Outfitters, elk, wolves, and single cause explanations

Feb. 19, 2002

Almost every week we read an article about "Idaho outfitters" complaining that wolves are decimating the central elk population. Unfortunately, they almost never provide any hard facts or figures, and there are almost always just two spokesman, Ron Gillette and Scott Farr. A web search shows that Farr has been predicting an imminent decimation of Idaho elk since at least 1999. "Wolves worry outfitters" by Steve Stuebner. High Country News. Feb. 1, 1999. Evidence offered to the news media by various (not necessarily these two) outfitting critics of wolves, are "we didn't see many elk;" "there were plenty of elk but we didn't see many calves;"  "They said wolves only took the weak and the sick, but we saw a bull elk they had killed;" "There were no bull elk left;" "We found an elk that wolves had killed, and it was hardly eaten."

Folks will find a classic example of poor evidence that wolves are decimating wolf populations at the web page of the Central Idaho Wolf Coalition, "Recent wolf kills in the Clearwater Area." These photos, a year old, show some dead elk, probably killed by wolves. The elk have not been eaten very much -- evidence "the wolves killed for sport." Next to the elk are snowmobiles. Are we to suppose the wolf pack would ignore snowmobiles as they drove to the kills? Wolf packs often make several kills at nearly same time. In the winter, when these photos were taken, the wolves return and feed until the carcasses are gone, devoured by scavengers, or the wolves scared off.

I don't know if elk in central Idaho are increasing, stable or declining in number. I see as many elk as always, but, like the outfitters, my observations are not systematic. Most likely elk are increasing in some hunting units and declining in others. I wouldn't be surprised if overall number of elk have declined slightly in central Idaho for reasons described below.

It used to be that if guided hunters didn't get their elk, blame might be put on the outfitter, the Dept. of Fish and Game, or the weather. Now, however, there is a ready explanation -- wolves. If the client gets an elk, the answer is likely to be, "I'm just a great hunter."

There is no doubt wolves are affecting the elk herds. That was one of the reasons wolves were reintroduced -- to make the elk more wary (less like livestock), to move them around, make them wilder, and cull out the weak and the sick. It is not known if wolves are a positive check on Idaho elk populations or if they merely remove animals who would not make it through the year anyway. Is interesting to read Idaho newspapers that report declining elk herds alongside stories of ranchers and farmers complaining there are too many elk and thus seeking "elk depredation." hunts. The contradiction between the two is rarely pointed out.

Many studies are being conducted inside and near Yellowstone Park on the effects wolves and elk have on each other, but the Idaho Department of Fish and Game has become so controlled by livestock and extractive interests that the little data they produce must be suspect.

Most importantly, the outfitters quoted never seem to look at any factors affecting elk populations other than predators. I have been visiting central Idaho for 25 years. There are two dramatic changes there -- explosion of alien invasive plants (exotic weeds) that elk can't eat, or don't prefer, and vast forest fires.

Spotted, diffuse and Russian knapweed, rush skeletonweed, yellow star-thistle, and others have exploded in central Idaho, especially in winter range where elk spend the most difficult time of the year -- period of pregnancy, and a hard time for the calves born the previous spring. White, there is some indication that spotted knapweed does not directly harm elk. "Effects of spotted knapweed on a wilderness game range." Hornocker Wildlife Institute, it is another matter for the thorny star-thistle and the hard, nearly leafless rush skeletonweed with its milky, latex-like sap.

The number of forest fires in central Idaho began to increase in 1980. These fires have had both negative and positive effects on the numbers, distribution, and types of wildlife. While many readers are familiar with the burst of vegetation growth due to the release of nitrogen after the 1988 fires in Yellowstone. Central Idaho fires, which burn on more rugged terrain, can be quite different. That was especially true with the fires of 2000, the largest since the early 1900s. The fire on Salmon River Mountain above Salmon, Idaho (the Clear Creek Fire) was the largest single fire in the United States that year. Fires almost as large burned just to the north in the Bitterroot Mountains, to the west, deep inside the Frank Church Wilderness, and further west near Burgdorf.

I spent considerable time in 2001 looking at the aftermath of the Clear Creek Fire. That fire burned hot, sterilizing soil in a number of places, but more importantly the fire was mostly the result of the great drought that began in 1999. The drought continued through 2001. The result of the continued drought in 2001 was very little regrowth of grass or forbs under the burnt trees. That meant there was little for elk to eat over large areas of their range. Even if they didn't reduce the number of elk, it did affect their distribution.

  Another change that is not so obvious, is a poor elk bull to cow elk ratio in parts of central Idaho. Studies in on the Yellowstone northern range (which is partially hunted) show that wolves take a disproportionate number of old bulls, but trophy hunters take a disproportionate number of prime bulls. If there are not enough prime bulls to impregnate the cows, a cow elk will not become pregnant or will become pregnant a month later when she  comes into estrus a second time, producing what are called "late calves." These late born calves go into the next winter smaller and are more susceptible to all kinds of mortality.

Finally, hunter harvest of elk in Idaho peaked during the period from 1994-1996. It was higher then than in  any previously recorded year. It is reasonable to expect a decline after an unprecedented peak. Wolves were reintroduced just at the time of record peak. Therefore, elk population decline cannot necessary be blamed on wolves. To do so is the classic fallacy of confusing correlation with causation.

In summary, those outfitters who hold to the wolf/elk decline explanation as sole reason they didn't have the hunt they wanted, ignore the effects of dramatic changes in habitat, they ignore the effects of excessive trophy hunting on calf production/survival, they ignore psychological factors that cause some hunters some blame others for their lack of success, and finally, some hunters don't return to a particular operator because they don't like the outfitter. Successful outfitters are pleasant, knowledgeable operators, but some outfitters have more jackasses in their operation than just those in the pack string.

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Copyright 2002 Ralph Maughan

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