All the damage that wolves have dealt to the big game herds of Western Montana was not supposed to happen. Anyway, that's what wolf experts were telling the residents of the state back when the Northern Rockies Wolf Recovery Plan was accepted and signed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1987, or when that agency drafted the 414-page Environmental Impact Statement for that project in 1994. Those who put those official documents together claimed that, on the average, each wolf would account for the annual loss of about 14 wild ungulates - i.e. elk, moose, deer, etc.
We now realize and have known for the past seven or eight years that typically each wolf brings down between 20 and 25 big game animals annually for sustenance. That's something that those experts missed by a significant margin in the "Plan" or the official EIS. What those experts also failed to cover were other losses of game to wolves. It has become very clear that these apex predators do not kill only for what they need to eat. Wolves, especially when they work as a pack, kill just to be killing, perhaps to hone their hunting skills or to better teach the younger members of a pack how to hunt. Those "sport kills", or that "surplus killing" as some wolf researchers like to call it, can equal what it takes to keep wolves fed, and as often as not the wolves eat very little of the game they take for the sheer pleasure of sharpening techniques and tactics for bringing down game that can be three...four...five times larger than the individual wolf.
Then, there's the loss of the not yet born. Wolves relentlessly pursue prey animals, often following a herd for days, or for a week or more before making a move to actually kill. In the Northern Rockies, the lean months are generally February and March, when big game herds begin to find less to eat, and must rely on fat reserves to carry them through until the new grasses begin to sprout, or the tips of browse begin to bud new leaves. By this time of winter, the sick, weak and old which many claim wolves only kill have already been pretty much weeded out. To wear the game down, wolves will keep the animals constantly on the move, running in to inflict injury and to wound. After a few days of such pressure, the injured and the weary from being constantly kept on the move can no longer keep up, and the wolves pick them off one at a time.
Especially vulnerable at this time of year are the pregnant cows and does. Weakened somewhat from less than adequate browse and fat reserves, and heavy with the next generation of the species, they become the easier prey to cut out of a herd, and wolves tend to concentrate on them. Such pressure results in a tremendous strain on pregnant females, and the rate of fetus abortion becomes exremely high. The very low calf to cow ratio elk herds are now experiencing can be largely attributed to this loss of new recruitment - well before spring birthing.
Was the negative impact of "surplus killing" and the loss of calves and fawns to fetus abortion something that the wolf "experts" absent mindedly forgot to share in the 1987 Northern Rockies Wolf Recovery Plan and the 1994 Environmental Impact Statement? Or, were those very important statistics fraudulently omitted from those two preliminary documents for the sake of making the project more acceptable among the pubic and to expedite the introduction of a larger and more aggressive non-native wolf, which those experts fully realized would inflict extreme damage to the wildlife resources of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming?
Now that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks can no longer hide the impact wolves have made on big game populations all along the Western one-third of the state, they're singing a different tune. Now, they are pointing a finger at the large number of bears and mountain lions in the state, going so far as to claim that these predators kill more game than the wolves. While the sportsmen of the state aren't buying that, they do fully acknowledge that it is a combination of wolves, mountain lions, black bears, and grizzlies which is now destroying the past 75 years of big game conservation efforts in this state.
Since MT FWP and the FWP Commission have established overly protective predator hunting regulations, which have been written and enforced to insure that extremely few major predators are taken by sport hunters, the agency is now finding itself somewhat behind the 8-Ball...and the sportsmen of the state are now freely taking shots at them. Criticism of hunting regulations which tend to insure that, come next year, there are still more wolves...lions...and bears on the landscape has been harsh, and the state's wildlife agency has, rightfully, been taking some hard blows to the chin.
At a very heated predator "management" meeting in Missoula last year, FWP Region 2 wildlife manager Mike Thompson admitted to an irate crowd of sportsmen, ranchers and rural residents that the wolf population for the region had exceeded the ability of the prey base (elk, moose, deer) to provide adequate sustenance. He then quickly threw in that the blame could not be entirely attributed to wolves, that other major predators were also responsible for a large degree of the depredation. According to Thompson, it had been the addition of wolves which proved to be the predatory straw that exceeded the ability of the prey base to carry such a heavy load of wild carnivores.
Many attending that meeting felt that the true problem has been FWP's inability to come even close to assessing the true numbers of wolves in the region, or for that matter the entire state. The State of Montana, via FWP, continues to claim a statewide wolf population of just under 700, always sure to throw in that this is an "at least" population estimate. The sportsmen of the state, who collectively spend millions of hours in the field pursuing big game, say the true number is three or four times that many wolves. These outdoor oriented Montanans feel that the degree of big game losses in areas that once offered some of the best big game hunting in the state is due to far more wolves than what FWP acknowledges. They also feel their estimate of 1,600 to more than 2,000 wolves is much closer than the population FWP continually down plays.
