By Stanley Schroeder, Hamilton
Are our Ravalli County commissioners working for you? Instead of a laser focus on a smart, fair budget and creating jobs, their crosshairs are on wolves and their management. We’re all sick and tired of this commission wasting their time and our money on wolves. Clearly they’re creating a distraction, wagging the wolf’s tail, stoking fear and hysteria, and tossing red meat to their supporters.
Why aren’t we the people the number one priority for the commissioners? We can only guess it’s because they’re empty of ideas to create jobs and improve our local economy. They’ve nothing to offer but to chase wolves and blame them for every ill in the Bitterroot. We, the vast majority of Bitterroot citizens, are not fooled.
Like all decent deceptions there’s a kernel of truth–wolves do kill elk and there’s economic impact. We can all agree on that, but is that the whole story that our commissioners would have us believe? Are wolves the sole, or even the primary cause for lower elk numbers? Instead of the commissioners’ hyperbole, conjecture, and anecdotes, how about some science and facts?
There’s an excellent summary of the impacts on elk and their numbers found in the Bitterroot National Forest Travel Management Planning Project Draft EIS (July 2009). It uses MT Fish, Wildlife and Park’s (FWP) data and information, the primary agency that studies and manages elk. Our commissioners and all concerned citizens should read it. I’ll send the commissioners a copy. Here are some highlights.
Elk numbers on the Bitterroot declined from 1950 to 1980 due to a “proliferation of roads and timber harvest.” In response, agencies closed logging roads and managed elk hunting differently, resulting in growing numbers.
Beginning in the 1980s, and continuing through today, off-highway vehicle (OHV) recreation in general, and OHV use by hunters, has led to “increased elk vulnerability” just as road proliferation did previously. Elk are moving out of their traditional, high elevation summer ranges, and moving into their winter ranges early due to OHV use. Often this is onto private lands reducing hunting opportunities.
Elk aren’t dumb. They’ll leave areas of risk or disturbance and will search out safer places. Once they’ve moved to safer (often private) lands, it’s hard to reverse this movement pattern. Unfortunately, this premature movement to lower elevation winter range causes not just fewer hunting opportunities, but also inadequate winter forage and nutrition. This leads to malnutrition, starvation and disease, especially among calves.
The EIS overview continues: “Predation by wolves is sometimes blamed for the recent decline in elk numbers, and wolves certainly kill many elk. However, FWP increased the number of antlerless elk permits in the mid 2000s because elk populations exceeded objectives, and recent antlerless harvests have been high. FWP feels that the decline in elk numbers in the Bitterroot is likely primarily due to increased antlerless harvests achieving a planned management reduction, and that there is no evidence that wolves or combined predator numbers have much to do with the decline of elk counted through 2008. In addition, the FWP biologist in 2007 felt that much of the decline that year was due to nutritional stress caused by poor forage conditions in 2006 that may have caused poor calf survival.”
The FWP elk population objective for the Bitterroot is 7070. In 1987 the count was 3537, compared to 2419 in 1965. In 1999 it was 5653. Wolves were reintroduced into central Idaho in 1995 and soon spread into the Bitterroot. Elk numbers generally increased through 2005 (8169), declining to 7915 (2006), then 7197 (2007) and to 5950 (2008).
There’s ongoing research looking into the physical health and nutrition of elk up the West Fork. Results are pending. What we know is hunting permit changes in mid 2000s caused a decline. OHVs are having a negative impact. So is poaching. Elk are moving lower sooner, resulting in fewer hunting opportunities and inadequate over-wintering nutrition. Noxious weeds are having a deleterious effect nutritionally. Wolves are eating elk. All of this is happening. And lower elk numbers are having an economic impact–on hunters and outfitters, among others. But to blame wolves for all, or even most of the elk decline is simply untrue.
Citizens need to be informed of the best available information and science. Commissioners need to leave wolf management to FWP and stop feeding the public half-truths. As I write this on the eve of rifle season, the wolf hunt has barely begun. Yet our commissioners are already declaring it inadequate–a clear rush to judgment. What does that tell you? Commissioners, stop your vendetta! It’s a waste of our taxpayer money. Turn your attention to us, the people of the Bitterroot, and to our local economy and jobs. We deserve it. We demand it.