Findings contradict local views on the dire effect of wolves on elk calves-

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and University of Montana have a 3-year study going to find out about elk and predator relations in the southern part (the “upper part”)  of the Bitterroot Valley, Montana.  By the time of the recently ended  wolf hunt, almost all the elected leaders and sportsmen groups knew the elk were migrating “wrong” and wolves were going through them like a knife through butter.  For example, read  What’s eating the elk? Folks in the Bitterroot know the answer is wolves. State biologists aren’t so sure.

Pressure was applied to Fish, Wildlife and Parks to extend the hunt, especially in the southern Bitterroot area where many thought a lot of tricky wolves must be hanging out because their “harvest” quota wasn’t close to being met.

Now that some data are in it turns out that elk migration is not clear. More data are needed.  Study of the West Fork of Bitterroot migration has not yet yielded conclusions. There are too few radio collared elk there.  In the East Fork Bitterroot the elk either didn’t migrate, or migrated the short distance up into the mountains of the nearby Bitterroot Divide.

Most surprising to those who already know what kills elk calves should be the predation figures. 97 calves were collared. By late February 38 of the calves were found dead. Cougar got 13 of them. Black bear and wolves only killed four each. So 2/3 of the 38 dead elk calves were killed by predators. Mountains lions accounted for 61% of the predatory kills. Wolves were 19% of the predatory kills, and just 10% of the total calf mortality.  A focus on wolves is not likely to increase the number of surviving elk calves here, but note that this was one winter in one place where many folks thought they knew the answer.  Those who will now scoff at them should also have humility and not generalize this to all of Montana. I do suspect though what most of additional studies, if any, will find about predation.

The basic figures of this story came from an article by Perry Backus. Results of Bitterroot elk study surprise scientists. Missoulian. I used them for additional calculation.


About The Author

Ralph Maughan

Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan's Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of "Hiking Idaho." He also wrote "Beyond the Tetons" and "Backpacking Wyoming's Teton and Washakie Wilderness." He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

21 Responses to Early findings of southern Bitterroot elk study yield unexpected findings

  1. Rancher Bob says:

    What you left out was 10 calves died for unknown reasons. I would place a bet most of those ten deaths were caused by wolves, hard to prove cause of death when there’s nothing left of the calf. Feed a elk calf to a lion or bear there is something left to prove cause of death, feed a calf to a pack of wolves it’s all gone. Wolves will eat the meat, guts, hide, bones, hooves even the teeth and finish up by licking the blood from the grass.
    Yes wolves are taking a bulk of the blame and most of that is for a reason, they cause more deaths than just what they kill. Longer chases cause stress which causes abortions, longer chases result in weight loss which causes abortions and starvation. I know that’s what and how the wolf is made it’s not the wolves fault, so let the wolf lovers start defending the charismatic animal.

    • Ralph Maughan says:

      Rancher Bob,

      My guess is also that they were too decomposed or scavenged to tell. I can’t think of any reason why the ratio of cause of death should be different than those that were determined except by chance. These were elk calves, so talk about abortion due to long chases doesn’t make any sense.

      • Rancher Bob says:

        The mortality call goes out 8 hours from when movement stops in most those collars.
        Again it would be interesting to know more about those 10 or 11, I’ll do some digging for you on that one.
        As for abortion, I’am talking about the overall effects of wolves on prey, which this study does not address.

        • Ralph Maughan says:

          We need to know about cows and bull too. In the Yellowstone winter wolf predation studies, there tended to often be large differences from year to year in the sex and age of elk taken (except that elk cows in their prime were nearly immune to becoming food).

          • CodyCoyote says:

            Too small a sample set to be drawing any large sweeping conclusions.

            HOWEVER- the Absaroka Elk Ecology Study being done NW of Cody is finding that predation by grizzlies on elk calves in Spring is serious ; migration patterns are altering ; vegetation is greening up much later than normal and thus elk cows are going into the following autumn-winter about 50-75 pounds short of fat reserves and because of this they are only getting pregnant every other time around, having smaller calves, and losing more of them due to diminished lactation.

            Wolves are preying on elk AFTER the griz and black bears and ( suspected) cougar have their way.

            The study was financed by RMEF, SFW, Safari Club , etc to prove wolves were culprits and harming hunting, but the science went somewhere else. Oh by the way there are plenty of cattle int he study area and by and alrge are not getting significantly preyed on by the SIX wolf packs that frequent Sunlight Basin -Crandall-Absaroka Front region , which has a hefty surplus of Elk numbers that is growing in spite of climate change and wolves.

            Science won out over dogmatic ‘ build to the conclusion’ backers. Full study will be poublished next year for peer review.

            Sometimes, Science is a two barreled shotgun…one of those barrels is always pointed at the feet of the shooter.

            • Rancher Bob says:

              Each area differs, the Bitterroot “officially” lacks grizzlies, thus the reason for the study.
              It’s interesting to hear cattle elk wolves all living and prospering together.
              Also have the elk lost the fat reserve before wolf introduction or after sometime I have get more questions than answers.

            • Immer Treue says:

              I believe this is the study

              that created a veritable fecal storm and when it was first posted, I believe in the New West, and a number of commenters (including one of my favorites) said it was probably funded by Ralph Maughan, and groups associated with him, rather than one of the organizations to which the aforementioned commenter was a dues paying member.

          • Rancher Bob says:

            Talked with the person investigating cause of death for the elk calves in the above article.
            In this first round all deaths with any question were reported as unknown, the final report will go into suspected causes of death based on notes and photos.
            The study is using ear tag beacons which trigger when movement stops for a period of time. As I commented there were a number of cases where all that was found was the beacon and part of a ear.
            Cattle producers have the same problem, when small animals are involved, hard to prove cause of death or even death when all that’s left is a blood stain.

