Study of falling elk population looks at food

Study of falling elk population looks at food

Wolf predation may not be as much a factor as was once believed

BRETT FRENCH Of The Gazette Staff

Too many missed meals may be the larger cause of the decline of elk in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem – not wolf predation or the elk’s fear of being eaten by wolves, according to a newly published study.

28 Responses to “Study of falling elk population looks at food”

  1. Dave Says:

    The danger in trying to interpret these results is that some people, especially people who have a stake in high elk numbers, will interpret them as “bad” or “undesirable”, when in fact these lower elk numbers may be just what the doctor ordered to maintain the long-term health of the entire ecosystem. Artificially high herbivore numbers, resulting from a shortage of predators, can have negative impacts on vegetation that can last seemingly forever. In Wisconsin the record-breaking high whitetail deer numbers are actually exterminating some native flora over large areas of the state, and it’s unlikely that this result can be reversed even after the removal of the deer, without human intervention (reintroduction of the plant species into these areas). The point I’m trying to make is that, along with Aldo Leopold, we should try to “think like a mountain” and thank these wolves for creating an elk population that’s more or less in “balance” with its habitat. Maybe now those horrible browse lines will start to disappear from the Yellowstone trees and shrubs.

    Aldo Leopold excerpt from http://www.eco-action.org/dt/thinking.html
    “I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.”

  2. Dave Says:

    The danger in trying to interpret these results is that some people, especially people who have a stake in high elk numbers, will interpret them as “bad” or “undesirable”, when in fact these lower elk numbers may be just what the doctor ordered to maintain the long-term health of the entire ecosystem. Artificially high herbivore numbers, resulting from a shortage of predators, can have negative impacts on vegetation that can last seemingly forever. In Wisconsin the record-breaking high whitetail deer numbers are actually exterminating some native flora over large areas of the state, and it’s unlikely that this result can be reversed even after the removal of the deer, without human intervention (reintroduction of the plant species into these areas). The point I’m trying to make is that, along with Aldo Leopold, we should try to “think like a mountain” and thank these wolves for creating an elk population that’s more or less in “balance” with its habitat. Maybe now those horrible browse lines will start to disappear from the Yellowstone trees and shrubs.

    Aldo Leopold excerpt from http://www.eco-action.org/dt/thinking.html
    “I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.”
    P.S. – Sorry, forgot to tell you great post!

  3. Jon Way Says:

    I wonder if elk will learn to go down to the river valleys to feed during the day when wolves are usually asleep. There could be some fascinating behavioral discoveries in the time to come…

  4. ProWolf in WY Says:

    It will be interesting to see how the behavior changes. It would be neat to see the results from a study in Africa, but I also think a study in Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Michigan with white-tailed deer and wolves would be interesting. I also agree with Dave that the lower population of elk is what the doctor ordered. Hunters are going to have to realize that we were spoiled before the wolves were reintroduced.

  5. Bob Wharff Says:

    Ralph,

    I found another version of the same story that appears to better represent this study and its findings as the author of the study is quoted several times rather than simply obtaining an interpretation from a reporter. It appears as though the link doesn’t work so you will need to copy and paste the following: http://www.montana.edu/cpa/news/nwview.php?article=7324

  6. ProWolf in WY Says:

    The articles seem to contradict each other.

  7. SEAK Mossback Says:

    This interesting study raises questions about shifting pathways in the northern Yellowstone ecosystem that should be further examined in shaping policy. This and other studies suggest elk are now browsing more, are constrained from using much of the potential forage base, and with a reduced reproductive rate will likely not return to abundance found in recent history. However, the grass forage is still there to potentially be used and channeled in some other pathway – but where? The species most equipped to take advantage, in the confines of the park at least, would seem to be the bison which is both a grazer and apparently more resistant to wolves and perhaps other natural carnivores than elk. Following this logic, the question is where does the pathway lead next? Perhaps the answer lays in the area’s natural history, at least back 10,000 years or so, in the buffalo jumps down the valley and pre-1880s written accounts? While more resistant to fanged predators, bison were very useful prey to humans who could harvest them using superior brains and tools. This study may be one more step in a wake-up call for various constituent groups. Some hunters likely still hold hope the elk population will rebuild to the extent that many can again be harvested around Gardiner each winter. This study and numerous others cast doubt on that – the numbers may rebound somewhat but huge biological surpluses are likely a thing of the past. The most fervent bison advocates appear not to have accepted the idea that an increasing buffalo population will have to be controlled by humans. Control will be necessary (perhaps more so because of the decrease in elk) the only question being whether it will occur at the border by Montana DOL agents or by some kind of regulated hunting distributed over substantial free-range areas north and west of the park. It would seem that all of those interested in seeing the ecosystem further restored with both consumptive and non-consumptive benefits for humans should work toward securing as much free range as possible for bison.

