The West needs more, not fewer, wolves

George Wuerthner responds to anti-wolf claims and asks wildlife managers to consider the ecosystem, the whole community of life, in assessing wolves’ influence in the west:

The West needs more, not fewer, wolvesMissoulian, Guest Column – June 7, 2010 :

Despite the dire predictions from hunter advocacy groups that wolves are “destroying” elk herds, the real problem for Montana and other western states is not that wolves eat too many elk; rather the problem is that they do not eat enough.



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  1. jon Avatar

    George writes some amazing articles. He uses logic and common sense. Something the wolf haters aren’t capable of.

  2. bigsky Avatar

    Extreme antiwolfers often engage in poor rhetoric such as wolves are 200lb nonnative land piranhas hiding in peoples beds. Extreme prowolfers are little better with romantic notions, such as predators can’t affect prey populations (not exhorted by George here). If killing wolves leads to younger animals which are less skillful hunters then they probably do not produce more surviving young. State agencies killing predators (and federal which are not license funded) just because of license sales is an over simplification. There are laws, depredation responses, population management goals of other species, human conflicts, politics, etc. involved. I’m not sure it’s accurate that California has plenty of elk, before or after current mountain lion policy. Yes, Minnesota has plenty of wolves and whitetails, but saying that both occur at high densities in the same area, or that high wolf density doesn’t affect whitetail density anywhere in Minnesota is inaccurate. Minnesota is a completely different ecosystem producing more biomass per unit area in general, more deer and more wolves can fit into the same area as in the northern rockies. Many of the areas with the highest whitetail densities in Minnesota are in agriculturally dominated landscapes where wolves are rare to absent. Statewide elk numbers are slightly down in MT, disproportionately so in areas with high wolf numbers, still about 150000 elk. The bigger problem is what’s happening with rare prey species such as moose, whose numbers have plummeted across much of the wolf’s range in the three state area. If wolves cycle with the dominant biomass in their diet (elk or whitetails here), then they do not cycle with their less common prey species (such as moose).

  3. Jeff N. Avatar
    Jeff N.

    There’s no room for this type of reasonable, thoughtful discussion regarding the topic of wolves. Who does this George guy think he is?

    1. SEAK Mossback Avatar
      SEAK Mossback

      bigsky –
      Actually, I think the much of the higher deer density in Minnesota (over 10/square mile) does occur pretty solidly within the wolf area. There’s kind of a belt of most of the highest deer density habitat that runs across northern and central Minnesota from the Wisconsin border ending in the prairie in the west shown here:
      You can see that the southern portion of the wolf density distribution encompasses a large part of that area.
      As near as I can tell from having driven through the area in different directions, the large area of higher deer density is the mixed transition zone between mostly forest and mostly agriculture. My wife is from the Northwest Angle on Lake of the Woods and I’ve spent some time in Minnesota and know a number of people who hunt there. My impression is that the distribution of deer (and for the most part the abundance) is not much different than what it would be without wolves – certainly there are lots around Angle Inlet where wolves probably never were knocked down that much. Wolves are certainly not wildly popular with many rural folks, but mostly you just hear mild grumbling and grousing. Some don’t like the way wolves kill deer, driving some out on the ice where they apparently slip and break their pelvis. I gathered a handful that are trying to implement “quality deer management” on limited parcels, including winter feeding, don’t tolerate any wolves on their property – but being less flamboyant and prone to boasting than many westerners, they keep their months shut. Many hunters will tell you that wolves run the deer out of a hunting area (although I have a friend who thinks they’ve helped his success on an occasion or two). That seems to be the most common complaint which a DNR researcher addresses here:
      However, hunters I’ve talked to don’t seem to think wolves actually have much overall impact on actual deer numbers. It seems that whitetails are superbly able to escape predators and even when there are lots of deer, wolves have a tough time catching them. Therefore, there is nearly always a high and sustainable predator-to-prey ratio even with over 3,000 wolves in the state. Exceptions have been severe winters with deep snow like the early 1970s when Dr. Mech observed packs near Ely eradicating deer all the deer in their territories and going after remaining pockets in other territories, resulting in considerable bloody warfare.

      As you point out, none of this proves anything about what will happen in the Rockies with a different mix of prey and more types of predators in some areas (although I would guess whitetail deer will probably do OK there too). However, more than anything it is an interesting study in cultural contrast where with over 3,000 wolves in Minnesota and over 1,000 in neighboring states and the feds somehow still finding ways to drag their feet on delisting – there’s only a little grumbling and head shaking. And once they are delisted, the Minnesota state management plan calls for a 5-year period before any hunting will be considered. Compared with the Rockies, that’s the patience of Job!!!

    2. jon Avatar

      seak, some are crying wolf in Minnesota.

