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Predator and Prey

Struggling to find balance between elk and wolves in a changing ecosystem

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The images alternate, flipping like a deck of flash cards: graphs of jagged blue lines forming sheer peaks and valleys; a photograph of a wolf standing against a snowbound backdrop; a bar graph filled with gray-blue blocks, antiseptically tracking the decline of one of the West's largest elk herds; a photograph of a wolf, hackles raised.

The message presented to the Idaho Fish and Game Commission last fall by a group of department biologists was anything but subtle. Elk populations in the Lolo area of North Idaho were falling by dramatic levels and the official finger was pointed squarely at the wolves.

It was a change in the tune of the official melody heard since the controversial predators were reintroduced in 1995.

There was never doubt that wolves would have an impact on ungulate populations, but just how much of an effect could only be determined with time. Now, 15 years later, the increasing number of gray wolves is hailed as one of the great success stories of the Endangered Species Act. But as wolves have multiplied, their favorite food source, elk, have declined in many areas, raising concerns among both state biologists and those whose livelihoods depend on the elk.

The greatest decline has been seen in the Lolo Zone in North Idaho, where rugged, densely forested and largely inaccessible terrain has allowed wolves to flourish. At the same time, a domino effect of factors has led to a 57 percent decrease in the number of elk in the same area in just four years, according to Fish and Game officials.

While this is the first time these attention-grabbing numbers have been officially released, the drastic decline is no real surprise to those who live, work and recreate in the area. Hunters and outfitters have been anecdotally reporting drops in the elk population for years.

Fish and Game officials haven't been blind to the issue, either. In 2005, the department started a statewide project, studying 11 different areas to determine the major causes of elk mortality in correlation to the number of wolves in the area.

That study was refined in the last two years, with a special focus on the two areas with the largest populations of wolves: the Lolo and Sawtooth regions. In both areas, the results were the same: Wolves were the largest cause of mortality.

Jon Rachael, state wildlife manager for Fish and Game, is careful to add that this is not the case in all areas of the state. In fact, recent Fish and Game studies showed an increase in elk numbers in the Panhandle area. Last year, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation released numbers showing a national increase in elk population, with a 5 percent increase in Idaho during the last 25 years. The same report showed overall increases in Oregon (28 percent), Washington (7 percent), Montana (66 percent) and Wyoming (35 percent).

But even in areas where elk are declining, wolves aren't always being named as the main cause. Rachael said that in some areas, other factors including habitat degradation and development are far more significant. Still, recent studies have pushed wolves up that list in some areas of Idaho.

"It's never easy to say, 'This is the problem, and this has been the problem all along,'" Rachael said. "[But] we have enough information to make some pretty firm conclusions."

Domino Effect

Elk in the Lolo Zone haven't caught many breaks in the last decade. Not long ago, the area was nationally renowned for elk hunting because of the number and good physical condition of the herd. In the late 1980s, the Lolo area was home to between 15,000 and 16,000 elk, but that number dropped to roughly 12,000 by the mid-1990s, according to Fish and Game.

Even then, concerns were being raised about habitat. Wildfire suppression led to fewer foraging areas and larger trees, making it harder to support so many elk. Then, in 1996, winter hit hard and early, with heavy snow on the ground from October through spring. In that one season, nearly 50 percent of the herd died, Rachael said, with the regional elk population dropping to roughly 8,000.

Black bears were also hurting elk numbers, with higher than normal numbers of elk calves being killed. Fish and Game responded by increasing the harvest of black bears, resulting in a short-term improvement in elk calf survival.

But by then, the wolf population had increased, putting a new pressure on the herd.

Some of the highest mortality rates are among cows and calves, meaning fewer calves are born each year and fewer of those survive, leading to the simple fact that the herd cannot recover from its losses. Rachael said the minimum number of calves needed to maintain a population is 20 per 100 cows. In the Unit 10 hunting area, within the Lolo Zone, that number is 17 per 100, while in Unit 12, the ratio is seven per 100.

That combination of factors has led to some very sobering numbers. In 2006, surveys counted roughly 4,000 elk. The latest numbers report roughly 2,100 elk, and Rachael said those numbers are expected to drop further.

"There's no doubt that people who have hunted in those areas recognize the changes over time that have occurred there," said Jay Crenshaw, Fish and Game regional wildlife manager for the Clearwater Region.

