There is no evidence that wolves have decimated elk populations throughout Idaho, according to two scientists who have been studying the predator for several years.
"At this point there is very little evidence that the presence of wolves has caused a decline in elk numbers anywhere, especially in Central Idaho," said Jim Peek, a retired professor of wildlife biology and a member of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation board of directors.
Peek, who also helped write Idaho's wolf management plan, said elk populations fluctuate naturally and that the impacts of 1996's particularly harsh winter, which killed hordes of elk, are still being felt.
"When that happens, people like to blame the predators," Peek said during a teleconference with regional wildlife experts Thursday.
He said it's too early to tell how much wolves will influence elk populations in the long run and that while there may be "some lower levels of elk, it won't be a big deal from the standpoint of a hunter."
The teleconference was hosted by Defenders of Wildlife, a national organization dedicated to the preservation of wild animals and native plants in their natural environment, in order to dispel certain myths about the gray wolf, mainly that it's decimating elk populations. The large predator, which was reintroduced to Central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park 11 years ago, is considered recovered and is poised to lose its federal protection under the Endangered Species Act and be opened to hunting as early as 2008.
For the past 18 years, Holly Akenson, a scientist from the University of Idaho, has lived with her husband, Jim, in a remote cabin near Big Creek in the heart of the vast 2.3 million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area. Between 1998 and 2003, the couple conducted a comprehensive study on the relationship between wolves, cougars and ungulates, or hoofed animals. Using the carcasses of 192 large mammals, the scientists concluded that wolves preyed mostly on vulnerable elk and deer—the young, old, sick or injured. Wolves did not appear to prefer elk over deer, killing a similar amount of both animals, Akenson said.
Massive wildfires burned about 500,000 acres between the second and third summer of the study, and that complicated the research, Akenson said. Mule deer numbers skyrocketed with new vegetative growth but elk numbers initially declined. By last summer, the area's elk population had increased since 2002 but was still 17 percent lower than it was 11 years ago, when 66 wolves were reintroduced to Central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park. There are now an estimated 650 wolves in 70 verified packs throughout Idaho, and more than 1,200 in the region, which includes Wyoming and Montana.
In a summary of the study, Akenson said "some of this decline is undoubtedly due to wolf predation" but that other factors, such as overbrowsing and declining elk calf recruitment, are the more weighty culprits.
Suzanne Stone, the Northern Rockies representative of Defenders of Wildlife, said wolves are responsible for less than 1 percent of all livestock depredations.
Stone is concerned that Idaho's political leadership, which is generally anti-wolf, will influence the state's new management plan to dramatically reduce the statewide wolf population.
She said the Idaho wolf management plan was constructed for and by ranchers and anti-wolf groups. She also pointed out the cursor at the beginning of the plan is that "the state Legislature wants no wolves in Idaho and wants them removed."
Stone and Ralph Maughan, president of the Wolf Recovery Foundation and a professor of political science at Idaho State University, are concerned that the Legislature will push for aggressive control measures, including eliminating entire packs of wolves.
But the state's new wolf management plan will be crafted over the next year with public input and must be finally approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is responsible for ensuring the species' numbers do not drop low enough to warrant an eventual re-listing.
Steve Nadeau, wolf program supervisor for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, has said that nothing drastic will occur and that populations will remain stable.
Idaho's management plan calls for maintaining a minimum of 15 wolf packs in the state forever. Some are concerned that the state will allow populations to dip that low. However, in December Nadaeau said the state "(does not) have any goals or objectives to knock the population down to 15 (packs)."