Wolves and Elk

Montana’s wolf management drew extra attention last week when a hunter legally killed a member of a pack near Joliet.

Two bits of news this month are a reminder that the story of wolves in Montana continues to defy simple good wolf/bad wolf narratives.

The first comes from the famous Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd. Numbers are up in 2018, by more than 42 percent, though biologists suspect the huge jump is in part because they missed some animals and underestimated the herd’s size in 2017.

The raw numbers are 7,579 elk counted this year after the same survey turned up 5,349 in 2017. The aerial survey is conducted in January, and this was the fourth consecutive year elk numbers have increased.

Still the population remains well off pre-wolf numbers, when the herd numbered as much as 19,000. In 2005 about 9,500 elk were counted.

Wolf numbers are down a bit in the last few years, which suggests hunting does make a difference. That’s surely a factor in the increasing elk herd. Another factor is that more of the herd seems to be migrating north out of Yellowstone National Park and Wyoming, making them available for FWP counters.

While some will never accept the idea that Montana manages its wolf population, which includes killing some of them, the stabilization of the elk herd suggests we’re doing something right. Elk in the Northern Yellowstone Herd may never number 19,000 again, but 19,000 may have been too many elk in the first place.

And yes elkoholics, it is possible to have too many elk. The range has its limits.

Montana’s wolf management drew extra attention last week when a hunter legally killed a member of a pack near Joliet. The wolves likely drifted north from Wyoming and had been roaming the region for a week or so. Days before the distinctive black wolf was killed, it was likely the animal captured on video walking near vehicles along a dirt road. The pack was also spotted along Highway 72 near Belfry.

The apparent tameness of the wolf in the video creates a misleading impression that will be latched on to by some to argue the hunter’s actions were somehow not right. I don’t agree. It was a legal hunt and wolves are a legal game species in Montana.

A non-hunting friend recently told me he didn’t understand why someone would hunt moose or bison since they just stand there anyway.

“What’s the sport in that?” he asked.

I explained one shouldn’t shape their perception of the wildness of game based on the behavior of animals they see in Yellowstone, where they are aware they are safe from two-legged predators.

“Try hunting them,” I suggested. “You may find it’s not as easy as you imagine.”

I also told him that fair chase hunting requires the game animal have the space and opportunity to escape. But fair chase does not require that the animal actually utilize that escape opportunity. Game animals make mistakes. Hunters are not obliged to hold their fire when they do. In fact, we kind of count on it.

The black wolf might have made a mistake. The video suggests it was getting a too casual around humans. That probably led to its demise.

Here’s one thing we can count on: wildlife numbers in Montana will continue to fluctuate. In the case of wolves, I hope the trend line remains flat, if not continue its slight decline. We have plenty of wolves in Montana, enough to prevent a return to the endangered species list, but not so many that management problems will turn public opinion against the animals.

Assuming the landscape can handle it, however, more elk are just fine with me.