  8. Bob Wharff Says:

    I think it is called “spin”

  9. ProWolf in WY Says:

    I agree Bob. The one from MSU blames wolves but the one in the Gazette does not. While I am sure there would be some drop in population and am not denying the drop before, it is illogical that elk would have no adaptation like the MSU article seems to state.

  10. mikepost Says:

    To me the article clearly reads that elk are foraging differently, and suffering for it, because of the pressures of wolf predation in their former grazing areas. The end result may or may not be what we want, but this is not, as you posted Ralph, an indication that wolves are not a factor in the population decline. The study in fact says exactly the opposite.

  11. ProWolf in WY Says:

    The question I have with this study is, has it been done in Canada in the area where the founding wolves came from? Obviously the elk there have always been living with wolves. Are the elk there having low birth rates? Are they not getting as much nutrition as well? Are they always in the forest and never on grassy meadows in the winter? There is just something strange about this situation as to why it would be happening in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

  12. Wendy Says:

    Bob, although I have never agreed with you before, I am grateful you posted a link to the more direct article.

    I would just like to remind everyone that nature didn’t work out its predator/prey balance in 10 years or 20 years or even 50 years of existence. Humans must be more patient.

    As Jon Way suggests, at some point some clever elk will realize she can get her grazing done at certain times of day (or even on certain days when wolves are scarce) and get back in to the trees at night to increase her odds of survival.

    My question for the study: is progesterone usually present in non-pregnant cows or only pregnant cows?

    We may be seeing just the first stages of the elk’s re-adaptation to their old nemesis, not their only, or their final adaptation.

  13. ProWolf in WY Says:

    Wendy, you make an excellent point. Obviously some elk will learn to adapt and we won’t see this mass extinction that people have been predicting since Day 1.

  14. bob jackson Says:

    I always hate to be the odd man out, so to speak, but I ask you (s); If there was a bunch of women and children in a town or city and there were no scouts loooking for the bad guys, no sentries at the gates and no one to deflect and lead away the enemy (think killdeer, ducks and just about all species) how much chance would those women and children have with those out to kill them???

    Yes, they would scurry around amounst the buildings, the underground subways…. anywhere they could conceal themselves…and eat poorly doing so.

    I ask everyone to think that maybe…just maybe ….. herd animals have the same ability as humans to minimize predator affects…if they are allowed normal evolutionary formed up lives.

    This means more than refugee camps, friends …. or simplistic “populations of individuals”. In this case it means having enough male components of each extended family to counter the affects of predators such as wolves.

    I don’t mean bulls taking wolves on in a running fight, but rather guarding territory, letting the matriarchal components know when wolves are approaching and a few other “little things” that all herd animals should be allowed to use for defense … to maintain a quality life.

    It ain’t happening, folks, with all those supposed academically trained wildlife managers and biologists. They don’t have a clue as to how ungulates live. There is no way 3-5 breeding males, let alone MATURE male elk (which is what a lot of herds are left with) can help protect the females and young. Game and Fish policy and quotas, as they are now in all states means cow herds are at the “mercy” of wolves.

    Either one gets refuge camps like I saw with wolf scared groups of 200-300 elk bunched up in Thorofare for the outfitters to slaughter or you get very small groups of cow-calves heading out into the subways.

    I ask, why do those in professional or lay applied science have to think of herd animals as freak shows? We are all the same and we all just tweak the same system as each species.

    Good infrastructured elk herds are the same as well infrastructured bison herds …. with some very active males right in with the cow-calf components, younger bulls on the flank perimeter maybe 1/4-1-2 mile out and mature bull buddies in a static circle about one to two miles out.

    Then there are the advanced and rear guards where the old guys stake out the land in front to be grazed and the ones staying behind blunt attacks of those predators sniffing the ground.

    The Two Ocean Plateau in Yellowstone was the place where one could best see this. There were more male and mature bull components because this group was the one always making the night dash to the elk refuge in the fall. The top alpine areas during the summer had the big (300-400) cow calf herds (no disturbances …except me) because it was a bear closure area. The sides had the male structures.

    It all was so easy to see… and predict where they all would be if one just thought of them as logical beings with equal needs as humans.

    Until “science” starts thinking differently it will all be symptom management. And environmentalists will continue feeling “in awe of wild nature”.

  15. bob jackson Says:

    I left out, 3-5 breeding males PER HUNDRED COWS.

  16. JB Says:

    Wolves CAN and sometimes DO negatively impact elk populations. This study simply shows one mechanism by which elk can be impacted. As with most of these types of studies, my only real issue is with the generalizability of their results. In my view, the really interesting piece will be puzzling out the conditions/factors that led to this relationship–e.g., does it require a “naive” population? As with all ecological research there are always more questions than answers.