But the cause of the elk decline isn't as straightforward for supporters of the wolves.

"There's a lot of things going on in that area," said Jesse Timberlake, Northern Rockies associate for Defenders of Wildlife, one of the conservation groups that has led the continued charge to get wolves put back on the Endangered Species List and under federal oversight.

He points to the fact that the elk decline started long before wolves were introduced.

Timberlake, a big game hunter himself, said he doesn't doubt that wolves are part of the overall issue, but he believes the continued poor habitat plays a much larger role.

"Just pointing to wolves and saying they're responsible for all the decline and using it as an excuse to reduce numbers is not the best scientific approach," he said. "It doesn't give the whole picture."

The recent elk count results aren't a real surprise to those who rack up the most time in the area: commercial outfitters and guides. Most of them readily acknowledge that the Lolo herd has more than just wolves to deal with, singling out the habitat issue as another leading cause, and vocally supporting the need for habitat restoration projects, including letting more fires burn. But they also believe the increasing number of the predators has pushed the situation over the edge.

"The advent of wolf reintroduction; that exacerbated the problem with the Lolo elk herd, and Fish and Game have shown the impact," said Grant Simonds, executive director of the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association.

Tim Craig, owner of Boulder Creek Outfitters and Lost Lake Outfitters, said 2003 was a red-flag year for him.

"You might ride for six or seven hours without seeing an elk track," he said.

Craig has worked in the Lolo area for 32 years and said he's seen elk populations rise and fall but that wolves have changed the game. He added that other areas where he hunts with clients may be seeing worse declines in elk numbers, including the Selway.

"I'm not a cry-wolf person, but this is bad," Craig said. "I've never seen anything so destructive as these wolves."

Timberlake said it's very possible that wolves are changing the way elk behave, "making them a little more wild," and stopping them from congregating in large groups, making them harder to hunt.

"Wolves get the short end of the stick," he said.

The Wolf Issue

Addressing the factors that have led to the decline has been a challenge. Fish and Game ended all harvesting of elk without antlers (the young and cows) in the Lolo Zone several years ago and has continually cut the number of elk tags. But when it comes to addressing habitat concerns, things aren't as straightforward, due in part to the patchwork of government land management agencies and private owners that control the area, as well as the sheer scope of the landscape.

"The habitat manipulations that would need to take place are absolutely enormous," Rachael said, adding the department just doesn't have the capacity to implement them. "The only factor left out is reducing the primary source of mortality by wolves."

Understanding the best way to do that means having a clear picture of wolf activity in the area, but at this point, researchers can only give an educated guess as to just how many wolves are in the Lolo area.

Fish and Game conducts fixed-wing flights over the area every two weeks to track radio-collared wolves, but only a few animals have collars and the rugged terrain makes them hard to find without technological help. According to Fish and Game, only 142 wolves carry radio collars in Idaho. Efforts to collar more wolves were stymied after a helicopter crash during a collaring outing, but Crenshaw said the department intends to continue with the collaring effort as soon as the "paperwork is done."

"It really concerns me that we can't get a handle [on wolf numbers]," Craig said. "How do you manage something when you don't know how many there are?

"If they don't do something this year, immediately, right now, I'm putting the red flag out right now: It's going to be over for us, not just as a business, but as a hunter."

Reducing the number of wolves in the state has been one Fish and Game's more controversial tasks. When the state took over management of the species after it was removed from the Endangered Species List in early 2009, Idaho officials announced the intention for a limited wolf hunt. Despite lawsuits filed in federal court by conservation groups to try to force the relisting of wolves, Idaho opened its first wolf season in the fall of 2009.

While many conservation groups feared the hunt would mean the wholesale slaughter of wolves, the reality has played out much differently. At the end of the wolf hunt on March 31, the statewide quota of 220 wolves was not reached. Despite lengthening the season through the end of March, a total of 188 wolves were taken.

"At best, we stopped [population] growth," Rachael said. "That's a long way from a reduction."

Seven of the state's 12 wolf hunting zones closed before the end of March because limits had been reached. In the Lolo Zone, 13 of 27 wolves were taken, while in the Sawtooth Zone, 49 of 55 wolves were taken. In the Dworshak-Elk City Zone, which borders the Lolo Zone to the west, the limit of 18 wolves was reached, although only 27 of 30 wolves were taken in the Panhandle area to the north. The state killed an additional 138 wolves because of livestock depredation or other conflicts.

Officials estimate that there are roughly the same number of wolves in Idaho now as there were a year ago, with an estimated minimum of 843 animals compared to an estimated minimum of 856 wolves in 2008.

The main reason: Wolves reproduce at a rate of roughly 30 to 40 percent per year. According to the state wolf management plan, the wolf population goal is roughly 520. The plan was approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before turning species management over to the states. It lays out the groundwork for maintaining the wolf population at set levels, as well as dealing with conflicts.

Timberlake said hunting is a legitimate tool to keep populations in check, but Defenders of Wildlife and other conservation groups feel that a hunting season is premature and with wolves under state control, their numbers will drop to unacceptable levels.

That idea is the core of the most recent lawsuit against the government trying to force the relisting of wolves. As of press time, the federal court had yet to make a ruling.

"We're not against hunting because we're an anti-hunting organization," Timberlake said. "We think that wolves should have federal protection. Any hunt at this time is wrong. Not that it can't be part of a management plan in the future, but a management plan based on science, not politics."

Many conservation groups have stated not only their dislike for the hunting season in general, but for the fact that the season lasts into the spring, which they feel could put pregnant and lactating females, as well as pups, in danger.

"They're claiming that they're going to treat wolves like other big game species and other carnivores, but having a seven-month-long season where you can kill pups and pregnant mothers ... they don't do that with other species," Timberlake said.

Rachael counters with studies that show the earliest a litter has ever been born is in early April, after the end of the season. Regardless, wolves are a reality that Fish and Game and Idahoans will have to deal with.

"Wolves are here, wolves are continuing to impact livestock and deer and elk populations," Rachael said. "Our intent is to remain engaged. Now, there's nothing to do but plan on a season ahead and see how things work out in the court case."

Rachael said hunting wolves has not been enough to reduce pressure on elk in the Lolo area, but the department is moving forward with plans for another hunting season, although the 2010-2011 season limits won't be set until August.

"The reality is, we're a bit limited on what we can do to help that elk population," Rachael said. "Down the road, if we cannot see a positive impact from hunting, we will have to seek out other measures."

Simonds points to other reported elk declines in the Middle Fork and Sawtooth areas, where there are also high densities of wolves.

"The anecdotal evidence is as obvious as the potential outcome," he said.

"We've got too many wolves," Simonds said. "At this point in the ball game, additional action on the part of the state is what's going to be needed going forward."

Craig said he knows the wolves aren't going anywhere. "They're there and we have to deal with them, and deal with them correctly. But nothing's being done. They're so concerned about being sued, they've been doing it politically correct and not worrying about businesses," he said. "It's a slap in the face."

Life with Fewer Elk

The social implications of fewer elk are very personal for those living where the annual influx of hunters plays a major role in the economy.

In recent years, a combination of fewer elk hunting tags and fear among hunters that more wolves mean there are no elk has led to major drops in the number of hunters.

"Like any other rural Idaho small town where there's a significant reliance on outdoor recreation, when one sector of the economy goes in the tank, there's a spin off effect," Simonds said.

Fish and Game sold roughly 14,000 fewer tags in 2009 than in 2008. The math of that reduction adds up to some pretty big losses, considering that a resident hunting license costs $12.75 and an out-of-state license costs $154.75. Then, hunters must purchase an elk tag, which runs $30.75 for Idaho residents and $416.75 for out-of-state tags. But the financial effects go further. Hunters drop some serious cash for travel, food and lodging, often in small communities.

While individual reasons for not hunting are many, Rachael said a department survey showed that high prices for out-of-state tags and the real or perceived impacts of wolves are the top reasons cited.

Elk tags in the Lolo area have been capped at no more than 1,600, but that limit hasn't been pushed in recent years, Crenshaw said. Only about 50 percent of the 1,008 resident-hunter tags were used last year, only 35 percent of the allotted 236 outfitter tags were bought and all of the 356 non-resident tags where purchased, he said, adding that while the non-resident numbers look good, hunters can purchase leftover outfitter tags, but there has been no demand for that recently. To address the declining elk numbers, the Fish and Game Commission recently enacted further cuts to the number of tags in the Lolo area, cutting archery-season elk tags by 6.5 percent and firearm tags by 14 percent.

Some worry that those cuts could mean the end to more than one small outfitter business.

"We're talking about small businesses that were small to begin with, [and now] there's a deep question of whether they'll be able to continue to operate in the area," Simonds said. "There is a number of our outfitters whose primary concern is being able to pass on their heritage to their sons and daughters, and that's becoming almost a figment of our imaginations at this point."

Craig is a long way from throwing in the towel, but he does worry about passing his business to his son. "We're fighters. No one's going to close up shop," he said. "We're going to try everything we can to survive this."

But Craig added that he doubts the elk numbers will ever increase to past levels.

Others living in the affected areas are feeling the pinch as well. Dennis Harper, public affairs chairman with the Orofino Chamber of Commerce, said hunters bring in several million dollars to the community each year, much needed revenue in an area suffering roughly 20 percent unemployment.

"Take a few million out of the economy, then the impact becomes huge," he said.

A 30-year resident of the area and an avid hunter, Harper said he's witnessed the reduction of game and the loss of quality habitat, and that he personally feels there are too many wolves in the area. He stresses that he's not a fanatic, just frustrated.

"The bottom line is that it's a very serious situation and, unfortunately, we're dancing on politically correct rather than doing what needs to be done to ensure a quality of life in Idaho," he said.

While Harper said Fish and Game is taking action, he feels the department isn't moving fast enough.

"Someone needs to take it seriously, and it can't be a warm, fuzzy approach."

He calls the court battles a nightmare.

"Unfortunately, everyone needs to sit down at a table and use some common sense," he said. "We're stuck in the middle and we're paying the price economically and in quality of life."

While Craig said he, too, hates the litigation that has come with wolves, it might be the next step for outfitters and hunters.

"It's the last thing you want to do, but it has to be considered because it's going to put us out of business and push everyone out of the woods. We can have both, and we can do fine with that, but it's pretty one-sided right now."

While some believed the loss in elk tag sales would be offset by wolf tag sales, Simonds said the additional $186 for an out-of-state wolf tag is prohibitive for many hunters—a resident wolf tag costs $11.50. Last year, the state sold 25,744 resident wolf tags and 684 non-resident tags.

Craig said of the 120 to 130 clients he guided last year, none bought a wolf tag, and he had only two or three inquiries about wolf hunts.

That issue was addressed by Idaho House Bill 463, which was signed by Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter on March 25. The bill allows the Fish and Game Commission to basically bundle a non-resident elk or deer tag with a bear, wolf or mountain lion tag, allowing a hunter to kill one of the predators on the tag during an open season.

According to the bill's fiscal impact statement, the change is anticipated to increase adult non-resident tag sales by at least 5 percent, adding an extra $336,900 to Fish and Game's revenue.

What is Balance?

Supporters on both sides of the issue use the term "natural balance," but for many, that's an impossibly nebulous term.

Timberlake points to recent studies from Yellowstone National Park, showing habitat improvement due to wolves reducing elk numbers and forcing herds to move more, helping overgrazing. This habitat improvement helps an array of other species as the effects trickle down.

"Everything is reshuffling," he said of the reintroduction of wolves. "Idaho is a very, very big state ... There's plenty of game for both the carnivores and for the hunters."

"The truth is, there are all sorts of ways you can balance," Rachael said. "Eventually, yes, we would like to reach some sort of balance over time, but it's not likely to be the balance acceptable or desirable for those folks that, for the last 100 years, looked at deer and elk as a food source.

"We could manage for a much larger number of deer and elk, but that would be a larger number of wolves to go with it," he said. "We're so far removed from a natural human-unaffected landscape that's it's just not realistic. We're trying to balance the desires of an enormously diverse group of people. Some want that semblance of the Wild, Wild West, and those with more of a utilitarian-based background ... the social demands are enormous."

The idea of balance is one Craig said he understands, but added that as things stand, wolves aren't in balance.

"It's not something that you can just ignore," he said.

Even with the substantial decline in the Lolo elk, Rachael said it's not an elk apocalypse.

"Populations are not going to disappear," he said. "Is it reasonable to expect those to fully recover? No. But they're not going to disappear."


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Have questions about this story? Talk to the experts. Suzanne Stone from Defenders of Wildlife and Ed Mitchell from the Department of Fish and Game are taking your questions. Click here to post your question at Questionland.

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