      Now, I would understand if wolves killed more deer than hunters, but not the other way around.

    3. WM Avatar


      Just a couple of points of clarification MN and the Great Lakes Wolves on your last post. The Feds have not really dragged their feet on delisting Great Lakes Wolves. To the contrary, they have been trying to delist for sometime. HSUS (Humane Society), et al. sued to relist, after the wolves had been delisted in 2007, in US District Court in WA DC. The issue was the proper use of a DPS designation and then simultaneously delisting based on it (an issue which is also part of the NRM litigation before Judge Molloy). The point of contention was whether Congress intended to use the DPS concept in this way. FWS then made what they believed was a proper fix on the legislative history and bolstering their DPS logic, and gave notice to delist again. HSUS then challenged, saying they need to take additional testimony on delisting, which resulted in a settlement to hold off.

      MN got really pissed about thia delay, and basically said, we don’t care what you (FWS) do with the Great Lakes DPS, we have a completely separate basis to delist under the ESA, and we want you to do it now. That resulted in a petition to that effect filed with FWS about six weeks ago. WI and MI have jumped on the band wagon and filed their own petitions, as well as shirt-tailed on the MN petition, since all of their source wolves migrate in from MN. So FWS is frustrated by all the wolf advocacy suits, and three states are just plain pissed their wolves are not delisted. MN has been ready to delist for over five to eight years, and being that late DNR is impatient about waiting another five for a hunting season under their current plan (plans can be amended you see, but in MN it also requires a change in the law committing it to the five years after delisting before a hunt can occur). I have seen in print and heard grumblings that the legislature may want to change their statute because this has gone on far, far to long in the eyes of some. Same for WI, based on my personal knowledge.

      MN really doesn’t know how many wolves they have, and their count is extremely conservative.

      Lots of wolf advocates try to make a comparison between the Great Lakes and the NRM on the cultural difference alone. I think the areas are different for alot of reasons that have every bit as much to do with the ecosystems themselves, as the cultural aspects.

    4. Moose Avatar

      I don’t have as much experience with Minn as I do with WI and the UP of MI, but I think any real comparisons between the Great Lakes situation and that of the RMountains is fairly limited. There are more differences than similarities in my view as far prey base, terrain, trust in the DNR (not so high with UP deer hunters-that’s another story unrelated to wolves), and general acceptance of wolves.

      As far as cultural acceptance, there is still very strong support for wolves in those states as a whole (and the state’s respective DNRs to their credit have adequate plans in place). Public support in wolf country has taken a bit of a hit with the recent court action. Just giving the DNR the ability to remove problem wolves again would go a very long way in rebuilding any lost ground when it comes to tolerance for wolves among the public.

      Mich also has a five year wait period after delisting before a hunting season can be initiated. As I have said before, I support a hunting season, but question how effective it will be in “managing” wolf numbers. If reducing the wolf pop. is the goal I really don’t see it happening without some type of trapping season – which I’m not a big supporter of.

      I am not anti-hunting. I have many fond memories bird-hunting in the UP. I enjoy being out in the woods, but just don’t have any desire to kill anything anymore. Some of the most knowledgeable woodsmen I’ve known were hunters. With that said, there is a small % of hunters who really have no business carrying a gun. Below is an example.

      If fails to load – go to YouTube and search “montana coyote hunting” – is this really legal in Montana?

    5. Save bears Avatar
      Save bears

      Ethical NO!

      Legal, Yes, in the state of Montana, coyotes can be killed by any means deemed legal at any time of the year, there is no season on them and they are not classified as a game animal.

      That said, I will say, that is not hunting…

  4. Angela Avatar

    I bet some heads exploded just upon reading that headline, lol.

    1. jon Avatar

      George definitely has a much different outlook on things. You won’t see many hunters talking about wolves the way he does. Some try to discredit what he has to say because he supposedly lives in Vermont now, but I believe he lived in Montana and Oregon before. I think the people of Montana don’t like George because his opinion on wolves differs from theirs.

    2. Elk275 Avatar

      “The West needs more, not fewer, wolves”is George’s opinion and his thesis is correct for his vision of the ecosystem. But, there are many others who have a different opinion on wolves, elk and what there correct vision of the ecosystem should be. Who is right? Who will prevail?

      As the population of elk declines because of wolf predation and local hunter opportunity is lost or reduced and “over the counter tags” are now awarded in a drawing, the opposition to wolves is going to get very intense. It will be only a matter of time before someone is going to be hurt or killed. I was having a beer tonight and was told that after the wolf meeting they had last week a very vocal anti wolf person ask a very pro wolf person the step outside. The pro wolf people bunched up and left. Was it brave bar talk or a factual incident?