  17. Ryan Says:

    http://www.montana.edu/cpa/news/nwview.php?article=1833

    Bob,

    Do you have any proof to back up the 3-5 Bulls per 100 Cows? I know you watched some interesting things in yellowstone that you put your own theories too. Most states are managed for a minimum 15-100 ratio and in premium units 30-100. Bulls also seem to get eaten at a much higer ratio than cows per population, is that because they spend all of their time gruading the cows in your opinion.. Or is it because they are loaners or in solitary Bachelor groups most of the year except during breeding season, which is what most everyone I know has observed. The spikes and rags stay close to the herds and the big bulls only stay close when its breeding season.

  18. bob jackson Says:

    All I can say is there were lots and lots of elk and lots and lots of wolves when White Man entered on this countries scene. In Iowa, where I am from, there were so many elk antlers on the ground accounts said burned prairies almost looked white. The number one danger to settlers coming across this tall grass area was antlers poking through the bellies of horses being teamed up with others pushing them forward. wolf populations were so high any early Iowa settler could shoot them for furs anytime they wanted.

    As for naive populations, all spin off satellite groups were most vulnerable to hunting and other predators. Thus buffalo hunters had best chances at those small groups to the sides of the larger groupings, Indians had the best surround and buffalo jump success with these younger groups (read what ages and numbers were found in the piles below the jumps).

    The spin off groups of elk were the same.

    So when you say elk populations can and were negatively impacted I say there needs to be a distinction being made between dysfunctional and functional populations.

    If we carry this back to the original maleless human female – dependent population then I’m sure a few more humans would be killed being niave. But after the initial volley would they not all seek out the closets, subways and dark alleyways? And in the greater scheme of things how much more chance do those dysfunctional human female populations have for survival …whether they are savvy or not…. as compared to the traditional male role defenders being around?

    And with ecological research what good is it if the people doing the studies don’t have a clue how the study species is made up? And there will continue to be more “questions than answers” anytime shot in the dark studies come up with supposed answers. It has to be that way because they don’t know the basics. Tid bits of knowledge but not something they can go from A to B then leap ahead to WXYZ.

  19. bob jackson Says:

    Ryan,

    Management for 15 or 30 is different than actual numbers available. Political action and budget pressures always trumps management.

    When I was in Thorofare Wyo. elk biologists would stop by the cabin. They said some herds were getting down to 2-3 regular breeding age bulls.

    And think about it. What is 15 per 100 anyway? A very disfunctional lopsided population. That is what it is. And think of humans and if there was a segment always getting targeted for death. This component would be running scared and not following normal role behavior. Or you would see the mature bulls being packed in the middle of lots of females. All are trying to save the horrorable unnatural predation. In elephants this is just what happened to the large tusked males and it is what I saw happening in Thorofare with 200 matriarchal components packed around 2 or so 6 point males post bugling season. The outfitters complained it was hard to get shots at these bulls…just moving heads and antlers sticking up.

    Ya, our states game population objectives are real sound aren’t they???

  20. Ryan Says:

    Bob,

    I think you have a little too much anthropromophism going on. Could you actually address my question instead of going into a 5 paragraph diatribe that seems to be more about seeing what you write than substance.

  21. bob jackson Says:

    Ryan,

    If you don’t recognize that animals have ways the same as humans to deal with species survivability issues then it means you are a person who feels superior to your fellow species on earth. If not then it means you have lowered yourself to the most basic of life. Which is it?…. And look a bit closer to the answers I responded with. Like what are actual numbers on the ground and the functionality of those numbers left standing.

    And to add a bit more human analogy… scouts always have higher mortalities…the same as those soldiers on advence patrol. Why would it be different with elk? Both blunt the charge and enable others to live.

  22. jdubya Says:

    “If you don’t recognize that animals have ways the same as humans to deal with species survivability issues then it means you are a person who feels superior to your fellow species on earth.”

    No it doesn’t. It means that human and elk may have evolved different social networks that best fit their role in the environment. Assuming that elk and bison and human “families” are the same and function in equal fashions suggest you should learn more about the differences between omnivores and herbivores.

  23. bob jackson Says:

    jdubya,

    The blue print is the same. It has to be. It is the most efficient. All the answers come out of this blue print. If it is grazing it is solves MIGrazing without human inputs. It means minimized damage in riparian areas. It means line breeding without inbreeding if you are a animal husbandry fellow. It means genes can pass on from members of an extended family without they themselves ever reproducing. It means culture is very important for all species and within these cultures lies the answers for each independent population (like the one this story is blogged). It means bottlenecks can be conquered by species (think Adam and Eve). It means genetic variation is not limited to mutations. It means a lot of things. Life truly is as simple as a box of chocolates.

