Management of Predators: A need for changes in policies

George Wuerthner has authored this important report evaluating the objects of current and historical predator management and its consequences.

Management of Predators: A need for changes in policies
By George Wuerthner, May 2011 – Commissioned by Big Wildlife

ABSTRACT: Management of predators has historically been based on extirpation and/or a grudging tolerance of low populations. While extirpation of predators is no longer the goal of wildlife agencies, current state wildlife policies often maintain populations above extinction levels, but well below maximum biological carrying capacity. Predator policy typically ignores the ecological influence of predators in terms of their important influence upon ecosystem organization. Furthermore, management for populations without considering the social organization of top predators can lead to greater conflicts with humans, particularly livestock owners and hunters, the two groups who are often hostile to predators.


  1. Phil Avatar

    Very well said by Mr. Wuerthner. He gets to the point when he says (in different wording) that state management for predators does not drop to extinction, but is nowhere near biological carrying capacity. If the endangered, threatened, etc status of each species of predators was lower according to the ESA then what it currently is, I am sure the management plan from the states would call for even lower numbers of each species then what they are right now.

  2. william huard Avatar
    william huard

    This guy really knows what he is talking about.
    “Opportunities to reduce predator losses by changing grazing practices are not likely to be implemented as long as the public continues to subsidize livestock operations with predator control”
    How would the ranching community function if they weren’t able to play the victim?

  3. william huard Avatar
    william huard

    Gordon Haber is certainly missed. Compare Haber to the blowhards like Jim Beers or that lunatic Gary Marbut This is what we are up against. The science is becoming clearer but we are moving in the wrong direction

  4. SEAK Mossback Avatar
    SEAK Mossback

    I think all of these questions are important to understand and consider, but in major parts of the Rockies human demands and impacts on the landscape are going to dictate a lot. It is important, however, to step back before intervening to force a more “desirable” situation (whether it be more game to hunt or fewer conflicts with predators) to question whether it is possible, needed and worth it.

    From what I have gathered from this writers writings, he is just fine with low ungulate densities and harvests (with the possible exception stated here where he argues for high densities on ranchers’ property to feed predators and keep them away from livestock). The potential issue I see in the Rockies is not so much wolves, but the entire assemblage of predators (cougars, black and grizzly bears, wolves and hunters) and whether ungulate populations will be able to maintain the higher of the two equilibrium states of predator and prey.

    As I’ve mentioned before, moose in most of interior Alaska remain stuck at low equilibrium with predators, with just bears and wolves working on them and a few hunters under bulls-only restrictions. I have several friends who go up and hunt in those areas considered to be eternally in a predator pit and do fairly well, using various forms of access from one couple who hunt only within moose-packing distance of a main road (and have been successful the past 2 seasons) to others who use a jetboat to an 8 wheeled RV to a short charter flight to a lake and a couple of Whitehorse friends who use a canoe. The reason it works and they are frequently successful with no complaints is that there is little hunting pressure and they have a huge choice of where to hunt. And of course, one reason there is not a lot of hunting pressure is because there is a low density of moose. If you want to come in and change that to increase the moose harvest, it requires killing a lot of predators which requires more than just allowing liberal hunting and trapping seasons for wolves in those areas. Then of course, you will draw more hunters from the big towns and there are a few people who were happy before who will be put off by that — but others think its great because it increases overall participation and benefit, not to mention adding political strength versus other users. And as the prey increases, so will the wolves so before long you have to do more predator control. Biologist Bob Hayes in the Yukon has described the cycle and concluded that it isn’t worth it, although he apparently sees some potential for benefit from increasing trapping close to towns, that in Canada is limited by the way trap lines are set up and owned.

    In the northern Rockies, the expectations for ungulate harvests are already set way high from increased human populations and hunting during the 70 years when there were no wolves and fewer grizzlies than today. Under state management, it seems unlikely that a predator pit situation, healthy as it may be ecologically, will be accepted — with limited exceptions like the Yellowstone herds. So, I think we will see agencies trying to manage predators with hunting and possibly other means to maintain high hunter harvests over wide areas, although it may be difficult to succeed in meeting their objectives for some of the reasons this author raised, and others. However, it will take time to sort out and hopefully in many areas it will be possible to maintain a high equilibrium situation and hunting opportunity without bothering predators — as is the case in the Great Lakes states under high wolf density but a generally less diverse predator complex.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan


      This is an interesting analysis.

      I’d like to add that the more fertile the soil and the more gentile the climate, the more wildlife an area can support, other things being equal.

      Many places in interior Alaska and in the lower 48 Western states have plant life for grazers and browsers stongly limited by one or more factors: short season, severe temperatures, lack of water. The result is few elk, deer, etc, and so, inherently fewer predators. On top of this, the introduction of livestock, which are heavy competitors for these limited resources, make opportunities for all kinds of wildlife less.