The fact remains, that in the Northwest quadrant of the state, in all of West-Central Montana, and in the Southwest corner of Montana, elk herds have been destroyed by nearly 80- percent, moose populations have been extremely decimated, and deer numbers continue to drop like a rock. Despite severe cutbacks in the number of cow elk tags and doe deer permits for several years now, the rapid downward spiral of game numbers continues. So much so, FWP is now having to advertise the ready availability of non-resident big game permits to attract out-of-state hunters to come hunt areas where it was once nearly impossible for them to draw a tag.
Across the country, the word is out - "Don't go to hunt in Montana, the state's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks is destroying the hunting there!"
It would be safe to say that most every hunt district in the Western third of the state, an area roughly the size of Illinois or North Carolina, is now easily "at least" 25- to 50-percent below the management objectives set for the elk population. In some hunt districts, the impact of major predators has taken the loss much more below objective levels - and unless some very drastic measures are taken to greatly reduce all predator numbers, big game populations are doomed.
As this is written, state legislation is being drafted to establish such emergency measures in any hunt district where elk populations drop 25-percent or more below objectives. So, what kind of predator reduction will it take in order to allow other wildlife populations to rebound? One thing is for certain, it has to be much greater than what MT FWP has allowed during recent wolf seasons.
The gray wolf is the keystone predator which has delivered the greatest blow to big game populations. During the 2009 and 2011 wolf seasons, FWP purposely set quotas way too low in order to make any significant or beneficial impact on the growing number of the predators. FWP's goal was clearly to insure that come the next pup birthing and rearing season, there would be more wolves in the state than before the prior hunting season. The agency was still in the mindset of "managing" for more, not less. Without any reduction of wolf numbers, there has been no way to reverse the loss of big game.
In his deposition as an expert witness during the 2008 U.S. District Court (Missoula) wolf delisting hearings, wolf ecologist Dr. L. David Mech stated that to just stop any further growth of wolf impact on big game populations would require the elimination of at least 50-percent of all wolves in the Northern Rockies. In order to allow big game populations to rebound would take the culling of at least 70-percent, or more, of existing wolf numbers.
In short, the three wolf seasons held in Montana over the past four years have been not much more than token gestures, plagued with "methods of take" restrictions which were put in place to prevent any significant harvest. Even trapping this season (2012) has not sufficiently reduced wolf numbers. More recent changes, such as the legalization of electronic callers and the purchase of additional wolf licenses, came so late in the season that they most likely will not increase the wolf take enough to make any real difference - especially when it is very evident that MT FWP has absolutely no idea how many wolves inhabit this state. This is being written on February 25, 2013, and the season is scheduled to close the last day of the month - February 28. As of yesterday morning, February 24, just 128 wolves had been taken by hunters and another 90 by trappers. That's a total of only 218 wolves. When the season ends, the final tally will likely be just 225 to 230 wolves, out of what, 700 or more, maybe as many as 1,800 wolves statewide?
If FWP is right with their low end 700 wolf estimate, and if hunters do take 230 wolves, that would mean basically a 33-percent reduction in wolf numbers in the state. Considering the 30- to 35-percent reproduction rate common with wolves, that means we would go into summer and fall with the same number as last summer and fall, and the degree of wolf depredation on big game populations would be the same. If the sportsmen, ranchers and rural residents of this state are right, and the wolf population is closer to 1,600 wolves, a harvest of 230 wolves would represent roughly a 15- to 16-percent reduction of wolf numbers. After the birthing and rearing of pups next summer, another token wolf season would result in still more wolves - which would deplete game populations even more, to dangerously low levels. That would force wolves to more quickly disperse eastward into other areas of the state.
Is this FWP's goal? Is this agency now following the agenda of radical environmental groups which have long wanted to put an end to sport hunting, and to change the mission of sportsmen funded state wildlife agencies?
Montana's sportsmen know that the only salvation for big game populations is to escalate the take of major predators. In all hunt districts where elk or any other big game populations are below 75-percent of objectives, open season must be declared on wolves, lions and bears. Methods of take need to be extremely relaxed, allowing the use of electronic callers, hounds and baits. Trapping and snaring must be permitted - and there should be no quotas or limits. And such emergency measures should remain in place until there is a documented increase in game populations, to within 25- percent of the area objective, for at least five successive years.
Anything less would be just another token gesture - and such ineffective gestures are what have thrown our big game populations into a predator pit. It's no longer about managing these predators, it's now all about controlling their numbers and impact on other wildlife resources. It's now all about wildlife recovery in Montana. - Toby Bridges, LOBO WATCH
Note: With the help of several Montana state senators and representatives, LOBO WATCH will be closely following the proposed legislation which will establish the measures needed to get predator problems under control...and big game populations headed in the right direction. We will share the direction this effort takes, and which elected officials are for or against the legislation, on the LOBO WATCH website, and our two affiliated blogs - MT FWP Watch and Montana Mountain Chronicle. You can find our follow up at these web addresses -
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