  2. Immer Treue says:


    “Yes wolves are taking a bulk of the blame and most of that is for a reason, they cause more deaths than just what they kill. Longer chases cause stress which causes abortions, longer chases result in weight loss which causes abortions and starvation. I know that’s what and how the wolf is made it’s not the wolves fault, so let the wolf lovers start defending the charismatic animal.”

    Not intended to begin an argument with you in particular, but the idea/philosophy of game farming has been brought up many times, and I’ll reinforce it here. Is the west in particular looked upon as a giant feedlot for elk, mule deer, etc, or are they wild animals? They have co-evoloved with wolves for centuries, and those genes don’t disappear in the short amount of time (relatively speaking) that wolves were missing from the puzzle. There is now a season for wolves, and in MANY ways, shapes and means wolves are being controlled.

    The question again, are the elk wildlife, or are they part of the broader game/farm feedlot mentality?

    • Rancher Bob says:

      If you looked at yellowstone 20 years ago it looked like a game farm, yes that was a broken system. Also where elk are feed in the winter looks like game farm, but the rest of the west does not look like a game farm. I ask you this where are the studies that show wolf benefits where man hunts. I have no problem sharing my hunting grounds with other predators, but each of us must be limited if any of us are to have a share. When those elk co-evolved they were mostly plains animals were they not? I have no problem with the wolf just the propaganda.

      • Immer Treue says:


        I believe you are correct, that elk were/are more of a tweener in terms of bordering woodlands. And I have no arguement with sharing hunting grounds with predators. It would appear that we are headed in that direction. The propaganda, I think you’ll agree, is a two way street, with the real answer somewhere in the middle.

    • Elk275 says:

      With or without wolves after the first week of hunting season elk are elk and difficult to find and hunt until deep snows. The citizens of the Northern Rocky Mountain states want maximum production of ungulates, the citizens of the state want maximum hunting opportunities.

      Regardless of what the Bitterroot studies show the local wolf population has to eat and wolves eat ungulates.

      I like wolves. Wolves are like shaved black truffles over risotto, use sparingly the truffles impart a wonderful favor, used excessive the favor becomes over powering.

      • Daniel Berg says:

        What I’ve found with black truffle risotto from truffles found locally is that it’s better to supplement the shavings with a little truffle oil. The two can actually complement each other quite well if you find the right oil.

  3. Leslie says:

    Rancher Bob
    The Absaroka study, not yet officially published, looked at two elk herds over 3 years, one migratory (the one with the low calf/cow ratio), and the other resident. I helped out some and housed the interns one year. The interns watched collared elk daily, noting 15 minute periods of either standing, running, resting, etc. They found the migratory elk were no more vigilant than the non-migratory who had much fewer wolves to contend with.

    The big difference was in the amount of time the two spent eating with the migratory herd spending much more time. The resident elk live by hayfields and cultivated areas.

    Last year there were more wolves in this area than the whole northern range–4 packs with about 10 wolves each. This year there are 2 packs with only 4 wolves and only one breeding pair in all. The pack in my valley are 3 adults and one pup and are very poor hunters–eating mostly deer and only getting elk they can corral into a corner, as opposed to those that are on the flats. Where did those other wolves go? Unknown, but an observer did see the alpha female of the Sunlight pack, pregnant, killed by another pack. That pack now rule my valley. They were the ones who kept stealing meat from the other pack last year.

    Not only are things dangerous for elk, but for wolves too. Although the elk herd here has low amounts of calves, that means they have a lot of smart older cows that have lived with wolves for over 10 years now. They are not easy to take down.

    All this just goes to show 1. How little we humans know and especially 2. that nature will take care of itself. Wolves cycle up and down in numbers without us humans taking care of it. Wolves kill other wolves. Elk get smarter by the day.

    And frankly I’d blame a lot of the Absaroka elk problems on drought and climate change.

  4. Rancher Bob says:

    Thanks for your insight.
    I make a living harvesting grass and I find the drought/climate change angle more than little hard to swallow when one talks of wild animal weight gains.
    As your elk herd gets older and smarter they are also becoming less productive as in fewer calves.
    I don’t know about your life but in my life every decision effects animals around the ranch. Swath hay early you expose young animals to predators, swath latter and predators have less to eat, and my friend the red tail hawk lets me know about things like that. My life cycles and I as a human am a part of natures cycle and a part of nature, you may choose to be a passive part or active part.

    • Jay says:

      Rancher Bob–how much of the grass you grow is dryland pasture, and how much is irrigated?

      • Rancher Bob says:

        My pastures are dryland native grasses.

        • Jay says:

          So you don’t do any supplemental feeding whatsoever, no irrigation-grown hay throughout the year? In other words, drought conditions be damned, your cattle do just fine on what nature provides?

  5. Leslie says:

    Rancher Bob,

    “I find the drought/climate change angle more than little hard to swallow when one talks of wild animal weight gains. As your elk herd gets older and smarter they are also becoming less productive as in fewer calves.”

    You need to uncouple weight gain and older elk productivity. That was not what was being addressed by this study. What was addressed was calf-cow ratio and what was affecting the low rates.

    Best read the study and its findings. Certainly nature is a complexity and there are no simple answers, not black and white, like simple minded rhetoric bloated people like to believe. But I think you’ll be surprised at the care and science went into this. I personally watched Mr. Middleton, the lead research student, ponder all the data over and over in his mind, like a puzzle he was trying to piece together. His most noteworthy and surprising discovery was that these elk were calving every other year, as opposed to every year, in order to save nutrients.

    Here is the link for you to read.


March 2012


‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey