Managing Wolves Is Managing People

Apr 11, 2016
In late March of 2016, news media in the US and UK ran a story about a pack of nine wolves killing 19 elk, mostly calves, in a herd near Bondurant, Wyoming, that were yarded in an area where they're fed during the winter to help prevent starvation..

Wolves are predators. Elk are a prime prey for wolves. What made this elk kill get so much coverage was that 16 of the dead elk were calves and none of them were eaten. Two of the three adult elk killed were pregnant females. Such "Surplus killings", when more prey are killed than are eaten, are rare, according to wolf biologists. In some situations the wolves will return later for food, however, there's no guarantee that the wolves will return to the kill at all.

In October of 2009 the LA Times ran an article about another wolf surplus kill in Dillon, Montana, where a rancher found the carcasses of 122 of his purebred adult sheep killed by wolves. It was, according to the Times, an example of the ability of wolves to kill for the "pure pleasure of it."

No one seems to have asked the wolves what motivated these killings. A "wolf whisperer" could help us know why wolves engage in surplus killings, but for the time being we have to rely on scientists.

What scientists tell us is that the main prey for wolves are ungulates -- moose, deer, elk, bighorn sheep and mountain goats, and in Canada and Alaska, caribou. Elk, caribou deer in winter and livestock are herd animals, and so they're the most likely surplus kills. Wolves also may prey on domestic cattle, sheep, and goats, as well as beaver, rabbits and even small rodents like in the movie and book "Never Cry Wolf," although this is also rare.

Mass killings of prey species by wolves may not be regular, but they happen. June 29, 2004, nine wolves, the Cook Pack, took part in mass killing north of McCall, Idaho, killing 70 sheep. The Cook Pack reportedly killed more than 190 sheep from 2002-2004. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and ranchers tried to discourage these wolves, using cracker shells, sirens, lights, and live fire from shotguns, all without success. So on July 20, 2004 federal wildlife agents killed the entire pack.

In 2013, two wolves took on a flock of 2,400 sheep near Idaho Falls. They killed 176 animals, most of the sheep dying of asphyxiation as they panicked and stampeded. Ten sheep died from bite wounds and only one was partially consumed.
Wolves are not the only species engaging in surplus killing. It's also been documented among zooplankton, damselflies, predaceous mites, martens, weasels, badgers, orcas, red foxes, leopards, lions, spotted hyenas, spiders, brown, black and polar bears, coyotes, lynx, mink, raccoons, dogs, and house cats. But, when wolves kill large numbers of prey species that have economic as well as ecological value, it helps get them in the spotlight where they are already the most controversial of all wildlife.
Gray wolves once ranged over almost all of North America north of Mexico City, except for parts of coastal California. One estimate of the national wolf population in the early 1600's is two million. A campaign to eradicate wolves began shortly after European settlement began. The first bounty on wolves was established in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Other colonies soon followed suit. Hunted, trapped and poisoned, by the early 1900's less than 1000 gray wolves remained in the Lower 48, most of them in Minnesota, a few in the Northern Rockies and a small population on Isle Royal. Subpopulations of the red wolf in the SE US, and the Mexican wolf in the Southwest were minimal. By 1930, wolves were essentially gone from the Lower 48.

When the Mayflower landed more than 10 million elk roamed nearly all of the United States and parts of Canada except the modern states of Alaska and Florida.By 1907, due to market hunting, lack of hunting seasons and habitat loss, only 41,000 elk were left in the wild and the Eastern elk sub-species was extinct. Wolf predation may have helped a little.

Today, about one million elk live in the western United States, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina, and from Ontario west in Canada. Elk are a majestic species and big business for hunters, wildlife watchers, guides and outfitters. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has played a very important role in elk restoration.

With human help, the wolf population in the US has also rebounded. Today it's estimated at 5,500 for the lower 48, 8,000-11,000 for Alaska, and Canada has 60,000 wolves.
The restoration of the wolf population in the lower 48 is a story of human decisions. In 1973 wolves received legal protection via the Endangered Species Act. In 1987 a plan to restore wolf populations was finalized, calling for reintroducing wolves transplanted from Canada into central Idaho & Yellowstone Park. The goal was 10 breeding pairs in each of three recovery zones in Idaho, Montana & Wyoming for three consecutive years, and once this was established, wolf management was to be turned over to the individual states. The plan was accepted and in 1995-96, 66 wolves from southwestern Canada were transplanted into Idaho and Yellowstone National Park. In the first five years of wolf recovery predation effects were not detected and elk herds in both those areas were high.