      Some people think places like Yellowstone Park are, by their very nature, tremendous places for wildlife. They are that way only because there is no hunting and no competing livestock, so large animals present allow themselves to be more visible. The climate and fertility of the place is very constraining.

      1. SEAK Mossback Avatar
        SEAK Mossback

        I think there are basically two initial questions in looking at this:

        1. Is there a significant bottleneck caused by predators that consistently holds the prey population far below other habitat constraints?

        2. If there is, is it practical, cost-effective, and beneficial to attempt to reduce or remove the bottleneck over a longer period of time?

        Your comments suggest you believe there’s little potential benefit to looking for a predator bottleneck because the habitat will largely limit the populations at modest levels anyway (i.e. probably No to question 1). I think that’s a valid point and I don’t have a solid opinion yet on the NRM region. The Lolo area seems to be the forefront of debate so far but there are a number of confounding factors. However, the predator-prey science in much of interior Alaska and the Yukon seems to be pretty solid that there is a substantial predator bottleneck over much of the area. While removing it has nowhere near the popularly described potential of producing Swedish moose hunting in Alaska, i.e. about 5 moose per square mile with 1/3rd killed by hunters annually — it does appear the habitat could sustain up to around 3 moose per square mile instead of fewer than 1 currently.

        In that area, I think the question has largely moved to step 2, and that’s where public pressure begins to come in. Some of the obstacles are laid out in the paper above on moose management, including some hunters not wanting to see the additional hunter density and some campaigning against cow/calf hunting after the population increases. After a career working on these projects, Bob Hayes doesn’t seem to disagree that predators are a big influence in holding moose populations down, he just doesn’t see that it’s practical and particularly beneficial in the longer term to try to change it. Certainly, I have friends who hunt moose in low density areas in the interior that don’t think anything needs improving. But if someone with authority comes forward with money and marching orders, it will likely be attempted. In Alaska, the intensive management law may also come into play. That’s not to ignore that there’s a third step — weighing competing values and benefits of predators (most of which are covered by Wuerthner) as well as public opinion. It’s just that those are often more difficult to evaluate and weigh on an equal plane, so why go there before steps 1 and 2?

        While I find the evidence fairly convincing that predators are holding moose populations at a low equilibrium in much of interior Alaska, it’s less clear that something needs to be done about it. I think the Rockies are different, in that question 1 is the area still most open to question. Even though northern Yellowstone elk have decreased dramatically, for example, it is not clear yet that it is not just a fluctuation in a system responding to combined drought and a predator cycle (starting with wolf reintroduction) but still tending toward high dynamic equilibrium as opposed to settling into a relatively stable, low population constrained by predation with relatively few elk or wolves, but ongoing heavy bear predation. A key determinant in holding a population in low equilibrium appears to be the density of bears which tend to be a less progressive influence than wolves and cougars (and hunters if managed responsively to abundance). However, while that question is currently open, I think that in most places in the Rockies if predators are found to be becoming a major bottleneck, there will be a lot of pressure to answer yes to question 2.

        1. PointsWest Avatar

          Some off-the-cuff remarks on my part.

          1) I don’t believe the deer/elk densities in Yellowstone are so high when compared to other good habitat such as central or northern Idaho or somewhere such as norther California. Much of Yellowstone is high elevation hills of dense timber and not great habitat for ungulates. It is too high and is snow covered most of the year. The main difference in Yellowstone from other areas is that the deer and elk that are there are very visible from the road since the roads are located in the river valleys and in open areas such as geyser basins where most of the ungulates are. Since it is a Park, deer and elk are habituated to cars and people and are very visible. Yellowstone was seldom hunted or even visited by the Shoshone, Bannock, Blackfoot, Crows, or Sioux. Only a few Sheepeaters eeked out a living there. That is, it was considered to be poor hunting by Native Americans.

          2) I believe there is a bottleneck in Yellowstone. It is in the winter range. While the summer range is natural and as it was 200 years ago, the winter range is not. Elk unnaturally congregate at Jackson Hole and in the Yellowstone canyon near Gardner. 200 years ago, they would have migrated on down these canyons and down other canyons to the valleys and deserts to winter. They would have been much, much more dispersed in the winter than in summer and less vulnerable to predation by wolves. As it is now, they are concentrated in their winter range and wolf populations, subsequently, are artificially high. 200 years ago, elk would never have congregated on just a few canyon sides to winter as they now do near Gardner, Montana. They would have scattered across the valleys and deserts as they do at the Junipers (Egin-Hammer wintering area) west and north of St. Anthony, Idaho. The reason they can do this at the Junipers is because this area is an old lava bed and is too rocky for cultivation. The Junipers area is an exception. Most of the other natural wintering area are either under cultivation or the migration route to the wintering area is blocked by farms, ranches and fences.

