What happened to wolves ate all the elk?

Wyoming Game and Fish Department has announced that their 2013 elk hunting season produced a “near record” elk harvest.  They estimate that  25,968 were taken, a near record. However the number one year was 2012 when the hunt saw 26,365 elk reported killed. In a news release, the department compares today to 1995. . .”in 1995, elk harvest was 17,695 elk, more than 8,000 fewer than the Wyoming harvest of the past few years.”

The department choose an odd year for comparison, 1995. That was the year wolves were reintroduced.  Within a few years after Wyoming politicians and others were arguing that wolves were gravely harming the elk population.  Eighteen and Nineteen years later, elk are at a record. So did wolves cause the elk increase? Following the logic of those who fear wolves in Idaho and also like to compare elk numbers now to 1995 and before in several hunting units (especially the Lolo),  the claim that wolves cause high numbers might be made for Wyoming. That conclusion would be equally false as the Idaho wolf haters because geographic breakdown, weather, year-by-year hunt figures, and many other factors need to be taken into account.

The department release also said:

Wildlife managers continue to monitor the decrease in elk productivity and subsequent hunter opportunity in some areas of northwest Wyoming near Yellowstone National Park. Nesvik notes that while hunter success is high on a statewide basis, there continues to be elk herd units in the Jackson and Cody Regions where hunters are concerned about lower elk numbers and lower hunter success. The Department has documented lower calf productivity in many of these areas.

Of course, this too does not show that wolves are responsible for the lower productivity in part of NW Wyoming because the wolf population there is way down due to internecine wolf mortality in Yellowstone Park, and also the Wyoming wolf hunt. There has been a drought of about 15 years. Elk migration patterns have changed, vast areas have lost green forest cover due to massive beetle kill,  the number of hunters willing to hunt the deep backcountry has changed, and more.

Even before the recent reduction in wolf population, the hunter success rate in Wyoming was always over 40%.

All that can be said for sure is that there have been two years of very high elk hunting success (45%) and number killed.

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An addendum: statewide elk population estimates for Idaho, Wyoming and Montana show that since 1995, populations have grown in two states: Wyoming (16%), Montana (45% !). Idaho’s elk declined by 9%.

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About The Author

Ralph Maughan

Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University with specialties in natural resource politics, public opinion, interest groups, political parties, voting and elections. Aside from academic publications, he is author or co-author of three hiking/backpacking guides.

19 Responses to Wyoming has a near record elk hunt

  1. avatar CodyCoyote says:

    I think Nesvik is being duplicitous or telling half truths when he says that “hunters are concerned about lower elk numbers and lower hunter success ” in ( unspecified) hunt areas near Cody and Jackson. Every herd unit in all areas of northwest Wyoming and most of the entire state is at or above G & F’s own population objectives. Every one.

    What Nesvik may be alluding to – or has not been fleshed out here- is the anecdotal belief that hunters are not seeing the numbers of abundant trophy bull elk of 6 point or better racks. And why might that be ?

    Overhunting by humans is one primary cause for that. Elk changing patterns might be another factor. And guess who sets the hunting seasons and establishes the quotas. Yup. Nesvik’s own agency and peers.

    Many of the elk hunt areas near the Yellowstone NP boundary in wilderness or just below it are now limited quota with a relatively small number of antlered elk tags.

    I recall a meeting a few years ago when one of the younger more gung-ho outfitters was complaining that he wasn’t seeing near the number of big bulls that were there when he bought his camp, and tried to blame it all on wolves. A retired outfitter stood up and said back , ” You might see more bull elk if you didn’t shoot 45 of them every year up there …”.

    We have long accused Wyo G & F directly of actively mismanaging the elk hunts, and their harvest quotas are the principal reason for herds going out of balance as much as any other factor or combination of factors. G & F manages elk for harvest , not wildlife viability and sustainability apart from human hunting. It’s not about the overall population of elk, it’s all about huntable elk and the harvest. It’s their revenue on the line, after all. There is no shortage of elk —or wolves – in northwest Wyoming. The abundance and role of the human hunters needs to be factored in to a greater degree.

