Wolves and elk: ‘It’s complicated’

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This file photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife shows a gray wolf. (AP Photo/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Gary Kramer, File)

Wolves snare the lion’s share of blame among those who contend predators have dramatically affected elk and deer populations in the region and altered the ungulates’ distribution.

The reality is likely more complex, according to research studies that suggest a dearth of “early successional habitat” in forests can play a key role in pushing elk and deer out of places where they were once considered abundant.

Such habitat typically includes “grasses, forbs, shrubs and trees, which provide excellent food and cover for wildlife but need disturbance to be maintained,” according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Mark Lambrecht, director of government affairs for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, referenced a study published in Wildlife Monographs in November that examined elk nutrition and habitat in western Oregon and Washington.

“Long-term fire suppression and management for late seral and old growth forests in the region have resulted in dense trees crowding out the understory,” Lambrecht said.

“This has a significant impact on elk herd nutrition, reproduction and distribution,” he said. “Elk are frequently moving to private lands to find the habitat they need, causing problems for landowners and lost hunting opportunity for the public.”

Lambrecht said the solution is to manage forests for nutrition through a combination of approaches — including logging, prescribed burns and grazing — to achieve early successional forests with ample cover-forage edges.

“This requires individual trees be left in place while others are cleared; clumps of trees left in place for seeding and security cover; and openings created to provide areas where elk can access nutritious grasses,” he said.

Wolves are but one of several predators that prey on ungulates.

Earlier this year, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks estimated there were about 350 wolves in Region 1 and about 850 wolves statewide. A more up-to-date tally is being completed.

Meanwhile, the agency has estimated there are about 1,500 mountain lions in Region 1. The cougars kill elk and deer, as do bears. Coyotes kill deer, and elk kills by this smaller wild canine have been documented in Yellowstone National Park.

“Certainly, wolves and other predators have a significant impact on elk population, reproduction and distribution,” Lambrecht said.

But suitable habitat is a key factor, too, he said.

“The issue is a lot more complicated than a lot of people realize,” Lambrecht said.

Wildlife officials say harsh winters can affect ungulate populations. As can development of residential subdivisions in elk habitat.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and others have been invited to a May 4 meeting in Hamilton that is being organized by Glenn Schenavar of Columbia Falls.

Schenavar has helped organize three previous meetings during which wolves have been described as a menace to elk and deer and tempers have sometimes flared.

“Our elk herds are no longer in the backcountry where they used to be,” suggests a press release from Schenavar. “These herds have been pushed into the farms, ranches and river bottoms around houses,” it says.

Schenavar’s press release reports that “wolves kill more than they consume.”

Diane Boyd, a wolf management specialist for Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Region 1 and a nationally known wolves researcher, was asked about this observation.

“Not usually,” she said. “Not any more than a lion or a bear or a coyote. Every time a wolf needs to eat it risks being killed by the hooves of elk, deer and moose. They take that risk seriously, and don’t take that risk ‘for fun.’”

The meeting in Hamilton will focus on a goal described by Schenavar and others of reducing wolf numbers in Montana to 150 animals.

A press release about the meeting suggests the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service set an objective of 150 animals in the state when gray wolves were delisted in Montana from the Endangered Species Act. Actually, the service established 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs as a minimum population required to avoid the animals being re-listed.

Bruce Sterling, a Thompson Falls-based wildlife biologist for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, attended the wolf-related meeting held last year in Trout Creek.

Sterling said Tuesday that spring helicopter surveys suggest elk numbers in that region, in Hunting District 121, have remained pretty stable for the past 10 years, even with wolves on the landscape.

Survey counts, which are estimates, show that elk numbers actually seem to have increased in the district since 2009, with 1,339 animals counted in 2009 and 1,418 counted this year.

Counts do suggest a decline in bull elk numbers, he said.

“I was seeing 185 to 250 bulls during my annual surveys (2005 - 2008),” Sterling said. “Now, those numbers are down to around the 130 range.”

That drop could be attributed to a couple of years when hunters harvested more bulls, to harsh winters affecting calf recruitment, to predation by apex predators like wolves and mountain lions or to a combination of all, Sterling said.

Schenavar’s news release cites a host of state legislative efforts, most of them carried by State Rep. Bob Brown, R-Thompson Falls, that were introduced in the hopes of creating conditions that would make wolves easier to hunt and trap.

Three bills, focused on making it easier or cheaper to acquire a state license to kill wolves, appear to be headed to the governor’s desk.

But other proposed legislation failed to gain traction. These bills would have: allowed hunting wolves at night; changed trapping setbacks; or provided for state reimbursement of the expenses of successful wolf hunters or trappers.

Brown said Tuesday that he and constituents who favored the proposed wolf legislation that did not pass this session might take a different approach during the next session.

He said they might regionalize the legislation instead of introducing laws with statewide implications. Wolves aren’t a problem everywhere, he said.

Schenavar said like-minded sportsmen are learning about the legislative process and likely will be more savvy about getting bills passed during the next session of the Montana Legislature.

He said the reality he and other sportsmen have encountered in the backcountry is discovering that habitat once occupied by elk is now seemingly bereft of the animals.

Schenavar acknowledged mountain lions also play a role in affecting the numbers and distribution of elk and deer.

“These things don’t eat grass,” he said of the predator. “They don’t eat twigs.”

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at dadams@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4407.

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