Story available at http://www.billingsgazette.net/articles/2008/12/07/features/outdoors/24-study.txt
Published on Sunday, December 07, 2008.
Last modified on
12/7/2008 at 1:28 am
Study: Idaho wolves
hitting cow elk hard
Idaho Fish and Game biologists have established that
wolves are the primary cause of death of radio-collared cow elk in the Lolo
hunting zone, where cow elk numbers are projected to be shrinking by 13 percent
The department could use that conclusion, from its continuing
study of elk, to again seek permission to authorize federal trappers to cull
wolves in the remote area of central Idaho. But officials would rather see
wolves removed from the endangered species list so wolf packs could be thinned
"I just think it's generally more acceptable with folks
to manage populations through hunting than any other way," said Jim Unsworth,
deputy director of the department at Boise. "We are going to monitor the
delisting process. If that occurs, we are going to pursue the hunting option.
That is certainly our preferred option."
In case delisting is delayed or
the department gets tied up in lawsuits, Fish and Game commissioners told the
department to look at the options available under federal wolf-management rules,
In 1996, the department sought permission to have
government trappers kill up to 43 wolves in the Lolo elk-hunting zone. That
effort eventually failed when it became clear the department could not prove
that wolves were the primary problem facing elk in the area.
things have since happened: Federal wolf management rules have been changed so
state and tribal agencies have to prove only that wolves are a major cause of
elk or deer herds not meeting management objectives before they seek permission
to kill wolves. And research biologists have collected much more data in their
elk study and reached a stronger conclusion about the effects wolves are having
on elk herds.
Wildlife biologists are using radio collars to follow cow
elk in several elk-hunting zones across the state. When one dies, they
investigate and try to determine what caused the death.
paints a bleak picture for elk in the Lolo zone, where only about 75 percent of
the cow elk survive each year. To maintain a healthy population or to grow a
herd, survival has to be much higher.
"In the western U.S., you really
need to be at 87 percent survival or better to have any chance of population
stability or growth," said state wildlife biologist George Pauley at Kamiah. He
and others have established that wolf predation is the chief cause of death
among radio-collared elk in the Lolo zone.
"Of the known causes of death,
75 percent are wolves," Pauley said. "Wolves appear to be driving low cow
Elk in the entire upper Clearwater Basin have been struggling
for more than a decade. The population had been on a slow slide for years and
then took a nosedive during the winter of 1996-1997. That decline occurred
before wolf populations had grown strong enough to be the cause, and poor
habitat was named as the culprit. Researchers say that because there are now far
fewer elk in the basin, habitat should not be as big a problem. Their research
tells them wolves are preventing elk from rebounding and are causing populations
to continue to slide.
"The Lolo zone declined largely for other reasons,
so it kind of became a cloudy issue," Pauley said. "More recently you could
probably make the case it has declined by wolf predation."
The U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service is making a second run at removing wolves from the
endangered-species list. That process is expected to culminate in mid-January,
shortly before President Bush leaves office.
Everyone involved in the
process expects the delisting decision to be challenged in court. That is what
happened last year when wolves were removed from federal protection for a few
months. Idaho, Montana and Wyoming all planned wolf-hunting seasons that were to
take place this fall. But a federal judge in Montana found fault with the
delisting move and restored federal protection in the three states.
are about 1,500 wolves living in the Northern Rockies region, with about 700 to
800 in Idaho.
The state has a management objective of 6,100 to 9,100 cow
elk for the zone, but the current cow population is estimated at
"I think it's a demonstration of the critical nature we have in
the Lolo zone and, of course, everybody talked about wolves," said Fred Trevey,
the Fish and Game commissioner representing the Clearwater
Earlier this month, Trevey and the rest of the commissioners
directed the department to move forward with a proposal to thin wolf numbers in
the Lolo zone.
The department also is seeking permission to land
helicopters in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area to place radio collars on
wolves. If approved by the Forest Service, the collaring would occur during
winter elk survey flights.
"If we see a pack of wolves, it would be
pretty straightforward to go down and mark a few and get some radio collars on
them," Unsworth said. "No one is back there when we are doing that kind of work,
and I don't think it would have much of an impact on the
Landing helicopters or using any type of motorized vehicles
in wilderness areas is generally permitted only for emergencies and is opposed
by wilderness advocates.