Bitterroot: Where have all the elk gone?

Elk pop. of West Fork of Bitterroot has dropped 21 % in four years. Wolves live there too. Therefore wolves must be responsible?

This seems to be the current argument of Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks. They used to have other explanations.  More properly this new logic would be one hypothesis (one of a number of possible explanations*). They want the federal government to give authority to kill 12 wolves. If granted, would this be a good test of the hypothesis?

Story on the issue: Bitterroot: Where have all the elk gone? by Alex Sakariassen. Missoula Independent

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*Of course, there are the ideologically driven. They don’t need a test. Wolves did it. They always do.






  1. jon Avatar

    Good post Ralph. The easy solution is to blame the wolves like so many have been doing.

    From the article,

    “FWP feels that the decline in elk numbers in the Bitterroot is likely primarily due to increased antlerless harvests achieving a planned management reduction,” the EIS states, “and that there is no evidence that wolves or combined predator numbers have much to do with the decline of elk counted through 2008.”

  2. jdubya Avatar

    A simpler experiment would be just to curtail human harvest in that region for a 2 to 3 year period and then measure populations. If the primary predator is man, then just relieve that burden. If doing so still results in elk decline, then worrying about other predators would be a useful direction to take. Sounds like a fine masters/PhD thesis to me.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar


      Yes, there are a number of ways to test the hypothesis, and no one test alone would even be definitive. Then too, even if there was one or a series of good tests of various hypotheses, it wouldn’t change the minds of many people.

  3. Lisa Upson Avatar
    Lisa Upson

    Here is a link to the proposal. Public comment closes November 10, 2010.
    – – – –
    I hope folks will take note of this. Webmaster

  4. JimT Avatar

    I am waiting for the anti wolf crowd to suggest the way to combat global warming is to kill all the wolves. Just like the theory that if you plow the prairie, the rains will come…

    Some of the more rabid wolf hate speech…

    1. timz Avatar

      Don’t know about that Jim, I would bet most wolf haters would deny global warming exists

      1. jdubya Avatar

        They do tend to drink at the same bar, don’t they?

    2. Ryan Avatar


      No more than I would expect some wolf lover to tell me wolves will solve global warming.. Some posters on this board have come close to that.

      1. ProWolf in WY Avatar
        ProWolf in WY

        I think it’s safe to say that most wolf haters don’t believe in global warming but I also think it’s safe to say that most wolf lovers don’t think they will solve the problem.

    3. ProWolf in WY Avatar
      ProWolf in WY

      It’s amazing how people fall for that kind of propaganda.

  5. JimT Avatar

    If they have a tendency to ignore clear science results because it doesn’t fit political views…the probability is high.

    Folks can ignore it all they want. It is coming regardless, and it will much worse as we go along.

  6. JerryBlack Avatar

    I find it interesting that the press and others avoid talking or writing about HB42 that the Montana legislature with the sponsorship of Debbie Barrett, the lapdog of the livestock industry, passed in 2003.
    This bill mandated MFWP to pick “computer model” elk objective #’s for every hunting district in the State and to get the elk #’s down to socially acceptable numbers by 2009 or else.
    Consequently, elk were over harvested in the following 5 or 6 years.
    For instance…..knowing that the check station count is only about 55% of the total harvest, the true harvest for 2005 in the Bitterroot was close to 700 elk which at that time equaled about one third of th elk population. Over 5000 elk between 2003 and 2009 left in the back of trucks.
    Maybe some of you with nothing to do can explore this a bit more.
    The point being, yes, wolves may be the tipping point, but reckless over harvesting started this downward spiral.

    1. bob jackson Avatar
      bob jackson

      Right on!!

  7. elk275 Avatar

    Jerry, the check station is just a snapshot of what is currently happening on a day by day basis. Every December the fish, wildlife and parks calls each hunter and ask about there success and where they harvested game. The success numbers each year for area 250 should be available from Helena.

  8. jdubya Avatar

    The claim is that the deer numbers are down due to the gas exploration work, but, in reality, I am sure it is the wolves fault…

  9. Tim Bondy Avatar

    Elk numbers are down? Hunting of elk is still allowed? Sounds like a “no duh” moment but I’m sure wolves are also having their way with elk also. But who knows…maybe the wolves are drinking “the Kool-Aid” and cannot find the elk?

    1. ProWolf in WY Avatar
      ProWolf in WY

      Tim, didn’t you know that it is a duty of everyone out west to not only hunt elk but nothing should stand in the way of you getting one?


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.

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Ralph Maughan