    As for the difference between omnivores and herbivores they are alot more similar than one thinks. Did you know omnivores can eat meat (carnivores) without training but it takes training to eat vegetation? You probably do since it is much reported that griz have to be with their mothers two or more years to be able to survive on their own. And, yes, it is the same for that other omnivore, Homo sapiens. But did you know HERBivores have to have the same training to be able to eat the herbs? Grass to herbivores is like meat to omnivores. No you didn’t know that before (except what I relayed in earlier threads) did you? This is a very important characteristic, my man, because it means we have to attribute a lot of the same characteristics to each of us as being similar species of need when we kill these herbivores.
    So what do you know about HERBIVORES? Yes I know, the predators, carnivores and omnivores, chase after the prey. Yes, predators kill individual animals. And no, just because omnivores can eat variefrom the animal and plant kingdoms doesn’t translate into us being superior to those that eat from one kings table.

  24. Ryan Says:

    Bob,

    Yes I am superior to the other species of the earth, That being said all animals from 1 celled ameobas to elephants display certain behaviors that make them living creatures.

    How is it then that when non native animals are transplanted to an area, the herbivores automatically know what to eat without Training from there elders.. Could it just be natural instinct or did the oryx that were transplanted to NM, Pigs which are omnivores were transplanted to much of the US survived in there first generations without training on what to eat.

    I guess I’m lost, on one hand you talk at great legnth about the greatness of families, protectionism, herd structure, and all of theses human trait you apply to them.. And yet in another thread you talk about how you sent 120 of your bison to slaughter. How do you justify killing animals that you feel you are an equal to on a species basis?

  25. jdubya Says:

    “The blue print is the same. It has to be. It is the most efficient. All the answers come out of this blue print.”

    Are you joking? It has to be? We all come out of the same blueprint? My “blueprint” is different than yours, and certainly different than an elk or a bison or a bonefish or a starfish. If science listened and followed logic such as you dictate, nothing new would be learned ’cause we already know everything.

    Ryan, you really think you are superior to the other species of the earth? So what, you are more advanced than other primates, bears, dolphins or whales? Or are you just following those cults that dream up unknown god(s) with “prophets” that claim Homo sapiens are superior to other creatures and thus rape and pillage of the world is justified? If James Watt was alive he would be smiling and just nodding his head. But instead he is just a loose pile of dried skin and bones well preserved in a concrete vault.

  26. Ryan Says:

    Jbubya,

    I think mankind is superior to the other species of the earth because humans have a highly developed brain, capable of abstract reasoning, language, introspection and problem solving as well as many other traits not taken on by the rest of the animal kingdom. With these advantage comes great responsibility to be stewards of the earth. This doesn’t condone rape and pillaging of the earth or any other activity. Show me a bison, monkey, bird or fish that even possesses the logic capabilitiles of an 8 year old Human. God or no God, its should be obivious that as a human there is a higher responsibility than other animals have.

  27. bob jackson Says:

    Ryan,

    Grass, grass and ass, that is what makes the world go around for those ungulates that know little.

    To extend your logic to humans, if you were beamed over to Africa, Ryan,…and didn’t get hit by the pop bottle falling from the sky…. would instinct allow you to wander that continent and know what vegetation was edible? Meat yes, but plants no. You could even carry along your 450 Nitro Express to bag just about any animal …. and you would be safe to eat any part of it (I’d use a bit smaller bore to shoot those little guys, though. Can’t blast it all away if you want something left to eat.). But try foraging without knowing the plants and you would be in big doo doo ole buddy, ole pal. Why don’t you try it, as part of THE superior species, and do an in depth experiment. No fair reading books on edible plants however. Instinct should be enough, right, just like those sub species…or do those with pea brains naturally have better instinct than humans?

    As for how I can kill 120 bison it is the same for me as all those hunter-gatherers who thought of even the wind as being equal to them. I give a prayer to the one I kill and also to the family still alive. Of course, soon they will have died also because I shoot all of a family group.

    For you, do you think there are different levels of human life? There must be following your logic of superior species having the right to kill those sub par to them. Could you be of Aryian persuasion my man? Lets see, there are a few wars going on right now where humans are killing humans. Each side can justify it ,of course, because the other side is sub human. that makes both sides sub par, right? Enough wars and all humans end up sub human.

    To jdubya, I say, if you read my post a bit closer I said “culture” is the key to understanding the workings of any given population. This is where the nuances are. The blue print of how species best operate remains the same, however, across the board. Try to think just a level or two off the basic wordage, I suggest. Put the library globe in your hands and visualize a bit while rotating it around. Now close the eyes and see what happens. Yes, Dream Works and you are the one sitting on the sliver of the moon.

  28. cobra Says:

    grass, grass, and ass.
    Thought you might be smoking something. BJ


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