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Wolves Benefit Free-Ranging Jackson Hole Elk Herds

Oct. 24. 2002 My comments added Oct. 27


 
Note this article is by Meredith Taylor, A Fremont County outfitter and staffperson for the Wyoming Outdoor Council

Despite undocumented claims to the contrary, recent Wyoming Game & Fish Department data has shown that wolves actually benefit local wildlife herds.  Researchers are now monitoring the effects of two wolf packs, the Teton and Gros Ventre, on wintering elk in Jackson Hole.

Using information taken from the agency's 1998 and 2000 Jackson/Pinedale Region Annual Big Game Herd Unit Reports, the analysis compares such data as the number of wintering elk on various native ranges and feedlots, cow/calf ratios, disease incidence, and hunter success.  Higher numbers of elk are ranging among wolf-occupied habitat north of Jackson from Spread Creek to Buffalo Valley with increased hunter success, according to the report.  This information also supports monitoring data from Montana's Department of  Fish, Wildlife and Parks being analyzed on the effects of wolves on wintering wildlife on public land north of Yellowstone National Park (YNP).

More Calves, Less Disease

The portion of the Jackson Hole elk herd that is out on winter range has increased somewhat during the past 11 years from a low of 2,474 to a high of 4,843 with a mean of 3,593.  "A total of 3,805 elk were observed on native winter range [throughout the Jackson Herd Unit] in 2000," according to the 2000 WYGFD Report.

Of the entire Jackson elk herd counted in 1999-2000 about 35% of the elk counted are wintering on native range.  The number of elk north of Jackson Hole has increased from a low of 137 in 1990 to a high of 1,139 in 2000 where there have been extensive habitat improvements in the Spread Creek area.  With habitat improvements such as prescribed burns in the Spread Creek area, nearly nine times more elk wintered there in 2000 compared to 1990, prior to many vegetation management improvements. Of particular note is the fact that there was at least one wolf pack in this area, yet the elk population keeps increasing. This significant increase is primarily due to habitat improvement projects that enhances dispersal into areas of higher quality and quantity forage. Dispersal is also increased by wolves when they spread the elk out on their habitat.

The ratio of elk calves per 100 cows is considered by biologists to be a good indicator of herd productivity.  Calf/cow ratio data from the WYGFD 1998 and 2000 reports demonstrate that calf/cow ratios on feedlots on the Gros Ventre and National Elk Refuge are lower (18-18.8%) than free-ranging elk in the Gros Ventre (40-44%) and in the Buffalo Valley (50%) that do not use feedlots. In fact, the data indicates that the further the elk are away from the feedlots, the higher the calf/cow ratio.

 
Conversely, WYGFD data shows that disease is higher where calf/cow ratios are lower among feedlot elk. It appears that brucellosis and other factors associated with feedlots (such as decreased nutrition, stress from increased density, etc.) may significantly reduce the elk reproductive rates.

 For example, during the past two winters, all of the elk harvested during the late-hunt season in the Buffalo Valley tested negative for brucellosis.  This means that along with the higher calf/cow ratios, the disease incidence is significantly reduced to negligible levels or zero among these native winter range elk compared to their feedlot cohorts.

Higher elk harvest by hunters since wolves returned to Gros Ventre

According to the 2000 WYGFD Report: "In Hunt Areas 80-83 (the four elk hunt areas between the NER and the 3 state feedlots in the GV) license quotas have been decreased in recent years to address hunter concerns and suspected predation from large predators. These hunt areas make up the primary home ranges of two wolf packs. Since 1998 antlerless license quotas (in these hunt areas) were reduced from 300 licenses to 150 during the 2000 hunting season."
 
