more than 6 percent of the adult sow bears, you're going to have an impact on the population, so we better be careful.' Craig, that's the problem! ...You're breaking your own rules! It says you must manage [predators] and you're not! Our deer and elk numbers are 63 percent below objective, we're in the toilet, we have no recruitment and you just say you want to be careful about the bears?"

FWP’s Ben Jimenez searches for an ear tag near the remains of an elk calf in the West Fork. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • FWP’s Ben Jimenez searches for an ear tag near the remains of an elk calf in the West Fork.

It isn't Jourdonnais's fault that there aren't any elk up the West Fork, Boulanger says. And it isn't the fault of Jourdonnais's boss, regional wildlife manager Mike Thompson. Boulanger blames seven people: FWP's director, its commission and the governor who appointed them. "The commission in Helena is so far disconnected from the general public," he says, "that you could have a war in the streets of Darby with wolves hanging off of poles and street signs, there could be lynching and bombings and mayhem, and the commission would just be, like, 'Let's have a meeting.'

"Their idea of addressing the wolf harvest was to extend the season [to February 15], and you don't have to wear orange," Boulanger continues. "When that doesn't work, what are they going to do? Extend it another month?"

Earlier this month, FWP requested a second extension for the wolf hunt in the West Fork, ending April 1.

No wolves have been harvested from the area since the agency issued its first season extension in December.

Bleeding beyond borders

The situation doesn't appear to be getting better anytime soon. In fact, the problems in the West Fork are beginning to bleed beyond the borders of District 250. The elk population in the East Fork has plateaued in the past few years. Jourdonnais notes that bull calf numbers are actually declining and that calf survival is becoming a concern.

FWP is now looking at scaling back hunting opportunities in District 270 this fall. Bull elk hunters may have to get a permit, though the number of permits would remain unlimited since the elk population there remains above the agency's management objective of 3,000.

What's behind this downward trend?

The first year of the elk study has highlighted at least two new priorities for FWP's biologists. Kelly Proffitt, who heads the study, says the higher-than-expected ratio of lion kills on calves last year suggests a need to understand better the distribution and density of feline predators in the East and West forks. But until her team gathers more data on wolf predation this winter, Proffitt won't know how high a priority additional lion data will be.

After collecting body-condition data from roughly 200 adult elk cows in various drainages throughout 2011, Proffitt says the study will likely also branch out to investigate forage quality later this year. "What we've seen with the body-condition work," she says, "has highlighted the need for us to...actually get out and do some vegetation sampling and try and better understand the nutritional resources available to elk, particularly the West Fork elk."

Meanwhile, locals demand action.

FWP understands their concerns, Jourdonnais says.

His experience in the Upper Bitterroot has taught him that economic factors are an important consideration in wildlife management, he adds. "When you have a loss of hunter numbers and you have more restricted opportunities, certainly businesses feel that," he says. "It's not something we should just ignore."

Montana's current ability to manage wolves through public hunts places some control in the hunters' hands. And Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife is doing what it can to encourage such hunts, by offering a $100 prize to any hunter who bags a wolf. But so far this season, hunters have only filled 60 percent of the statewide 220-wolf quota.

Dustin Nielsen at Big Bear Taxidermy and Jerry Dicken at Mountain Spirit Inn say they haven't heard of many hunters venturing into the West Fork for wolves. Scott and Julie Fillingham have heard wolves howling a few hundred yards away, they say, but "can't get them out of the trees to get a shot."

Boulanger offered his clients a lion-wolf combo hunt this season, but only in his outfitting district on the Selway in Idaho, where lax restrictions and cheaper tags are more enticing to non-resident hunters. "Obstacle one: the price," Boulanger says of marketing Montana wolf hunts. "Non-resident tags are $350. What's the chance of killing a wolf? Slim to none."

State biologists prepare to release a cow elk on Andrews Creek after checking its health. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CRAIG JOURDONNAIS
  • Photo courtesy of Craig Jourdonnais
  • State biologists prepare to release a cow elk on Andrews Creek after checking its health.

Boulanger's dug into state and county laws, hoping to find a more aggressive way to fight elk predation. He points to a section of Montana Code that outlines a petition procedure for livestock owners to implement a county-based predator bounty program. In mid-January, the Ravalli County Commission released a draft of a county wolf-control policy that calls for a quota-less hunt with extended seasons and allows trapping.

The issue sets neighbor against neighbor in the Bitterroot. Marc Cooke, in Stevensville, who is pro-wolf, says he hasn't lost any friends over wolves yet but he's been in countless heated discussions. Cooke founded the National Wolfwatcher Coalition eight months ago in an effort to balance anti-wolf sentiments and already has 3,975 members nationwide, he says. "What I see happening is, you've got the individuals that are radicals on both sides, and there's no room to compromise. They're digging in."

Cooke says he's not against hunting, just "irrational fear and hate." He adds that he thinks the wolves are the targets of subconscious misdirection. "I think people see wolves as a form of the federal government," he says. "They didn't have enough input when [wolves] came here, and now that the wolves are here, they're not happy." FWP has already gone too far with its wolf hunts, he says.

Others, like Jerry Dicken, don't think they've gone far enough. "The wolf," Dicken says, "is a sore subject."

Yet Ben Jimenez says there's been a positive response to FWP's study. The locals might razz you a bit, he says, especially when they get to know you, and they may not have the kindest words for his agency, but they understand the importance of learning more about the complexities of the West Fork's elk. Beyond solving the mystery of the Upper Bitterroot's elk decline, the study's data will provide a thorough baseline for comparison with other elk herds throughout the region—a component that state managers largely lack at present.

"I don't think there's going to be one quick fix," Jimenez says. "It took us a while to get to this point, and it's going to take us a while to get back."

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