Hunters angry over dwindling elk need historical perspective

A historical perspective on the Gallatin Canyon elk “decline” controversy-

The following is by Norman A. Bishop of Bozeman, a member of our Board and long time naturalist in the Greater Yellowstone area of Montana.

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Hunters angry over dwindling elk need historical perspective

“Hunters vent anger over dwindling elk” in Gallatin Canyon (Chronicle, Dec. 4) took me back a few decades to an insightful 44-page Montana Fish and Game Department report by Allan L. Lovaas, “People and the Gallatin Elk Herd.”  In that 1970 report, Lovaas chronicles the history of the area, its elk, and the many factors affecting their numbers. The factors he lists include hunting (including for the market), trapping and feeding (elk), eliminating predators, removing Indians, grazing of livestock, controlling wildfires, creating wildlife preserves Yellowstone), and, mostly, through permitting the herd to burgeon out of control on its depleted range.

FWP biologists Kenneth Hamlin and Julie Cunningham compiled comprehensive report in 2009, “Monitoring and assessment of wolf- ungulate interactions and population trends within the GreaterYellowstone Area, southwestern Montana, and statewide.”  Item 4 in their Executive Summary is: “The number of grizzly bears in Southwest Montana and the GYA has increased more than 3-fold since 1987, concurrently with the increase in wolf numbers, affecting the total elk predation rate.”  And item 8, “In areas with high predator (grizzly bear and wolf) to prey ratios, …elk numbers have declined…”

In a 2003-2004 study, researchers noted that predation, hunting, and drought contributed to a decline of elk in northern Yellowstone.  They traced 151 newborn elk calves for 30 days, and found that predators caused more than 90% of their deaths.  Bears killed 55-60%; coyotes and wolves each took 10-15%.  The authors said it remains to be seen if wolf predation is additive to other mortality sources.

Lovaas saw the larger picture in 1970, and so do astute wildlife managers today.  They recognize the rarity in natural systems of single-cause effects, and don’t just blame wolves.

Norman A. Bishop
Bozeman, MT 59715