However, in spite of alleged "hunter concerns" and undocumented, but "suspected predation from large predators" the WGFD decreased antlerless licenses by 150. Yet, further in the same paragraph, the report says, "The harvest survey indicates that a total of 973 elk were harvested (in the GVRD) in 2000 compared to 876 elk harvested in 1999." Since 1998, 150 fewer antlerless elk licenses were sold, but 97 more elk were killed by hunters over the last year compared to 1999. The harvest statistics for 1998 for the GVRD are not available, but it appears that even with wolves established in the area, the free-ranging elk herd is flourishing and there were MORE elk
killed by human hunters.

The effect of predator/prey balance appears beneficial to elk

According to the USFWS Wolf Coordinator, there are two wolf packs living among the Jackson Hole elk herd. There are 12 wolves in the Teton pack and 7-9 wolves in the Gros Ventre pack. The monitoring of these collared wolves has shown that although they have been seen in the Gros Ventre feedgrounds during the past three years, even with the two packs of wolves, the losses were actually less than normal, since 6 elk killed is substantially less than the 25 year average of 14 dead elk on the feedlots.

Comparing Montana to Wyoming, the MT Fish Wildlife and Parks, works more closely with the National Park Service to monitor the interactions of wolves and wildlife. There are now six wolf packs with 70-90 wolves in residence among the Northern Range elk herd and according to the 2001 Gardiner Late Elk Hunt Annual Report "(e)lk permit numbers have been relatively high since 1990 in response to increasing numbers of elk wintering north of YNP." Hunter success averages 63% for cows and 96% for either sex licenses in the late hunt along the migration route north of YNP to Dome Mountain, which may be the highest success ratio for hunters on public lands anywhere in North America. Since 1995 the wolf presence has increased to six packs among the Northern Range elk herd and 2001 elk numbers counted were still within the herd objective.

Interestingly, the 2001 brucellosis rate for this herd was only 2.8%, the calf/cow ratio in 2001 was 29% (close to the historic average of 30%), the average 2001 calf weight improved by 9.4% and bull elk antler length exceeded the previous six-year average of 45 inches at 47.2 inches in 2001.  These figures clearly point to an increase in herd health that both conservation sportsmen and wildlife managers would be proud to see in any big game herd.
This winter's elk count on the Northern Range, although down slightly from last year's figures, is well within the 25 year average and within the desired herd objective even given the presence of the complete array of large predators including gray wolves, mountain lions, black and grizzly bears.  In addition, the 2001 data indicate a healthy elk herd despite the effect of the drought conditions on the native range.

Conclusion

The free-ranging elk north of Jackson Hole sees the highest calf/cow ratio and the lowest disease incidence among the highest density of wolf sightings compared with the feedlot elk. Therefore, it may be concluded that the free-ranging wild elk in the Buffalo Valley and Spread Creek areas benefit from more dispersal on native range. It also appears that with habitat improvements, more elk use native range (even with wolves present) and avoid feedlots. The biologically sound conclusion is that free-ranging wildlife are most healthy on native range managed at carrying capacity with normal dispersal by a balanced large carnivore population.

  (Note from mt. A special thanks to Lloyd Dorsey, WWF, for his assistance in this article.)
 

10-27-02. My note on this. I think the conclusion that wolves benefit free-ranging elk herds just east and NE of Jackson Hole is premature because the Teton Pack reached significant size only in 2001 (12 members at the end of the year, and it has about 20 wolves now). Moreover, in 2001-2 the pack preyed more on the state feedground elk in the Gros Ventre drainage than in previous years. By the end of the winter of 2001-2, 52 elk had been killed by the Teton Pack on the state feedgrounds, not 7. There have also been 3 years of drought with light winters complicating matters. More years of data are needed.

What impressed me was how much better the elk seemed to do away from the state run feed lots, wolves or not. Elk and deer herds are threatened by disease, not predation, especially by chronic wasting disease, which I hope has not made its way to NW Wyoming.

One other note. In the winter of 2001-2 the Gros Ventre Pack moved south and was not a factor in wolf predation in the area. Its summertime location was unknown because, despite repeated attempts, wolf managers have not been able to put a collar on the pack.

. . . . Ralph Maughan


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