George Wuerthner wrote May 2 about his desire to respond to “misinformation” regarding the relationship between gray wolves and elk populations across the Northern Rocky Mountains (Elk herds flourish with proper wolf management). His words do nothing but confuse readers about what is really going on.
First of all, Mr. Wuerthner claims Montana elk numbers have flourished since 1992, and he suggests wolves have had no impact on elk populations in Montana. In other words, he applies a broad brush to the overall landscape without zeroing in on specific affected areas.
Statewide elk populations are irrelevant to impacts by wolves. When you talk about wolves, you must address areas where they live — not where they don’t. Elk numbers in the Missouri River Breaks of eastern Montana are unaffected by wolves as there are no wolves in that area; it is an apples to oranges comparison.
Since the reintroduction of wolves in the mid-1990s, the population of the Northern Yellowstone elk herd is down 80 percent from nearly 20,000 to less than 4,000 today.
In the mid-2000s, some biologists claimed the elk population stabilized in the 6,000 plus range, yet since that time the herd dropped another 30 percent in size and is now below the 4,000 mark for the first time ever!
The story is similar in central Idaho where the elk population dropped.
43 percent since 2002. Those are just two examples and there are other pockets with high concentrations of wolves having an effect on elk populations.
Having said that, it must be stated wolves are not the sole cause for elk decline, because habitat issues and other predator populations such as mountain lions and bears also come into play, however wolves play an obvious and significant factor in those regions where their numbers are high.
However, it is no coincidence elk numbers declined significantly since the 1995 wolf reintroduction. This fact cannot be explained away.
Mr. Wuerthner likes to use management objective numbers to bolster his case.
Elk management objective numbers are completely irrelevant to impacts by wolves and Mr. Wuerthner knows it.
He counts on the fact that many people will not know the difference. You could eliminate all wolves today and there would still be areas where elk are above management objectives.
Management objective numbers are set through a political process. They have nothing to do with actual population counts, or trend counts, as they are called by wildlife managers.
Prior to the wolf reintroduction in the Northern Rocky Mountains, recovery goals were agreed to by all, including Mr. Wuerthner. Yet today he and others continue to resist any form of wolf management similar to all other forms of wildlife like bears, mountain lions, deer, elk and so forth.
The dirty little secret is an active controversy over wolves is good for the bottom line for those groups who solicit donations to “save the wolf” and yet put nothing into wildlife management, habitat restoration or anything else related to wildlife management.
We often ask these groups where do those dollars go. No answers are offered. Our audited financials are available to the public, we put our money into the resource and we are proud of it.
More numbers to consider. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks estimates Montana’s 2013 minimum wolf count at 627 while also stating in reality the count is “25-35 percent higher.”
If you do the math, you’re looking at a wolf population numbering somewhere between 783 and 846. That’s 500 to 600 percent larger than the original agreed upon federal recovery goal set more than 20 years ago.
Mr. Wuerthner was among those supporting the recovery goals in the mid-1990s, yet he now openly campaigns against them when no new science exists to contradict original recovery goals. Wolf numbers also are well above minimum recovery goals in Idaho and Wyoming. In fact, there is a new study published in the Journal of Animal Ecology strongly suggests an over density of wolf population is likely the biggest threat to wolf mortality, not man.
Lastly, it’s important to examine Mr. Wuerthner’s background. He claims to be an outfitter in Yellowstone Park, yet the park says he is a concessionaire approved for painting and photography. He does not hold active outfitting certification in Montana or Wyoming.
He also works for the Western Watersheds Project, a noted pro-wolf, animal rights group that calls for the elimination of cattle grazing on public ground. And Wuerthner himself has seriously suggested the U.S. to cease cattle production altogether. His opinions are far from objective.
Go to rmef.org for more information.
M. David Allen
RMEF President and CEO