    3. jon Avatar

      Elk, I don’t know if it was you, but didn’t you say you and george are personal friends or something?

    4. Elk275 Avatar

      I have known George since we were in under graduate school at the U of M in the early 70’s. I have not seen him in 13 years since the funeral of one of are university program leaders in Livingston. I think that we floated the Yellowstone several times fishing around 1990 but my memory is foggy. One does not have to agree with one they know and I respect both sides of an opinion if it is well reasoned and researched. If both sides are reasonable then there is grounds for a compromise.

  5. SEAK Mossback Avatar
    SEAK Mossback

    WM –
    Thanks for the clarification – I was a little hastey putting it all on the feds, it just seems like the process has gone on a long time and perhaps the feds could have anticipated and forestalled this last hang-up. However, while the HSUS suit seems weak, they are able to choose a favorable venue (D.C.) so are able to keep traction with repetitive drawn out legal action in an uniformed and potentially sympathetic court.

    Moose –
    I agree that a wolf season is unlikely to do much to control wolves in those states or change the situation with deer much. If it has no purpose or effectiveness in restoring or maintaining prey populations or reducing livestock depredation, then it is just a matter of preference of whether people want to see a limited harvest of wolves or not. In Alaska, I don’t think even hunting and trapping combined have much effect in reducing wolves anywhere. There are two areas I know of that have substantial wolf populations and very heavy trapping, Prince of Wales Island and Unit 20A just south of Fairbanks. There is a lot of logging road access and I think about 18 active trappers on POW that take a lot of wolves in addition to those killed by hunters and there has been a management plan to cap harvest based on an estimated population level that has been supported by an intensive wolf research project. They are the Alexander Archipelago wolf that is considered under threat, however the threat is not current harvest but longer term projected habitat and prey loss from even-age forest management. In Unit 20A, there is a dense moose population and the wolf population seems to be driven more by that than the intensive trapping – it doesn’t hurt to have tremendous habitat connectivity with a steady supply of young dispersing wolves coming from all directions. I think, in general they figure to generate much response in prey populations here, the wolf population has to be reduced by 80% and held there for 4 or 5 years. That may be in part because bears are usually also a substantial factor, but there is probably nowhere that would happen with just hunting and trapping.

    It’s not just the number of individual wolves, but another consideration is that per capital food acquisition tends to increase as pack size decreases:

  6. WM Avatar


    Interestingly absent from the data in the paper you cite is pack size range for those wolves whose primary prey is elk. This is, I believe, an older paper, 1997. Wonder whether the conclusion holds true for NRM?

    I also wanted to correct a couple of facts from my earlier post on the Great Lakes Wolves. The MN only petition to delist: I mistakenly said 6 weeks ago. They filed their petition on March 15, 2010 (11 weeks ago).

    WI DNR’s official position is that it has actively sought delisting for 10 years, and their separate delisting petition, as was MI’s, was filed about 6 weeks ago.

  7. SEAK Mossback Avatar
    SEAK Mossback

    WM –
    Just guessing, buy I would expect the slope of the decline in acquisition/wolf with increasing pack size to be similar to moose and deer, but the magnitude of food acquisition/wolf to be intermediate between the two for elk, as it is probably dependent on the size of the animal. Food acquisition, as they calculate it, appears not the same as what was consumed – but the total consumable weight estimated for the all the animals a pack killed within a given time period. I suspect the relationships are driven heavily by removal by scavengers which are going to get a lot larger proportion of a large animal like a moose than a deer, that might be pretty well slicked up by wolves in one sitting. Likewise, a larger pack will likely consume a larger proportion of what they “acquire” because they can eat it in a shorter period of time. However, the effect is that smaller packs kill more of the same size prey to feed themselves.

    In addition, I imagine the particular scavenger community plays a substantial role in the amount wolves kill. I have always been amazed at how fast they can slick things up. In Yellowstone (before wolves), a deer hit along the road at night was finished by morning. Our neighbors at Mammoth had an elk die one night leaning against their house and an amazing amount had been consumed by daylight (That’s why it was so stunning one year in the 70s when so many elk starved that many lay untouched until they mouldered into the ground in the summer). Around here, I put fat and deer bones from butchering down by the beach and can hear eagles and ravens squawking and closing in by the time I get back up the path. In Kodiak and Sitka, they talk about dinner bell bears that come to rifle shots. I have dinner bell ravens on the mountain behind my house.

  8. JB Avatar


    A clarification: In Minnesota, there are a few politicians who are really excited to “manage” wolves. The DNR’s data suggests wolf populations are stable and they have more deer than they know what to do with. From my experience, I think they would be more than happy NOT to have to deal with the controversy associated with managing wolf populations.

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Brian Ertz