          I believe something needs to be done about the winter range. The IDFG closes the Junipers (Egin-Hammer) area down in winter from motorized travel and other human activities. They should just include it into Yellowstone Park. I believe other wintering areas, without too much cost, could be managed and migration corridors to these wintering areas be opened.

          The only alternative is to control (kill) wolves in Yellowstone so their numbers remain at a natural low and we all know that is NOT going to happen.

          1. SEAK Mossback Avatar
            SEAK Mossback

            PointsWest –
            A potential bottleneck related to predation (predator pit) would be if the northern herd , most recent count 4,600, settled into a longer term trend below say 5-6 thousand despite improvement in forage conditions. I am not at all forecasting that, but the current population is about 1/3rd of a very conservative long-term capacity of say 12-15 thousand and about 20% of the carrying capacity of about 20-25 thousand estimated in the past (from which level I remember heavily impacted forage between Mammoth and Gardiner and, after a tough winter, mummified-looking elk untouched by scavengers laying all over the range long after green-up). I am certainly not advocating managing for carrying capacity, which implies very heavy impact on vegetation and by definition zero yield to hunters (even lower than from the current low population). I’m just pointing out that the currently accessible range could likely support far more than the current number of elk. Yellowstone is a natural laboratory where things are allowed to play out. I am just suggesting the obvious — that it will be some time before that approach and all the scientific findings from Yellowstone are embraced elsewhere in the NRM at the expense of competing consumptive uses, like hunting and livestock grazing.

            However, I am in total agreement on the winter range bottleneck. While I don’t necessarily agree with your past-stated ideas about moving out the park boundaries, I believe there should long have been plans to safeguard and extend important limiting parts of the ecosystem, like winter range under 6,000 feet. It was incredibly disappointing when negotiations between Forbes and the federal government fell apart and a 42,000 acre track right on the boundary went to CUT. Elk275 has reminded just how expensive the land would be to buy, but I remember long-time ranching families with prime potential elk and bison winter range just past Yankee Jim Canyon who sold out for far less than a fortune — one took a job as foreman on a ranch in Arizona while his sons, who graduated HS with me, worked on one near Dawson Creek. I agree that the days of the federal government buying land for conservation are pretty much over, but if there’s any silver lining to our system that has allowed the wealth in this country to become incredibly concentrated in a few private hands it is that many billionaires are finding they have far more than they know what to do with in their lifetimes and have started donating to causes that catch their eye. How many better conservation causes are there than expanding and restoring the functionality of Yellowstone Park?

  5. PointsWest Avatar

    The herd that winters at the Junipers near St. Anthony mostly summers at Bechler Meadows in the southwest corner of the Park. I can remember hearing my father say that this herd is not natural. It was created. There were few elk in the area around the turn of the century. Some local men captured elk and released them near Sand Creek west of Ashton and south of Big Bend Ridge. My father knew these men personally so it could not have been before about 1925. These few elk began summering in Island Park and wintering near the Junipers. As the herd grew, they extended their summer range to the east into Bechler Meadows. As Island Park developed and especially after it was logged in the 70’s, the habitat was degraded so the vast majority of the herd summered in Bechler Meadows rather than in Island Park.

    This herd today migrates approximately 65 miles between the Junipers and Bechler Meadows. The route forms a big arc to avoid the cultivated land near Ashton. There probably was an earlier herd that summered in Bechler Meadows since it is prime elk summer habitat. The earlier herd probably migrated down a more direct route to their winter range. They probably migrated down Fall River and down Robinson Creek to the Henry’s Fork flood plain and surrounding desert for winter range. The farming, ranching, and fences stopped this migration by 1900 and unregulated hunting probably destroyed the herd. So here is a case of elk finding a route around farming and ranch land and being successfully managed as a sustainable herd.

    As for the northern herd, there is plenty of low elevation bench land further down the Yellowstone River. There is some north of Livingston. It there was just a corridor for the elk to migrate through, they would probably migrate further down the Yellowstone River to the hills around Livingston. I’m sure some is BLM and NFS land, although I have not studied it. I believe this would only be about a 70 mile migration.

    Someone can correct me but I believe the elk herd that winters at Jackson Hole once migrated all the way down the Snake River into Idaho. One of the reason the Fed became involved in the National Elk Refuge was because Palisades Dam was constructed and blocked their migration route. I don’t believe all of them went this far but some did in some years. They were also blocked by the ranches in Jackson Hole.

    We had a stable and sustainable situation with elk congregating and wintering on very small winter ranges when the wolves were gone. Now that they are back, I don’t think it is stable, in the sense that elk numbers in the area are anywhere near where they were 200 years ago. Having confined winter ranges makes it too easy for wolves. The Bechler-Juniper herd shows that new migration routes can be established around civilization. I think more can be done to get elk more winter range.

    1. PointsWest Avatar

      I just checked and Palisades Dam came well after the establishment of the Elk Refuge but I do recall hearng that elk once migrated down the river into Idaho…where Palisades is today.

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Brian Ertz