    I would also add anecdotally that there appear to be more than a tad too many licensed big game outfitter camps in proportion to available trophy bulls. Again, whose fault is that ?

    As for the lower elk calf recruitment, that’s probably a bona fide. Be sure that grizzlies, black bears, and cougars are likewise factored into smaller elk calf numbers, which move human hunting opportunity further down the list.

    Many factors are combining to affect elk populations and dispersion in northwest Wyoming. Many. I think Nesvik is cherry picking here….

    • avatar Nancy says:

      “It’s not about the overall population of elk, it’s all about huntable elk and the harvest”

      + 1 CC.

      Given that most outfitters bank on $$ selling their services (hunts) to attract big game, head hunters, maybe its time to back off and look at the science and realize you can’t keep “taking out” the best of the best of any species, without consequences.

      • avatar Louise Kane says:

        “Given that most outfitters bank on $$ selling their services (hunts) to attract big game, head hunters, maybe its time to back off and look at the science and realize you can’t keep “taking out” the best of the best of any species, without consequences.”

        it is bizarre that this subject does not come up more
        there are studies with fish that their response to overfishing is a lower age cohort for reproduction and smaller size. I think that’s awful
        I’ve read numerous times that wolves and coyotes have larger litters I wonder what other effects hunting pressure creates?

        • avatar Ralph Maughan says:

          Louise Kane,

          There have been a of of stories in the news and journals about commercial fishing serving to lower the age and size of ocean fish. Yes, it makes sense that heavy recreational fishing does that in fisheries that are not already “put and take.” That’s the reason for size limits, e.g., any fish over 16″ (or whatever) must be returned to the water.

          • avatar Louise Kane says:

            The size limits have been working with striped bass but don’t really apply to ground fish and other species that are gill netted or trawled and come up dead or dying.

  2. avatar Jake Jenson says:

    I’ve watched this for some time and I’ve wondered if varying geographies are somehow a factor? It seems to me the less mountainous regions of Wyoming and Montana provides more chance for healthy elk to escape wolves and those regions are doing better than the extreme vertical regions of Idaho where healthy elk might find escape quite a bit tougher? And what might the effects of deep snows mean in the various regions? What do you think Ralph?

    • avatar Ralph Maughan says:

      Jake Jenson,

      I don’t think the deep Wilderness in Wyoming around Yellowstone is well hunted. I mean that while there are many outfitters, their clients want big bulls, and these are in short supply, but what about cows and smaller bulls? The non-outfitted hunters way back in are fewer, I think.

      • avatar jerry collins says:

        Right Ralph….Fishermen finally wised up, and started releasing big trophy sized fish back in the 70’s and the size and quality went up drastically. Many of us only go for smaller (eating sized) fish, mostly for the sake of taste, and fewer contaminates. Of course, hunters do not have the option of releasing an elk that has been shot, then photographed. Many of the southern states have run out of big deer because all the large breeding bucks have been killed, leaving only scrub genes for reproducing.

        • avatar Ralph Maughan says:

          Jerry collins,

          Yes, a familiar problem — genetic depletion from a focus on large and trophy bulls and bucks even inside of deep backcountry and wilderness.

  3. avatar Ida Lupines says:

    Now this ought to be interesting. Will be avidly watching!

  4. avatar WyoWolfFan says:

    And yet people will still not listen to any reason on this and still say wolves are eating all the elk.

  5. avatar Immer Treue says:

    Ralph,

    +++An addendum: statewide elk population estimates for Idaho, Wyoming and Montana show that since 1995, populations have grown in two states: Wyoming (16%), Montana (45% !). Idaho’s elk declined by 9%.+++

    Are you at liberty to provide this source. Thanks.