By 2002 the population criteria for delisting was met for 3 straight years with a minimum count of 663 wolves. A swarm of lawsuits blocking state control and hunting slowed things down but by 2008 USFWS delisted wolves in the Northern Rockies, which allowed states to enlist hunters to control wolves. Despite hunting, wolves numbers have not only increased but wolves have spread into Washington, Oregon, California, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan and there are reports of wolves in New England, as well as recovery programs for two sub-species, the red wolf in the Carolinas and the Mexican wolf in Arizona and New Mexico.
During the same time, elk populations nation-wide have also been increasing but, in both Yellowstone National Park and the Lolo area in Idaho where wolves were first introduced, elk populations have declined dramatically. Elk are the primary prey for wolves, comprising 92% of kills during the winter. The elk population in Yellowstone NP declined from 19,045 in 1994, to 3915 in 2012. As the number of elk has gone down, the number of wolves in Yellowstone has declined from 171 in December 2007 to 82 in December 2012. There's no wolf hunting in Yellowstone NP, but as wolves leave the park, they meet hunters. Distemper and possibly mange, have also been factors in the population decline. Wolves also kill each other in territorial contests.
Wolf populations go down and elk population go up. The 2015 winter survey of the Northern Yellowstone area counted more than 1,130 elk inside the park and more than 3,700 in adjacent areas of Montana. That's almost 1,000 more animals than the last reliable count, in 2013, and the highest since 2010.
In central Idaho, the other area where transplanted wolves were originally released, the Lolo elk population has dropped from 16,000 elk in 1989 to roughly 2,100 elk in 2010, and possibly fewer than 1,000 in 2015.
There'is considerable debate over the elk herds in and around Yellowstone NP and in central Idaho. Hunters, outfitters and guides say that the herd numbers are inflated and they see few elk, or none, in areas where they once were so plentiful. Wolf advocates counter that the elk have just moved to areas where there are fewer wolves, in those areas elk are still plentiful, and there should be more wolves to help control elk.
Wolves in some places do increase tourism but another growth industry since the reintroduction of wolves in 95-96 is wolf-elk research. Studies to date have been both enlightening and controversial. For example:
*In 2007 Scott Creel, a professor at Montana State University, published a study suggesting that in addition to predation, the presence of wolves stressed elk, leading to poor female health and fewer pregnancies, which added to wolves killing an estimated 22 elk each per year for food.
*The same year University of Montana Professor Mark Hebblewhite published his study in Banff, where there are wolf densities comparable to those that exist in Idaho and Montana. He found that wolves have killed off 90% of the elk population; wolves caused 56% of all moose fatalities and caused an 8% per year decline in moose numbers; wolves may drive woodland caribou to extinction; and that maintaining pre-wolf ungulate populations in post-wolf landscapes isn't possible.

*Washington State University researchers found that when wolves were killed one year, wolf behavior changed and more livestock were killed by wolves in the next, so lethal control was not that effective.
*Other research by biologist Arthur Middleton, concludes that black and grizzly bears kill more elk calves than wolves.
*Another, wildlife biologist, Shannon Barber-Meyer, agrees with Middleton and adds that climate change is also a factor in declining elk populations, as in drought years elk have been forced to consume immense quantities of nutrient-poor fodder to try and meet their caloric needs, but most females were still undernourished and therefore unable to conceive.
*Steve Alder from Idaho for Wildlife, counters that Canadian and Alaska wildlife managers have told him that regardless of weather, habitat or ungulate harvest the wolf will be the biggest cause of big game losses in our back country units

*Add to this the information you get in direct mail marketing from various environmental groups that says that wolves are still endangered, and you can help save them by sending money.
Considering these different viewpoints, it becomes very clear that only the wolves and the elk know what's really going on out there, and they're not talking. What is clear, though, is that today, population estimates for gray wolves are at least four times larger than the original, agreed relisting criteria of 150 wolves in each of the three states, while the size of the Northern Yellowstone and Lolo elk herds is down by 80%.

"Experts" in the Information Age often can be anyone who has a computer. In such situations, it's helpful to consult those with solid training and who look at the big picture. Rising above the pack are three seasoned experts:

1) Dr. David Mech is a senior research scientist for the U.S. G.S., adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota and founder of the International Wolf Center. Mech has said that "Wolf removal rates of 30-35% or less typically do not cause any long-term changes in wolf abundance, while sustained removals of 40% or more may cause long-term reductions." And, "There's no biological reason against having a regulated hunting season."

(2) Ted B. Lyon is a Texas trial attorney, whose litigation record includes many environmental cases and awards for his conservation work as a state representative and state senator. Lyon first got interested in wolves when the elk herd around his cabin in Montana vanished following wolf re-introduction. Research led him to play a key role in legislative action about wolves. Lyon has translated his quest to understand wolf politics in a book written with Will N. Graves, The Real Wolf The Real Wolf is written as a presentation before the court of public opinion (the reader) considering wolf management and the future of the Endangered Species Act.

The Real Wolf is an anthology of expert witnesses testifying about various aspects of wolf management. The book concludes with Lyon's closing argument. Instead of arguing emotions and projections, he states that the costs of wolf reintroduction into the Northern Rockies were roughly $104,000 per wolf. And in 2010 wolves killed over 8,000 head of cattle in the US, at an average cost of $1000 per cow, that's a direct loss of $8,000,000 to the cattle industry in the states with wolves. However, since research shows that only one in seven cows killed by wolves is ever found, the total loss to the cattle industry is at least $56,000,000 for one year. This does not include an estimate of the loss in revenue to big game guides, outfitters, local businesses, and states from decreased license sales, which are all significant. Lyon concludes by saying "I also think people who are part of the environmental movement need to take a close look at the groups that use the wolf as a rallying cry to raise money and file endless lawsuits over wolf hunts."
(3) One person who'd agree with Lyon on this last point is Pulitzer Prize-Winning. Investigative Journalist, Tom Kundsen, who's written a 5-part series, ENVIRONMENT Inc , a study of modern environmentalism based on more than 200 interviews, travel across 12 states and Mexico, and thousands of state and federal records. Knudsen's research on wolf advocates reveals another view of wolves, underneath that furry pelt they can be cash cows.

—James A. Swan, PhD.