  6. avatar CodyCoyote says:

    – here is the link to the entire 51-page 2103 Elk Harvest report at Wyoming Game & Fish.

    http://wgfd.wyo.gov/web2011/Departments/Hunting/pdfs/HR2013_ELK0005440.pdf

    I just gave it a cursory look, and was astonished to see that nearly every Elk hunting area in northwest Wyoming is now a Limited Quota hunt area, with only a few exceptions . The huge Thorofare area south and west of YNP in the wilderness is still a mecca for General Elk hunters…if you have a saddle and packhorse, that is. Back when I was last working the hunting camps in the late 80’s , there was lots of general license elk hunting , but the seasons shifted to limited quota long before the wolves populated the GYE.

    I forgot to mention in my comment yesterday that a principal reason for lower elk harvests in some of those high country wilderness areas might be due to poor hunting opportunity in September. Thanks to climate change, the weather in September is now what late August used to be. 25 years ago there was almost always a significant snowfall in the Absarokas around Labor Day, but the first real snows of the season have not been coming till October it seems. Just about the time the elk think about migrating, the hunting camps have already been stricken and packed out. So whatever hunting is happening in the backcountry is doubly hammering the local elk herds, hence the low harvest numbers. In other words, the trophy hunters are diminishing their own opportunity cumulatively from year to year. G & F has responded by allowing much longer elk seasons in the low country AFTER the purported migrations. In some areas near Cody-Meeteetse , hunters can take three elk in a season. Three. Just not a lot of bulls, though.

    Can’t wait to to see the JCR for the annual aerial Elk census done in northwest Wyoming in mid-winter. That tells me a lot more than hunting harvests. Same elk, different statistical methods. I’m willing to bet from anecdotal evidence in hand that NW Wyoming elk numbers in the wolf zone are still w-a-a-a-a-y above objective.

    It could be postulated —as Ralph so succinctly stated it —that it appears from the numbers that the NW Wyoming elk population has skyrocketed since wolves were reintroduced , both in numbers of elk counted and numbers of elk harvested. We’re talking 40 percent more of each here.

    I still think Wyo chief game warden Nesvik is cherry picking his data and spinning the product of it.

    • avatar WyoWolfFan says:

      Your comment about climate change is very accurate. I remember hunting in the Greater Yellowstone area as a young teenager and you could always count on a snowstorm by early October in the mountains and one severe enough to come into the valleys by the first week of November (or earlier, as I played plenty a snowy football game at the end of the season). Now it seems that those are coming much later. Even Thanksgiving isn’t as reliably snowy as it used to be.

  7. avatar Gary Humbard says:

    Research done in 2012 suggest wolves are reducing overall hunter demand in both the southwest and west central regions of Montana. In particular, the southwest region is seeing a shift in hunter applications from areas less than 25 miles to YNP to areas ranging from 25 to 50 miles. No statistically significant regional effect of wolves on hunter harvest was found in any region analyzed.

    Somewhat off topic, however I notice conflicting research results regarding whether wolves influence elk behavior. Some cite how wolves have made elk less prone to browsing aspen and willows and have created a trophic cascade effect while newer research indicates wolves have subtle effects on elk movements and more effects on elk mortality. The fact is that a top down effect is the desirable system. If only humans were mature enough to accept predators for what they do.

    • avatar Yvette says:

      “If only humans were mature enough to accept predators for what they do.”

      +++Well stated.

  8. avatar Richie G. says:

    To all who said about declining fish population, in certain supermarkets where I get wild caught salmon, their has been a decline, so companies have made packaging smaller of salmon. A worker told me it’s been harder to get certain fish in stock and I wondered is this to those big nets that trap all kinds of fish, Dolphins etc and just over fishing ? Climate change is here to stay and still people say its a natural cycle.

  9. avatar Wapitime says:

    Reading a lot of posts here, and it seems most feel wolves have little or no affect on elk numbers? You have to be kidding me? I just do not accept that reasoning.

    • avatar Nancy says:

      “You have to be kidding me? I just do not accept that reasoning”

      My guess is you’ve not spent near enough time researching the hundreds of articles on this site yet, Wapitime “)

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